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Study Proves Mindfulness Reduces Stress, Improves Academics… But There’s Another Benefit

September 2, 2019 Comments off

A few days ago, Science Daily reported on two studies at MIT that came to the same conclusion: “…mindfulness — the practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment — can enhance academic performance and mental health in middle-schoolers.”

I have been a formal mindfulness practitioner for roughly 15 years and can attest to the positive effects it has had on my mental acuity and physical well-being. But as one who has practiced mindfulness, I believe that the studies’ focus on the positive impacts on children are understated. Here are the conclusions of the studies as reported in Science Daily:

Synopsis of Study #1: After the mindfulness training, students showed a smaller amygdala response when they saw the fearful faces, consistent with their reports that they felt less stressed. This suggests that mindfulness training could potentially help prevent or mitigate mood disorders linked with higher stress levels, the researchers say.

Synopsis of Study #2: Students who showed more mindfulness tended to have better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions.

The first study’s conclusions are drawn from brain scans while the second study’s conclusions were drawn from an analysis of questionnaires. John Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the scientist from the second study, emphasized that mindfulness cannot be taught in isolation or offered as a one-time course. It needs to become a habit:

“Mindfulness is like going to the gym. If you go for a month, that’s good, but if you stop going, the effects won’t last. It’s a form of mental exercise that needs to be sustained.”

These reports and this conclusion bring to mind a talk given at a retreat by Zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh who was approached by the military to offer mindfulness training to soldiers to help them improve their functioning. While he was disinclined to refuse the opportunity to offer the training because he knew the power of mindfulness, he ultimately rejected the proposal because he saw mindfulness as a PATH and not an end in itself. While this sounds like a call for a dogmatic “religious” approach, it reinforces the message offered by the MIT researchers. The mindfulness trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh require a wholistic approach, a willingness to not only go to the gym every day but to commit to a regimen of healthy living, to adopt habits of mind and habits of living that are sustainable for the individual and the planet. Those habits of mind will lead to a level of self-awareness that will help preclude the fear that grips us today, fear that leads to hatred of “the other” and a sense of isolation that ultimately can lead to unhealthy thoughts, speech, and deeds.

If mindfulness is approached as a path, as part of a mental regimen, it will do more than lead to better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions…it will help transform the mental formations that are leading us in the wrong direction… mental formations that compel us to think that better grades and test scores, as well as fewer absences and suspensions is all we need to change in schools.

Mindfulness and the News: Some Insights into My Sources and My Perspective

August 11, 2018 1 comment

I begin every day I am at home by opening my computer and reading various blogs and news feeds. I get four newspapers each day: the NYTimes, the Boston Globe; and, two local newspapers. I get five feeds on public education: Google alerts; ASCD; Politico; Clay Christensen’s blog; and Diane Ravitch’s blog. I get several general interest and political feeds, some daily and some weekly: Quartz; Truthdig; Common Dreams; JSTOR; Naked Capitalism; and Medium. And I spend a few minutes reading Facebook, checking on my favorite sports teams on ESPN, checking the weather, and reading various articles sent to me by my siblings and children.

As I read the blogs, I identify one or two articles that trigger a blog post. If the blog post is drawn wholly from the article, I will use a reblog feature if it is available and add a comment. If the article stimulates a reflective essay (as the one that I am using for this very post), I will take the time to write a 300-1200 word post. I rationalize that this reading is necessary to give me an in-depth grasp of the world as it impacts public education policy, the primary topic of this blog, and to help me have as realistic a perspective as possible on how the events taking place and decisions being made reflect and/or change my world view, which is an implicit sub-topic of this blog.

One feed I get periodically was not listed above. As a Buddhist practitioner I get Lion’s Roar, “an independent non-profit foundation whose mission is to communicate Buddhist wisdom and practices in order to benefit people’s lives and our society, and to support the development of Buddhism in the modern world.” An article in the week-end edition of this publication by Sister True Dedication, a monastic who practices in the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, describes how the Buddhist practice has influenced my reading habits of late. Titled, “What Do You Put in Your Mind?“, Sister True Dedication’s essay describes how our consumption of the news affects our minds in the same way as our consumption of food affects our health.  She writes:

I heard Thich Nhat Hanh speak with a fierce and solemn voice as he declared in a talk, “When we watch television and movies we consume, when we browse the internet we consume, when we listen to music or a conversation, we consume.” I remember his soft words booming through the loudspeakers: “And what we consume every day may be highly toxic. It may contain violence, craving, fear, anger, and despair.”

I was shocked. Suddenly websites, radio shows, movies, music—and even conversations with close friends—struck me as strangely substantive and not so ephemeral after all. Maybe I wasn’t as free from them as I thought.

The sidebar quote that summarized the article is this:

Our mind is made of what we feed it, so we need to know how to nourish and protect it.

Since beginning Buddhist practice over a decade ago, I’ve come to appreciate how my reading habits affect my disposition and way of viewing the world. Of late I find myself repelled by articles that are full of ad hominem invective, that take sides in a fashion that demeans and decries “the other side”, and speculate on future events based on gossip, “inside information”, and gleaning of information that supports one school of thought over another. Those articles do not nourish my mind, clarify my thoughts, or add to my well-being.

I am drawn, instead, to articles that describe recent findings in science, analyses that look at events through a historic lens, and articles that offer new insights on emerging trends. And whenever I read articles, I try to use what I am reading to examine my own mental formations— the screens I use to filter the “news” I am “consuming”. This, in turn, helps me perceive how the “news” affects my disposition and understanding of “reality”. I also find that “consuming” in this fashion leads me to ask the question Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we ask ourselves repeatedly: “ARE YOU SURE?

If you want to get a perspective on the Buddhist view of media consumption, I recommend that you read Sister True Dedication’s essay. As a former BBC reporter, her insights are not limited to those gained from sitting on a cushion or reading sutras: they are grounded in what passes for the “real world” of journalism.

The Desegregation Conundrum: Can Schools Move Faster Than the “Speed of Trust”

May 8, 2018 Comments off

Late last month the new New York City schools chief Richard Carranza weighed in with a tweet on a desegregation effort that is resulting in pushback from affluent Upper East Side parents, and in one short message he indicated that there may be some changes in the efforts to integrate schools in the city. The Chalkbeat blog noted that by tweeting an NY1 video of Upper West Side parents angrily pushing back against a city proposal that could result in their children going to middle school with lower-scoring classmates, Mr. Carranza indicated a sift in the thinking in his administration.

Carranza didn’t add any commentary of his own to the message generated automatically by the site that amplified the NY1 video, Raw Story. He didn’t have to for his Twitter followers to see an endorsement of the site’s characterization of the video — “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.”

…Since taking the chancellorship, Carranza has signaled that he believes the education department has a central role to play in desegregating schools — offering a contrast to the chancellor he replaced, Carmen Fariña. She called school diversity a priority but argued that integration efforts should happen “organically” and be driven by school leaders and local communities, not department officials.

Last week in a NYTimes article,  First Test for New York Chancellor: A Middle School Desegregation Plan, education writer Elizabeth Harris weighed in on the change in Mr. Carranza’s administration. Citing the fallout from the same tweet, Ms. Harris wrote:

Mr. Carranza said in a partial apology on Monday that the language was not his — it had been automatically generated from the headline on the site hosting the video, a local news story that was first broadcast on NY1. But he did not back away from the issue.

“The video speaks for itself,” he said. “And the video of the comments that were made, I don’t know how anybody could be O.K. with that. I know that I’m not O.K. with that.

To observers, after four years in which Mayor Bill de Blasio and his first schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, took only small bore action on the issue, Mr. Carranza’s language sounded like a sea change.

The new middle school desegregation plan that will test Chancellor Carranza would give priority for 25 percent of the seats at all the district’s middle schools to students who score below grade level on the state tests. Given the fact that test scores generally mirror socioeconomic status and race, the plan would likely increase the number of poor and minority students at middle schools that rely on test scores as a primary admissions criteria, schools that have much higher ratings because they unsurprisingly have much higher pass rates on subsequent standardized test scores. But parents at these high scoring schools are afraid that teachers will be unable to adapt their instruction to meet the needs of incoming underprivileged students use “the lack of a plan” to support teachers as a defense for maintaining the status quo. And some parents are even more caustic in defending the status quo that results in resegregation, like the woman in the video that prompted Mr. Carranza’s late night tweet: :

“You’re talking about telling an 11-year-old, ‘You worked your butt off and you didn’t get that, what you needed or wanted,’” a woman yells. “You’re telling them, ‘You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!’”

Ms. Harris notes the underlying rationale for the school boundaries and choice plans in the city, indicating that “… in drawing school zones and allowing parents choice in which schools their children attend, the city has been seen as trying to keep white families in the public schools.” In tinkering with boundaries or changing the rules in terms of school admissions, Mr. Carranza may topple a delicately balanced arrangement that enables affluent whites to remain in the public schools and thus encourage the support for school funding that provides resources for all students.

The solution to the problem of fewer seats in “elite” schools for children of color seems easy. Instead of expanding the number of seats in schools that restrict enrollments based on test scores provide, expand the number of seats in those schools and offer those seats to children who struggle to do well on tests. That is, instead of forcing 100 students out of a school of 500 to make room for struggling students, expand the seats in that school to 600 and offer those seats to students who sought entry but whose test scores fell short of the mark. A parent who was interviewed for the NYTimes put it this way:

For Tracy Alpert, a white parent who has one child at P.S. 191, which was at the center of an earlier desegregation debate in the district, the answer was clear. “They need more good schools. It’s a scarce resource,” she said. “We need more good seats at good schools.

As one who wishes desegregation could happen much faster, I attended a Buddhist retreat where an African American presenter spoke about our tradition’s need to welcome more people of color. I was struck by a phrase she used in her concluding remarks: she suggested that in our efforts to be more accepting, she realized that we could move no faster than the “speed of trust”… and that trust would only occur when we realized that the stories we imagine may not be the stories others believe.

Parents like shrill woman featured in the video believe that her children’s education will be compromised if they are assigned to a school with those children who didn’t “work their butt off”. The story SHE believes is that the children who do poorly on standardized tests are lazier and less motivated than her children… and the parents of those children care less about their children than she does. But she might think differently if her child attended a school with those “other children”. She might find out that those children work as hard as her child and the parents have the same struggles with their children and aspirations for their children as she does. But here’s the conundrum: if she decides to withdraw her child from public schools for fear that their education will be compromised in some way, she will never gain that understanding… she will never have the chance to trust that all parents want the same thing for their children.

And here’s the last conundrum: the “speed of trust” was not the standard the Supreme Court envisioned when it overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The court insisted that schools move “at all deliberate speed” to integrate and now, 64 yeas later nothing has changed in terms of segregation. What will it take to accelerate the “speed of trust”? It will take some courageous leadership on the part of school administrators, school boards, and, in many instances, mayors and state politicians. And sadly it will require courage and persistence on the part of parents of children raised in poverty and parents of children of color… for before parents like the shrill woman featured in the video can trust that economic and racial segregation will not harm their children they will have to experience success in racially and economically desegregated schools and change their stories. And changing the stories we believe in is difficult.