Monday, February 27, 2017

What’s Important in Our Lives


How many times I have heard and lectured to others about the importance of relationships?  The most recent Stanford study showed the best reason for people to feel happiness is from the relationship with others.

As a student teacher many decades ago, I tried to apply this as hard as I could so I could impress my evaluator.  I memorized all students’ names.  I visited individual students while being a classroom student teacher.  I hang out with these 3rd graders during recesses.  I listened to students as often as I could.  Still, my evaluator wrote me, “You have to build a good relationship,”  in the final evaluation form.  I was stuck on what the good relationship was.  Did I build a good relationship with her?  

After I was hired in the middle school, I refused to build any relationships.  The reasons I excused at the time were; one, this school was not my choice, two, teenage students were too disrespectful to build good relationships with me.  Needless to say, it was the worse than worst school year you could imagine.  I was exhausted and feeling miserable.  

Those memories brought me back to when I was in Elementary School.  I was outgoing for the most part, but I was afraid of making connections to certain people.  Keiko was in my 2nd grade class, who had special needs.  Just because my teacher assigned me to help her, I  organized her things and put them into her backpack.  A couple of days later, Keiko’s mom appeared in school and thanked me, “Oh, Keiko is so happy because you are always helpful to her.  Thank you very much.”  My stomach churned.  I wanted to say it was my teacher’s idea, not mine, but I couldn’t.  I felt even worse.  

In 5th grade, our teacher gave a lot of “Team Tasks” on us.  When I was done, I had to help my teammates.  It turned out I became a personal tutor for one particular student in my group.  Obviously he couldn’t comprehend or perform what our teacher required.  I was reluctant, but I did because that was what the teacher told us to do.  He was always quiet, and I didn’t expect much from anyone.  30 years later, one of my former classmates mentioned about him in the reunion, “He told me he liked you because you were always helpful for his math.”  I was embarrassed to share how I felt about “helping” him.

What taught me from these experiences are; 1) you cannot build a relationship for someone else who are not involved in the relationship.  When you have closed mind, good relationship wouldn’t happen.  You must be genuine.  2) That leads to the self awareness.  Why do you want to build a good relationship?  Why do you want to keep connecting to certain people?  If you recognize yourself as happy when you feel connected to someone, it is powerful.  It is not too easy to be aware of your emotion, but it’s not too difficult, either. 3) Kindness of any kinds will open a door of a relationship.  A little act of kindness can make someone happy.  If you received the kind acts from someone, you would want to connect to that person.  

If you desire the life changing experiences, plant some seeds, by smiling, giving complement, listening, inviting a game, and having lunch together.  Soon your life will be full-filled from connections you planted.  They grow and bloom in your entire life.














Monday, January 16, 2017

Unbundle




Subtraction came back to my 2nd grade math class.  "Two digit" scares these little people successfully, even though they have been successful of "bundling" in additions.  One says, "I can't subtract."  Another says "I don't subtract."  To start with, I threw a story problem.  "Shelby picked 35 oranges.  6 of them were rotten.  How many oranges could she save?"  Surprisingly, but almost predictably, some said, "35+6=41."  My response, "Hmmm.  Is she adding 6 rotten oranges into the basket?  Really?  Would you do that?  I don't need any more rotten oranges!"  Then they all took a deep breath and laughed, "It's subtraction!"  I felt a bit better.  Their subtraction concept was coming back.

Then, I started explaining how "un-bundle" works in the place value chart, using dimes as 10s, pennies as 1s.  About half of kids looked like statues.  Not significant light bulbs.  I pretended not to freak out, and announced, "Ok, let's meet up in the circle.  I will explain about the shopping game."  Did I had a plan for the shopping game?  Heck, no.  As I walked to the circle, my brain was sparking everywhere trying to find the best way for kids to understand "unbundle" in the engaging activity.  Click!  I sat on my spot and start explaining.  Here is the banker.  The Banker will exchange one dime to 10 pennies.  The shopkeeper takes money from the customers but only the exact amount.  Each pair gets five dimes, choose items labeled in the classroom, and shop together.  I grabbed the sticky notes and started labeling items in the classroom while talking, e.g., the mini white board 7 cents, marker 3 cents, etc.  I chose a student who had most difficult time understanding this unbundle concept and paired up with another student.  The shopkeepers were students who can count money correctly.  To make kids more engaged, I told them that the Fairy Godmother would give them $1 when they run out of their money.  They had to prove they were nice to each other to the Fairy Godmother to get her approval.  Now they had to go to the bank to break one dollar to 10 dimes.  That was an extended activity for the advanced students.  It turned out to be a great activity.  Students were engaging, collaborating, and understanding how unbundling works at the bank when they exchange their dime to pennies!

After that activity, we came back to the place value chart.  90% of students demonstrated their understanding of dime coming to the 1s place, but it needed to be 10 pennies.  Unfortunately, some still had no idea.

Next day, we went back to the worksheet that we started two days ago.  Some pairs started working independently.  I facilitated a particular pair to take turn to be a banker and a shopper, just like yesterday.  They completed all tasks by themselves after I left.  Other groups in the table, I encouraged them to play a banker and a shopper.  I added a little circle in the 10s place and draw an arrow line from it to 1's place.  Then, I made a big circle that they can put 10 pennies.  After they put 10 pennies, they discard a dime from the small circle.  As students repeated this manipulation, one student exclaimed, "I am getting it!  The place value chart really works!"  Another said, "Now I know why I was exchanging a dime to 10 pennies."  

Unexpectedly, the first plan didn't work well, however, unexpectedly, the spontaneous made-up game triggered their concept building.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Happiness in 2017


Robert Waldinger is the fourth leader in 75 years of the "Happiness" Study at Harvard.  The team has been following people from their youth and throughout their lives to find out what makes people happy.  The answer that they found? Good relationships.  Compared to being isolated, being surrounded by people and involved in social activities make people happy regardless of how much money they have. It is also intriguing that if you feel happy at age 50, statistically, you have a higher chance of living longer than those who don't.  

Shawn Achor and Daniel Shiegel also mention that good relationships make people happy. Daniel Shiegel's Interpersonal Neurology explains how the brain, mind, and relationships connect.  According to his study, when you spend $20 dollars for someone else rather than for yourself, your brain activates more.  The positive and physiological energy flows from one person to another and back during a positive relationship.  Shawn Achor gives an example of the Happiness Advantage. While most people complain about their physical pain, happy people experience less pain because of their self-regulation.  Of course, happy people are not happy about their pain, but they don't focus on the negatives.  They train their brain to be positive and happy.  As a result, they recognize only the present moment of the pain, and do not focus on anxiousness, nervousness, or agony from the pain.  Emotional pain is, yes, painful.

Shawn Achor suggests 5 things you can do to train your brain to be more positive: 1. List 3 gratitude a day 2. Exercise 3. Journal 4. Mindfulness Practice (Meditation) 5. Random Acts of Kindness.  I have done these five things for the past year.  Did anyone notice if I was more positive than I was in previous years?  I don't know.  But did I recognize it myself?  Let me tell you this.  I feel and am physically healthier than last year.  I had less episodes of chronic stomach and back pain last year.  I was able to stop doing things when I noticed I was too upset.  I was able to create space between extreme emotions and my actions so that I could later make better decisions.  Those may not be too significant, but I celebrated because they were very positive in my life.  So starting off in 2017, I continue exercising these 5 things to grow compassion in myself, deepen relationships, and extend appreciation in my daily life.

Happy New Year and Every Day to you, too!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Life Long Learner




My first year teaching experiences were unpleasant not only because I was the young, female, music specialist, surrounded by black uniformed teenage students who looked down on me (because I was too short or they were too tall) with disrespect in the entire school year, but also because a particular senior teacher was a tyrant in this school.  Surprisingly, even the principal got quiet when he began arguing against the school policy.  Several young teachers including me all acted like his servants inside and outside of school.  One female math teacher especially was like his personal secretary.  I was pretty amazed how she took care of all the paperwork in addition to her teaching job.  She never said "No" to this senior teacher.  I was relieved that I was not in their grade level, although there were some chores other than teaching work (ordering other teachers' lunch, collecting money, making exact change for each person weekly, etc) on my plate.

This senior teacher called me stupid and told me not wear piercings in my ears at work during the faculty party.  I didn't know how to fight.  Even though I felt horrible, I kept going to the parties that this teacher attended.  Why?  He was beyond knowledgeable, even somewhat humble time to time, and he was willing to share every one of his experiences with his colleagues.  Sure enough, one of his stories struck me one day.

"I am still taking some classes.  I sit and listen to the instructor.  It gives me the view of how students feel in their seats in the classroom.  Unless I sit as a student, how do I know how my students learn?  Learn something other than your career.  Be curious."

While taking classes are very common for teachers or any adults in the U.S., there are not many opportunities for Japanese teachers to be students themselves after they become teachers.  A teacher's long hours also constrain time for activities besides teaching. His attitude inspired me.  It made sense to me.  Although I didn't forgive everything he said and did to me, I decided to follow his point. Be curious.  Be a student.  Learn something new.

While I was at my Yoga class this morning this flashback memory from twenty some years ago came back to my mind.  My body was not necessarily moving as the instructor described.  I frantically looked around at the others and panicked.  I suddenly realized that this was how students feel when something new is introduced into the classroom.  "It's okay to put your bottom down, if you need to.  You will get it when your body is used to it," the gentle instructor gave me some accommodation with his kind soft voice.  I appreciated knowing that it was okay and I didn't have to be perfect.  Clear expectations, modeling, exploration, making mistakes, self-awareness, reflection, and patience...these words that I have been using countless times during busy school years.  They all connected together through my brain and heart.  If we, educators, know the student's point of view, we can successfully deliver compassion into the learning environment.  Recognizing that fact makes me feel grown up.  So time to forgive my senior teacher’s hurtful words in the past and appreciate his wisdom that changed my view.  Teachers are lifelong learners for reasons.  Namaste.

My Story of Union

The most paramount of learning in the National Board Ambassador training was "My Story" which was as short as 3 minutes yet a powerful tool to make connection to the audience.  In this activity, my brain was like a whirl pool picking out a few significant moments that have impacted my career decisions (specifically how these events have navigated to the National Board journey) among my childhood, schooling, hardships, accomplishments, and everything else beyond that in my professional and personal life.  When the story came out from my mouth, it became the powerful reflection that I have ever imagined as if I was watching the digest movie of my own.  At the same time, I grew huge appreciation to my audience actively listening and showing their interests.  In addition, I realized my association gave me this opportunity and have been supporting teachers, and providing professional training opportunities in addition to the National Board Certification.  Wait a minute....  I recalled my earlier memory; I didn't start my teaching career with gratitude like this at all, especially toward Union.  Here is my another story.

I received a thick envelop sent from the Education Administration in the late fall of my college senior year .  It was not a piece of post card like the first screening test, but it was thick.  I knew it had good news. On the first paper, it said, "Congratulations.  You successfully passed this year's teacher's examination in Elementary School."  The rest of the papers were some official forms to fill out in order to make this official.  My hard work paid off!  My teaching job was guaranteed after the graduation and I can stay in Tokyo!   The winter months passed and March entered, but I didn't have any specific school officials contacted me.   After the graduation and graduation party in March, I was blue, not only because I was sentimental about saying good byes to my friends, but I realized I didn't have a job.  I might have been green on my face.  I chose not look at the mirror.  I packed up anyway to move out the dorm.  I was no longer a student.  I was anxious about how long I could survive with my savings but I was also excited to live without curfew, have my own bathroom, and get my own phone in my own room.  My cheerful attitude brought some luck. As soon as I connected my phone line, I got a first phone call from the prospective school official.  "How are you doing?  Your resume looks great.  You have the secondary music degree, don't you?  So, would you be able to come to this middle school?"  My smiling face turned into the confusing mad cow.  "What?  I passed the 'Elementary' school exam.  Not a middle school!"  He sighed in the other side of the line, "OK, if you don't take this job, you might not get any offers this year.  When this year passed, your eligibility will automatically expire. That is a rule."  It shut my mouth quite successfully.  I could not afford "no job".  I had bills and loans to pay.  "OK.  I will."  Then I hung up my, I thought, lucky first call.

This middle school was not pleasant to be.  Students whose age range 12 to 15 in all black uniforms tried to act "cool" which always not approved by school code.  I was now official to be a brand new (youngest) and music (not core subject) teacher who became teenagers' easy bullying target and elder teachers' servant.  Another new hire was older than me so she avoided the turmoil that I had to endure.  But she was always supportive and giving advice here and there.  I hated Saturday because I had to go to work.  Everybody did, students and teachers for a half day.  A half day is for kids.  Teachers implicitly required to stay longer as well as other 5 days.  Usually teachers stay at school until 6 or 7 pm during the weekdays if you don't have to pick up your kid at the daycare.  On Saturday in addition to teaching, I had to take lunch orders from fellow teachers in my grade, make phone calls to the restaurant, collect money, receive their food, and return their change just because I was a youngest female teacher. A language arts teacher who was couple of years older cunningly smiled at me, "I am so glad that I don't have to do it any more."  A black framed middle aged social studies teacher was the only one who went home without ordering lunch except  only a few occasions.  My mentor science teacher sitting by me whispered me as if it shouldn't be heard, "He goes home because he is in the Union."

My mentor teacher continued, "You are a new teacher so be careful.   The principal has a say to 'yay' or 'nay' to make your position permanent from the initial hire.  Being in the Union might make your situation difficult."  There were only this social studies teacher and another teacher identified the union member.  But I didn't have any clue what they were doing other than being able to go home on time.  I was interested in checking it out at least because I wanted to go home on time, too, however, I was too scared to get involved in this seems-like-secret-organization which might jeopardize my career which I just started.  After one year of horrific first teaching year, I was sent to the elementary school.  I met a school nurse who was in the union.  She was married and referred her husband "Otto" (husband) when she talked about him to someone rather than "Shujin" (master) which is commonly used in the general house wives population in Japan.   She said husband and wife should be equal, a husband is not a master of his wife.  I agreed with her and found out it was almost impossible for me to find someone who would like to be equal to a woman especially with me.  So I shifted to the different direction. To America as an exchange teacher.

My American dream was broken in pieces after the end of the one year teaching exchange program.  My bank account was exhausted miserably.  I reluctantly took another teaching exam in Japan as soon as I was back.  This only once a year rigorous exam was still rigorous but I was somewhat relaxed and passed. Until next permanent position, I took a couple of long sub positions.  I was paid per hour.  I had no guilt to leave on time.  It was great.  I even didn't have to belong to a certain organization to exercise my right.  Following April, I started working "Elementary School" with great team members including more union members.  Although this school seemed like the best fit for me, endless staff meetings exhausted my soul.  I was told the union is related to the communist party.  The union didn't like the national flag.  They said the rising sun represented the emperor who didn't try to stop the war.  Administrators tried to convince to present a national flag to follow the district guideline.  In my mind, the war was over long time ago, just look at the flag as a country's symbol. Surprisingly, principal decided not to put the national flag up on the stage in the gym after several hours of meetings during after school hours.  But he insisted to remain putting up traditional red and white (traditionally celebration color combination) curtains around the gym for the graduation. The union group didn't like the red-white curtain, either because red and white represent the color of national flag.  At that point, I was very disappointed in the union's unreasonable excuses of just going against administrators.  I lost my interest and respect after all these unfruitful arguments day after day.  The focus wasn't on students.

So it took me for a long time to gain trust in the union since I started teaching in the U.S.  I made my feet wet a little by little.  Each time I wet my feet, I was convinced that our association really cares about teachers and kids.  The union knows partnership with administrators brings better on policy making decisions.  The union also knows when teachers are encouraged and treated well, they teach well.  That is a great cycle back to kids' education.  Our kids deserve the best teachers and education in our country.  When I realized it, I decided to pursue the National Board Certification with the Union's support.  At the same time, I obtained an American Citizenship.  At the time, I got a right to voice myself with my vote.  Like a tortoise, my journey has been slow yet steady.  but I know I can support what and whom I believe with my vote.  With my power of one vote, I would like to continue advocate children and their future success in our country.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Mindfulness in Education





I am always grateful for the summer and I wondered why.  I then take a few breaths, and I remember.  In the summer, I have time to feel my breath, coming in and out…  As soon as the last school bus leaves, teachers are faced, for the first time in 180 days with the emptiness and the absence from constant busyness.   That’s when teachers can truly feel breathing in; taking in energy, instead of only remembering the exhausted sighs out; energy leaving our bodies.   We often don’t take the time to notice such a simple yet critical activity like breathing.  I have recently come to understand how practicing mindfulness of breath can have a positive impact on education.

This simple awareness of each breath is a big part of a concept in “mindfulness”.  Mindfulness is to be aware of the present moment.   The mindfulness study started about 30 years ago with the chronic physical pain reduction and management research.  After several positive results were proven, mindfulness practices have been implemented into the mental health field as an effective strategy for coping with stress and anxiety.  This success has caught the attention of educators.  Now, many advocate for practicing mindfulness in our classrooms as tool to help teachers and students deal with the social, emotional, and cognitive challenges that impact many of our students and families. 

Over the past few years, I have read research and testimonial articles on mindfulness.  I became curious.  What is this really all about?  What am I supposed to feel when I am mindful?  To satisfy my curiosity, I enrolled in the Mindful Fundamental online course (http://www.mindfulschools.org) in the summer 2015.  I learned that mindfulness is the act of bringing awareness to any experience just as it is.  I was becoming more aware, paying more attention to what I was doing during my new fitness challenge.  It was my first experience of mindfulness; to be aware of the present moment, not past nor future.  Gradually I became better at noticing my emotion and physical sensations.  I realized I had a fear of being judged.  Accepting negative emotions like this was difficult at times  Emotion and thoughts are like clouds. Clouds can hover over me at times, though I know they will eventually float away.  I began to wonder, what if my students understood this concept?  What if my students could accept their emotions and manage them one at a time?  What if they learned to be kind to themselves?  Would their learning improve?  I started visualizing what this might look like in my classroom.  My own experience with mindfulness practice built my confidence of sharing mindfulness with my students for the upcoming school year.  At the end of the summer, I decided to implement mindfulness in my classroom.  I took in a big breath, and started to plan.

On the first day of the school, brand new second grade students excitedly and nervously entered in their classroom.  “OK, class, this year you will learn something you have never learned before.  It will stick with you from today on.  It is called Mindfulness.”  I had two students that year who had been identified as having behavioral concerns from their previous teachers. I knew I had some challenges.  I was curious about how these students would respond to the practice of mindfulness. I knew I had to help them understand.  In front of the class, I held up a clear water bottle filled with ¾ full of water and sparkling glitter on the bottom.  “It is your mind.” I shook the bottle.  Students eyes were glued on the shining glitter all over the place inside of the bottle.  “It is still your mind.  But it is called ‘monkey mind.’  Let’s watch it settle.”  This visual tool itself clearly explained to my students about the difference between focused and unfocused minds on the first day of their second grade year.  It was the first lesson in mindfulness.

From then on, I implemented five minutes of daily mindfulness practice and several weekly mini social emotional related lessons (MindUp)  to cultivated my second graders’ mindfulness. Some of the mini lessons included the scientific study of the brain, like what part of brain would respond through mindfulness.  Gradually, they started recognizing it as a tool for self-regulation.  They began to recognize when they had strong emotion, and how to focus when they were surrounded by distraction.  Especially, noticing their own emotion cultivated their compassion among themselves and others. Towards the end of the year, I heard my students engaged in meaningful conversations using the sophisticated vocabulary like “prefrontal cortex” and “neuroplasticity”. 

As a routine, my students listened to the five minutes daily guided mindfulness practice program (Smiling Mind http://smilingmind.com.au/) as soon as the school bell rang each morning.  During the five minutes, students’ hands were on their bellies to feel their breath coming and going.  The practice ended with the tranquil sound of bell….  I witnessed several occasions when students’ intentional breathing attempts, many cases, closing their eyes so that they can block out distractions.  The most surprising fact was that the students identified as having behavioral concerns paid attention to their breaths during daily mindfulness practice.   Many students wanted to share their success story in the circle time.  “I was angry when my friend didn’t play with me. Then I used mindfulness.” “I used mindfulness before math fact practice. I did well.”  Using their own words to explain their mindful experiences was a huge accomplishment for second grade students.  Students know when they are experiencing strong emotions, they cannot make good choices.  As the year went by, students recognize the frustration more quickly in the complicated academic tasks, then they took some breaths.  As they found calmness, they self-talked, not to pout but try again to the challenging tasks.  Additionally, the significant growth data in my math class was seen from September to May using the district mandated trimester assessments.  Interestingly, compared to the last year’s high academic group without mindfulness reinforcement, this year’s group showed more growth than previous year’s group. So why don’t we implement mindfulness in our learning community?

Adults, too, need to be aware of present moment and take care of themselves.  Mindful adults create a mindful atmosphere when they teach mindfulness in class.  Students feel it.  That’s how we develop relationships.  Mindful Schools’ trainers have developed the K-12 mindfulness curriculum that focuses on its benefit.  They have visuals that show two wings of a bird, one as focus and another self-regulation.  This curriculum guide is a rather simple implementation for the classroom and shows how it is not just one more thing to do as burden.  When every teacher and staff intentionally apply mindfulness in their practice, we cultivate a safe and pleasant school culture.  A mindful learning community strengthens students’ critical thinking and observation skills. It is also true that teachers with mindfulness convey effective messages in the current social emotional skills programs, such as Love and Logic and PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Supports).  A structural training in Professional Development must happen in order to create the mindful school community. 

Families can benefit from learning about mindfulness.  It can be a tool for growing positive social emotional skills at home.  We can invite parents to a mindfulness workshop with Love and Logic parenting class.  Mindful parents utilize Love and Logic strategies more effectively.  School staff must collaborate with families to create and share clear knowledge about mindfulness.  We can ask PTSA for the sponsorship when we invite a mindfulness speaker.  As they gain their knowledge of mindfulness, they, too, become aware of the present moment. 

Now you realize it doesn’t have to be only summer time to notice your breaths.  As soon as you are aware of exhaustion, breathe in.  And out.  Enjoy one moment at a time.  When students find out that they are capable to be aware of present moment, they will start using mindfulness as a tool to manage themselves and focus.  Learning will become their joy.