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An Interview with Lawrence Carroll

Calculus of Calm

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Meanwhile, one of the current evaluation standards by which a teacher's performance is measured here in the US is to create an environment of safety where students are willing to take academic risks. This is a true art form. And unless a teacher can manage his or her own stress, it's unlikely that teacher will enable students to feel safe in their presence.

How do you get a room full of adolescents to invest themselves fully in meditating?
At the beginning of the year, my priority is for them to think, "This guy's different; I want to know more." For any teacher, the first four days with the students are critical. If you rush into the curriculum, they'll tune out on day one and it takes a lot to get them back. So I ask students if they'd like to come into my class and simply do nothing. Rarely does anyone object! Then I qualify what "nothing" means and what it does for their brains, their thinking, their experience of stress, and more. After that, they are very curious. 

There's a negative stigma around daydreaming or "spacing out." But, unless a student can turn inward, the teacher cannot educe their natural curiosity, intelligence, and creative capacities. "Educe" means to bring out from within, and it is actually the root of the word "educate." Real learning happens when we reflect inwardly and use metacognition. Students see that effort can replace ability. This inward-to-outward process goes against the conventional understanding of teaching, but it works.

We might have become more willing to ask, "Okay, how do we reach students and build a relationship where they buy into the learning process? What's in it for them?" than teachers were in earlier eras. But the teacher is still assumed to have all the knowledge, and that's usually unchallenged. It's a powerful authoritarian position. And if there's any attention deficit, no matter how well you teach, they can't readily absorb the information you do have.

When you allow a person's innate intelligence to unfold and assess what you're offering, the interaction becomes very satisfying to the teacher and infinitely more interesting to the students. Even if a student is confused, he or she has control over the fear. This gives them the sense of ease and space to learn. And when you create that intentional space, kids who are slow to answer and need more time feel safe to take the time needed to respond. When the class holds still for just 30 to 40 seconds, academic risk taking improves. Confidence builds in each student because he or she realizes, "It's in there, it just takes me time to get it out!" 

Real thinking is a slow-time process, not an assembly line. And higher-order thinking and learning are impossible if students and teachers don't feel safe. When survival mode kicks in, the blood flows from the brain into the larger muscles. I tell the kids that when they're constantly plugged in, agitated, and worked up—some of them sleep with their cell phones on—they're soaking their organs in adrenalin.

The process itself is a powerful ally. It develops the awareness of one's own thinking process, enables students to identify what they are thinking, the fears and challenges blocking them, and how to move forward. Teens love that feeling. Some say it's as refreshing as waking up in the morning.

So I begin every class with a meditation. I guide the meditations for about one month, and we discuss their experiences. Soon, 90 to 100 percent of the class looks forward to that experience as the best part of their lesson—for some, it's the best part of their day. The fact that they look forward to it means something. They like that it's happening. I have interviewed my students over the past three years and recorded what happens for them. What they say is often beautiful and nuanced.

Such as?
"When I come in to the classroom, I can relax; I know kids aren't going to be nasty." And, "I can't remember anyone swearing in this class." There's a natural morality that arises when kids are given space to be alone, quiet, unpressured. When they know they won't be interfered with, something magic happens. They know managing stress is real and not just intellectual. It changes their attitude and behavior.

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