Student Brings Yoga to the Classroom

As part of Denver-based Axis Yoga teacher training program, students are asked to implement the what they are learning  into their daily lives. Ashley, a recent graduate of the program, works at a public school in Denver  helping third graders improve their reading. She is confronted with the fact that many of the students she works with are emerging readers “behind schedule” as defined by the public school system. Ashely explores the question of how yoga can be used to support literacy and reading in the Denver Public School system.

Bringing Yoga to the Classroom: Introduction

Each afternoon for the last hour and a half of the school day, I work on reading with third graders. By this time of the day, the students and their teacher are worn out and a frenetic buzz drives students to throw paper, write each other nasty notes, and engage other forms of crazy-making. The teacher’s frustration is apparent: her face flushed, she calls her students back to their meeting-place, the carpet, in an effort to recall their attention to the task of independent reading and station rotations. I witness this daily routine and mull over what I’ve learned and noticed about children and education since I began working in an elementary school several months ago.

Children’s brains are not prepared to focus on reading for sustained periods of time – not without support anyway. Children need a lot of support to develop the skills necessary to read. Certainly, this is the presumed role of the educational institution: to provide support. In the Denver Public School (DPS) where I work, literacy instruction accounts for about 80% of the school day. In addition to the classroom time dedicated to literacy, many students are pulled periodically throughout the day for literacy intervention programs. With such heavy emphasis on literacy, I was shocked to meet students in the third and fourth grades who are still working as “emergent” readers.

One wall in the room where I lead intervention groups is dedicated to tracking the literacy scores, goals, intervention programs, and development of each student that attends the school. The wall is a graphic representation of the cultural value we assign to reading, it is divided into three sections and progresses from left to right: Unsatisfactory on the far left, Partially Proficient in the middle, and Proficient on the right. Each student has a card somewhere on the wall. The left side of the wall is rather cluttered. With such a sturdy support system in place I wonder how so many students fall off or become stranded on the scaffolding that has been built to help them achieve academic excellence. I suspect there must be something more fundamental in a child’s education than literacy.

Bringing Yoga to the Classroom: Public School Philosophy

In his March 18, 2010 message to the DPS community, Superintendent Tom Boasberg says:

“We are failing the civil rights challenge of our generation: to ensure that all of our students, regardless of ethnicity or income status, graduate from our high schools prepared for college or career. Now is time to accelerate our reforms, to sharpen the focus on student achievement, and to get all of our children—in every neighborhood of Denver—on track to walk across the commencement stage armed with everything they need to forge a great future for themselves.”

(“Letter From the Superintendent”, Denver Public Schools 2010 Denver Plan: Strategic Vision and Action Plan, 3)

Superintendent Tom Boasberg simultaneously underscores and marginalizes the factors I believe are more fundamental than literacy instruction in a child’s development: Boasberg states, “regardless of ethnicity or income status,” the role of DPS is to ensure student success beyond school – he affirms the need to provide each child “in every neighborhood of Denver … with everything they need to forge a great future for themselves.” So, while Boasberg acknowledges a civil rights challenge in which ethnicity, income status, and living condition – neighborhoods – play leading roles, he proposes that education can transcend these factors. Boasberg’s use of the word “regardless” produces a particularly frightening spin on his message: without paying attention to the present circumstances (ethnicity, income status, neighborhood) DPS schools will ensure that all students are prepared for college or career (“regardless” Dictionary. Version 1.0.2. Apple Computer, Inc. 2005). These are pretty hefty words to carry into a classroom where ethnicity, income status, and the neighborhood environment are overwhelming factors in a student’s success.

Bringing Yoga to the Classroom: Present Circumstances

It is absolutely necessary to pay attention to the present circumstances of students. Boasberg’s proposal calls attention to the inherent difficulty embedded in his words and within the school system. Boasberg and the Denver Public Schools 2010 Denver Plan: Strategic Vision and Action Plan address the concerns of the individual student, but my experience demands that I wonder what this concern looks like in a classroom. DPS is moving in this direction: one strategy of the DPS’s “instructional core” is to “provide coordinated and comprehensive support systems for the whole child” (22). The 2010 Denver Plan document states: “Each student comes to school with unique circumstances, strengths, and needs. We will create support systems for all aspects of our learners, including their health and physical and emotional needs, as well as academic needs to give them the best opportunities for success.” How does and how can this strategy move from the conceptual to the actual? I can only address this question from my limited experience at the school where I currently work: the majority of students do not receive specialized attention. Students who are deemed “unsatisfactory” or “partially proficient” are given individual educational plans. Special education candidates may visit a speech therapist, occupational therapist, or physical therapist.

Bringing Yoga to the Classroom: The Whole Child

Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs and even kindergarten are not required by DPS. This is especially true of populations at the fringe of the dominant culture – ethnicity, income, and neighborhoods are factors that impact the “whole child” before they enter the school building for the first time, and each day thereafter. Many students attend school for the first time in first grade. First grade students and teachers march through the school year with an eye to meeting standards. I venture that these standards assume a healthy first grade student. Teachers are then confronted with the daunting task of meeting district and national education standards that don’t address the reality of the students they teach. Given the additional factors of high student-to-teacher ratios and the bureaucratic responsibilities of each teacher, how could teachers possibly support every aspect of their students’ health, physical, emotional, and academic needs? Many individual teachers incorporate movement into the classroom, and more structured programs like Brain Gym (braingym.org) are widely embraced as teaching strategies. I believe yoga can provide educators and students with additional tools to begin to address the “whole child.”

Overview of Yoga Classes for Kids in Denver

Several Denver-based yoga studios and groups offer classes specifically for children and/or adolescents: Between the Bones, a movement and dance group operating at the Sixth Avenue Church of Christ, offers Storytime Yoga, Girl Power Yoga, and Peaceful Warrior Yoga; Yoga For the People matches volunteer instructors with nonprofits who help at-risk youth; Yoga for Young Warriors offers classes in several Denver locations; Karma Yoga Center offers Kids Yoga several times a week; Vital Yoga offers a Vital Kids class in Cherry Creek.

Several studios offer a parent-and-child styled class (“Mommy and Me” or “Daddy and Me”). A simple Google search reveals classes at Belly Bliss, Pearl Street Yoga, and Spiral Yoga.

Additionally, Yoga Teacher Trainings designed to address children are becoming more and more available – in Denver, Prana Yoga and Ayurveda Mandala will offer an introduction to children’s yoga on January 21, 2011 and beginning February 3, 2011, will offer “Denver’s First Comprehensive” children’s yoga teacher training.

Of the classes and programs mentioned, only Yoga For the People and Yoga For Young Warriors offer the possibility of addressing the needs of many DPS students: they propose to bring yoga to the school building in after-school or in-school programs. To take accessibility a step further, Yoga For the People relies on volunteer instructors to make yoga classes financially accessible – this potentially addresses both the dominant culture and populations at the fringe of the dominant culture that DPS aims to “[arm] with everything they need to forge a great future for themselves.”

Bringing Yoga to the Classroom: The Intention

As I’ve worked one-on-one reading and writing with first through third graders, I’ve noticed that after a point the student begins to squirm. Some students squirm right away, others’ threshold isn’t reached for upwards of 10 minutes, but each student invariably squirms. I admire their struggle to persevere once they’ve reached this point. I, too, often feel the urge to squirm out of my seat as intensely as any first grader. In these moments, I notice the state of my own body: I notice my breath and my posture and marvel at the tools I’ve learned through yoga. It has occurred to me that many children’s bodies are not yet up to the task of reading.

Originally, my intention was to offer the third grade students a tool or tools to help them focus their frenetic afternoon energy: 3-5 minutes of yoga in the classroom before independent reading/stations from November 18 to December 3 for a total of 9 days of instruction. I planned to focus on simple movements – shoulder rolls, for example, to warm up and then have students practice vrksasana – tree pose – on each leg. Because vrksasana is a balancing pose that demands intense focus, I supposed that students would engage their physical and mental energies to execute the pose and feel similarly to the way I do after tree pose: subdued but sharp. I’d start small, with students using chairs to help gain a feel for the pose to begin with, and then offer further challenges in the pose: shifting the gaze from the floor to the ceiling and lifting the arms overhead. We’d do the same basic routine each day so that students are prepared to challenge themselves to explore more deeply in the pose. I wanted to pair the time in tree pose with a visualization/lesson on trees – anything from The Lorax to the current pine beetle problem in Colorado and Wyoming seemed like appropriate tools to encourage students to think beyond themselves. I expected that some students would take advantage of the time to goof around, but that these students would probably be a factor in any yoga class that kids attend.

Bringing Yoga to the Classroom: The Research

As I continued to research methods for teaching children after I had begun my experiment, I received a book I’d requested from the library: Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, by Carla Hannaford. Hannaford’s book became a valuable tool: it changed the shape of my experiment. In the final stages of my experiment, the tools necessary for reading, and the eye in particular and relevant brain function, became of special interest in constructing a yoga class for the third grade.

In early primary grades, maturity is a huge factor in student success. I have tended to think of maturity in terms of social and emotional skills, and I suspect that many people think along these same lines. However, as Hannaford explores, physical maturity is a powerful factor in becoming a successful student. In light of the reading and writing work I do with students, I have become intrigued by the function of the eye: it is absolutely essential for students to look at letters in order to learn to read. This is a surprisingly difficult task, especially among first graders, emergent readers, but also at any level of reading – especially when reading a difficult word. One first grade teacher frequently reminds her students, “read to the end of the word;” “look at the word in your book! It’s not written on the ceiling or on my forehead!” Certainly the student looks up or to the teacher when she encounters a difficult word to seek help or affirmation. However, the letters themselves prove to be an obstacle.

According to Hannaford, before approximately age seven the muscles of the eye have developed to accommodate three-dimensional, peripheral, and distance vision. At about age seven, the eyes’ muscles begin to allow the eye lens to more easily focus an image on the fovea centralis of the retina: “ninety-five percent of the receptors the rods, are for peripheral vision, while only five percent are cones for foveal focus, which is what we use for up close, two-dimensional paper work” (116). Hannaford elaborates:

Children who have looked at books in the home may have already acquired some foveal focus if the process was their choice and free of stress and pressure to perform, however, most children are not physically ready to read at age five as is now mandated in our schools. (117)

Third graders are eight or nine years old: so foveal focus should have developed by this point. As I read Hannaford’s book, however, I began to wonder about the effects of intensive foveal focus on the eye before the eye is ready. What, for example, is the effect on the muscles that develop to support three-dimensional, peripheral, and distance vision? Again, I am not equipped to answer my question except based on my own observations and experience. I feel that the third graders’ lack of enthusiasm for reading is partially due to culture and partially due to the physical makeup and chemistry of their brains. Their explanation that reading is “boring” is too simple.

Question and Hypothesis for Yoga in the Classroom

My question, in it’s various forms, essentially is: how does five minutes of yoga before reading and station rotations impact the behavior and productivity of third graders?

I hypothesized that third graders would respond positively to yoga by participating with enthusiasm and by succeeding in following directions during independent reading and station rotation (i.e. they would make an effort to read and do station work).

Bringing Yoga to the Classroom: The Process

I consulted whatever text I could find on yoga for children: during the project’s short time frame, I read books as I received them, and two in particular impacted my procedure. I was also able attend a Yoga For Young Warriors class at the Eliot Street Collective.

I began on a Thursday: I tried to organize a short sequence that would present the principals of diaphragmatic breathing, give students the opportunity to wiggle, and then to find focus by balancing in vrksasana. The first day, I felt rather deflated, as it seemed that most of the class chose not to participate in the yogic breath lesson, and then bounced around on one foot during tree pose. I felt frustrated and let my disappointment show in my body. The second day, Friday, I remembered that my posture communicates my expectations. I kept my emotional reaction to the chaos of bouncing children in check, and I made an effort to praise student’s efforts to participate.

Over the weekend I began to read Yoga Calm for Children: Educating Heart, Mind, and Body by Lynea and Jim Gillen. The book helped me to remember that children are not little adults, and a sense of play is important (how could I forget!). The Gillen’s section to “Use Language to Align from the Inside Out” helped me to develop the way I understand teaching yoga to adults or children. The Gillens suggest, “alignment will be easier and more desirable for students when you use simple, evocative, descriptive language that conveys an attitude of alignment (e.g., “Stand tall and proud.”) or quality of being (e.g., “Imagine you are a king or queen with a crown on your head.”) (57). This reminder that creativity is part of teaching alleviated the stress I experience when I think about teaching. I used the image of wearing a crown with the third graders with pleasing results: their chests and chins lifted and smiles adorned their faces.

  The following Monday, I attended the Yoga For Young Warriors class. I wanted to see an experienced teacher’s discipline methodology in action. The class had only one student in attendance, so I didn’t get the sort of demonstration I had hoped for. Nonetheless, the instructor presented the class as best she could as if to a room full of children. She reviewed rules (always listen to your body, always do yoga around parents or adults, have fun), a concept I hadn’t even considered introducing in the third grade classroom. The class was imaginative and mixed mat work with various movements around the room: big stepping, tiptoeing, hopping, a kind of “ministry of funny walks” – all muscles actions that are useful for moving in yoga asana. As a whole, the YFYW class reinforced the principal of play and emphasized imagination as a tool for teaching yoga to children – and for teaching, generally.