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  • Laura Sarsten

From Autopilot to Purposefully Present

“Your mind will create thoughts with or without permission.

It can be your master or your servant. Awareness offers you the opportunity to make the choice.”- Thomas M. Sterner

I vividly remember sitting next to my fifth graders after a long school vacation, enthusiastically talking up the new genre of reading we were about to embark on. I had built up excitement for the exploration ahead (at least I thought I had!) by showing the fabulous authors we’d read and choosing our new reading partners, but I had the sinking feeling something was off. I felt like a stand up comedian facing a too quiet audience. I gave it a few days, readers did their turn and talks, they had their necessary tools, their notebooks and independent reading books in hand, they gathered next to their reading partners, but it was like they were just going through the motions.

We had lost something and I wasn’t sure what that “something” was, so I did the bold thing and asked:

“Why does it feel like we are here, but we aren’t really present?”

I can still remember the students’ faces and the slight change in their expressions—they were realizing it too, as was I. We had to make a change. We couldn’t go on the remainder of the school year just “passing by” each other’s learning; we needed to be a part of one another’s learning lives, purposeful, and present. As the teacher, I realized that I too had gotten stuck in the “going through the motions” loop. If I wanted to increase my awareness then I must also seek out the opportunities to listen and look for ways to connect with kids, appreciate their ideas, and engage in vibrant discussions with them. This would require more than simply observing and noticing; it would require becoming more mindful of each moment’s potential.

The next day, we examined actionable behaviors that we could make in order for us to begin the work of being more present. We all recognized that this would take reasonable effort, patience and persistence. Below are some of the ideas we came up with and jotted down in our own notebooks.

“Stop and notice!”

“Respond with meaning”

“Come with your FULL self!”

- 5th Graders

“Know your habits and try to defy them!”

“Come with a full mind!”

“Make your own choices!”

- 5th Graders

Below are the steps we took to becoming more purposeful learners:

  • First, we created a chart of possible ways in which we can not only come in each day, but be an active participant in the “happenings” of the classroom.

Some possibilities were:

  • After the mini-lesson summarize what was shared that day and name some possible times this could be helpful for a reader.

  • During partnership conversations bring up an idea that someone hadn’t thought of and deliberately ask people’s opinions about it.

  • During a conference share our reading entries from our notebooks and also ask questions

  • Next, we kept this chart in a visible location and each day we documented ways that we were going to show up in our Becoming More Purposefully Present Calendar.

  • A small individualized chart was kept in our reader's notebooks

  • We made commitments for our day's learning and then reflected afterwards. See link.

  • After that, we began to zoom out and note the larger changes that were happening right in front of us.

Some changes we noticed were:

  • We were no longer only concerned with how we can be more present individually, but how by doing so it impacted the whole class's learning too.

  • We realized that when we made the effort to contribute in a meaningful way we were also influencing others in positive ways too!

  • We began to make plans to help one another become more present and jotted these notes to our peers (see below)

  • Lastly, after 2 weeks of focusing on developing thought awareness and being more present in our experiences we realized a new dynamic was created.

Some changes after 2 weeks were:

  • We were no longer simply taking for granted learning opportunities that lay before us each day, we were seizing them.

  • We were no longer going through the motions of turning and talking to one another we were willingly listening and invested in these conversations.

  • Most importantly, we no longer waited for learning to come our way we took action, set a focus, and grabbed learning eagerly.

Students made plans as to help their partnerships become more present in their learning lives too.

It is undeniable that there is a particular energy that is developed when we are all “showing up.” It appears to be a difficult energy to describe and achieve, which is why it is so important that we invest time in creating a purposeful and present energy around learning. By centering our attention we are able to move away from feeling that something is too difficult to achieve, and simply chose to devote and invest our time in that one thing. By helping students think about ways in which they can be truly present in their learning allows them to experience the joy of showing up in a way that opens up pathways for memorable learning opportunities.

In these first few weeks of school we can heighten our awareness and be awakened by the “happenings” of our classrooms. We can relish in these, celebrate them and recognize that a grown awareness of present moments can bring us true fulfillment and joy.

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