When I was growing up, “doing school” always seemed to come naturally to me. I was well behaved, I made good grades, and I was often one of those students raising his hand to volunteer an answer to a question. My ability to thrive in a traditional classroom was clear on open house nights, when my teachers invariably greeted my mom with flowery descriptions of what a wonderful student I was and how… surprising…that was compared to their experiences with my older brothers. (The Fleenor family has some stories, trust me!)
So when I started my teaching career, I admittedly struggled to empathize deeply with my most struggling and/or misbehaving students. I cared about them, of course, and I wanted them to be successful, but I was missing that visceral, I’ve-been-in-your-shoes connection. As I grew as a teacher, I learned better tools to support them, but I didn’t fully understand what it was like to be at the back of the class. That is, until I started doing yoga.
I started yoga as a way to relieve stress, but I quickly found myself more stressed, stripped of my confidence, and very tempted to misbehave. All of the other participants knew exactly what to do and how to do it, but in spite of my greatest effort, I could barely stay upright. After several months, however, I began to learn the routine, and as I grew as a practitioner, I started paying attention to the specific actions the instructors were doing that helped me thrive. After more than a year, and having developed a pretty decent crow pose (if I do say so myself!), I’ve learned that many practices of yoga instructors are best practices for the classroom, too.
Modeling and Academic Language are Critical
The academic language of yoga was the first thing I noticed when I started — and the most powerful source of intimidation, as well. From the moment the instructor said, “Let’s start at tadasana,” I knew I was a fish out of water. However, I started to notice accommodations. Sometimes the instructor would follow “transition to urdhva mukha svanasana” with “or upward-facing dog pose,” but what was most helpful was when the instructor modeled the poses. When the instructor said, “utkatasana” and then showed us the proper chair pose, I could have been watching a comprehensible input video by Stephen Krashen.
And sure enough, the comprehensible input hypothesis proved correct. Over time, I learned the words so well I was able to fold into the poses with my eyes closed. The lesson learned: in our classrooms, using modeling and gestures while repeating vocabulary is essential to helping our students gain proficiency — and confidence — with academic language. My only advice to my yoga instructors would be to show the written words and have us pronounce them out loud while showing our neighbors. Indeed, I found it most beneficial when we were instructed to help our neighbors in some poses. Low-stress opportunities for output, in yoga and in our classrooms, are just as important as comprehensible input.
It’s Not about Meeting Standard, It’s about Individual Growth
Though my confidence with the academic language of yoga gradually grew, I would have given up long ago had the instructors not been so growth-minded in their approach. This is what did not happen: the instructor did not define the average level of proficiency of the class and then tell us that we would get a failing grade if we were significantly below average, as grading practices often work in schools. If that had happened, I would have dropped out on day one. Instead, the instructors asked us to “check in” with ourselves, acknowledge what we were able and unable to do, and challenge ourselves to do just a little bit more than what we thought we could currently do.
In education, we call this accessing the “zone of proximal development” (I previously wrote about how this is so important for teachers’ professional development). When we create highly accessible, differentiated lessons that allow students to enter at their own level and grow within their zones of proximal development, then all students thrive. This is why open-ended questions, with lots of visuals and accessible supports, are so critical to engaging and encouraging all students. Even though I was the lowest-performing student in my yoga class, the growth mindset that my instructors fostered made me think, “I’m performing better than I was yesterday,” rather than, “I’m still at the bottom of the class.”
Above All Else, a Great Teacher Creates a Community
Ultimately, what kept me coming back to yoga, and what helped me grow in my confidence, was the sense of community that my instructors created. Simple strategies like having us greet each other at the beginning of the class, or encouraging us to help each other in certain poses, went a long way in helping break down my perception that I was the only struggling student in an otherwise experienced and confident class. It made me feel like I belonged, and it made me want to come back.
And perhaps the most effective strategy of all, which is equally effective in the classroom, is universal and abundant praise. When I would receive praise, it would lift my spirits and force an involuntary smile onto my face. The praise was effective because it focused on my individual improvement, and, most importantly, the praise was effective because I received no more or less praise than my peers. This communicated to me that I was an equally important and appreciated stakeholder in this community.
To be clear, learning yoga is not the same as learning the curricula of most preK-12 classrooms, as much as learning to ride a bike is not the same as learning how a bike operates. But I found that the socio-emotional experience of learning is universal. In the classroom, celebrating students not for getting the answer correct but for making the effort and showing improvement is fundamental to helping build a sense of community. And whether we’re talking about learning to do a headstand or learning to solve for x, if we ensure our learning environments are clear, supportive, and growth-minded, then all students will realize their potential.
As we navigate these muddy new waters with remote or socially distant learning, it is vital that we maintain focus on students’ socio-emotional standing as much as (or more than) their academic standing. By fostering a strong sense of community with our classes, we can make sure every student feels invited, included, and important in school.
Join Stephen on Zoom September 22 for a free webinar in which he’ll introduce the newest Seidlitz Education product: The Visual Non-Glossary! Learn more, and reserve your seat here.