Jaime Patterson | June 2017

How to Cultivate a Mindful Classroom

Have you ever thought about combining yoga with arts integration?  Mary Kay Connerton has done just that with her Stretch Your Wellness curriculum for schools.  Mary Kay and I worked together in the language arts department at an arts integration middle school and at a yoga studio in west Annapolis for a few years before she made career leap to pursue her ultimate dream of beginning a yoga curriculum in the public schools in our county.  

A long time yoga teacher in the Chesapeake Bay Area Mary Kay has combined her yoga passion with her public school teaching to develop amazing arts integrated lesson plans that can be used in the general education classroom or as a specialized P.E. class.  Currently Mary Kay works at a high school  as the yoga resource teacher, writing and teaching yoga as part of her arts integrated yoga curriculum.

In this interview, we had the chance to discuss how to cultivate mindfulness in the classroom through yoga, art, music and awareness of their emotions.  I think you’ll find this conversation to be a powerful opportunity to bring some of these attributes into your own classroom or studio.

What made you think of integrating yoga into the classroom environment?  Do you consider yoga to be a form of Arts Integration?

My “seedling” of an idea to integrate yoga into the classroom environment began to sprout while I was receiving my training as a RYT through the Sivananda Vedanta Institute in 2009.  One of my classmates was a 75 year old paraplegic.  As a young boy, he developed polio and eventually lost the ability to use his legs.  My classmate was extremely inspiring to me and we became good friends.  He shared how growing up, his mom would have him meditate and do breathing exercises.  

Once he entered adulthood he realized that these practices were all incorporated into yoga.  He became a long time yoga practitioner and he credits it to his confidence, good health, and ability to walk with only one crutch.   While I was at the ashram, I was simultaneously finishing my graduate studies in Special Education.  My inspiration from my classmate made me think of how powerful yoga could be in my future classrooms and within my teachings as a special educator.  

In fact, just last year I was rereading my journal from that time and one of my final statements was “I wish I could share yoga in schools!”  It is such a blessing that I am truly living my intention from that time!

I do consider yoga to be a form of Arts Integration because it involves the motion of the body and it taps into the mind in a similar way that art does.  Art opens up doors, windows, cracks, and crevices in the mind as negativity goes and creativity flows.  In many ways, yoga does this very same thing.  

I adore one of the Arts Integration Projects embedded in the Stretch Your Wellness Curriculum  which involves the students learning about the element of line and then associating elements of line with different yoga postures.  It is so amazing to see how even the most “artistically” skeptical students connect to this project! At this point, I am loving the “Art-OGA” Integration on so many levels!

Do you ever get any push-back from teachers, administration, or parents in regards to the spiritual aspects of yoga?

I would say that for me this is becoming a thing of the past.  However, I did and still from time to time do get push-back.  Generally, people are afraid that yoga is a religion, when in fact it is not.   There are spiritual aspects of yoga, of course, but these aspects should be pursued on the participant’s own time.  Being in the public school system, I do not incorporate any of the spiritual aspects that some styles of yoga can offer and I always ensure this with the people who are skeptical.  

In fact, I always will invite the teacher/administrator/parent into my classroom to see for themselves how our focus is strictly physical and mental health.  Almost every time, when an observer would witness the change in behavior/attitude/confidence/motivation oif specific students, he or she would be eager to join us right on the mat!  It’s easy to see how incorporating yoga in public schools is so important because it is good for ALL children.  

Talk to me about your vision for Stretch Your Wellness.

My vision entails sharing my curriculum into four specific avenues: The Classroom, Professional Development for Teachers, After-School Programs, and The Community.  In regards to the classroom setting, I am currently preparing a training for specific P..E teachers who will be teaching the P.E. Elective Curriculum I created at different high schools in AACPS next year.  

I also am working with specific classroom teachers in helping them through planning and modeling with integrating yoga and mindfulness within their everyday classroom routines at several different schools.  Professional wellness is critical and of utmost importance because if the professionals aren’t well, than our students won’t be.  It all trickles down from the top.  

I have created specific events and offer routine classes to assist with employee wellness.  Throughout the county, I have been able to assist yoga instructors and schools with partnerships for offering yoga for after school programs (ex: Girls on the Run/PVA/Football).  Lastly, I am routinely building relationships with community groups and key stakeholders on getting events held at our school or off campus that can get parents and their children involved in the joy of wellness through yoga and mindfulness.  

My plan is to continue to build these four avenues which will lead to my ultimate vision where each school in AACPS will be offering some element of yoga and mindfulness within their school from these four avenues.  This is my mission and once achieved, who knows maybe it will spread to the state or national level! I am going to keep dreaming!

What words of advice might you have for a general education teacher trying to integrate a little mindfulness into their classroom?

I believe the most important component here is that you need to be a practitioner yourself.  Try to grow your own mindful practice at home before bed or in the morning before work.  Try sitting for even five minutes.  Your students will buy in when you truly do, too.  

Also, when integrating mindfulness, it is key to set the space.  Turn off the lights.  Play some soft music.  Incorporate the use of essential oils.  All of these components will tell everyone that it is time to be mindful and practice.  

In addition, I think the less description in the beginning, the better.  So instead of saying, “Class we are going to practice mindfulness and we need everyone quiet, etc., etc.”  Try, “Let’s all look at me.  Inhale deeply and exhale completely.  Sit with your feet on the floor and your spine straight.  Relax the shoulders and close the eyes.”  

Then, you can incorporate your mindful tools, such as a singing bowl or bell to help keep your students on track with their practice.  Just try it! Play with it! And most importantly,  have fun with it!  Namaste!

About the Author

Jaime Patterson is the Executive Director of Creative Affairs for The Institute for Arts Integration & STEAM. As the Executive Director of Creative Affairs, Jaime enjoys cultivating community in the membership community, creating resources, and researching and writing for a new upcoming project. She is a lifelong supporter of the arts and is passionate about supporting educators in their pathway to teaching and learning through arts integration. Jaime resides in Hanover, Pennsylvania with her husband, Josh, and their three children, Aidan, Lila and Gwyneth.