Mindfulness and Teaching: Lessons from Dynamic English
Aug 24, 2008 Young Learners 2960 Views
Back in 1983, I was hired to teach English in rural northern Japan. I had no experience teaching, and didn't speak a work of Japanese.
No matter�I had the requisite four-year college degree and a thirst for adventure.
My employer/boss/teaching partner was Grif Frost, a 27-year-old budding entrepreneur who had married the Japanese exchange student who had once lived with his family. He ended up living near his wife's parents in Mutsu, and did what any self-respecting English-speaking person did in Japan in 1982�he started an English school.
Now, Grif had no experience teaching, either. He had a master's in International Management and a couple of toddlers at home. He was the token foreigner in Mutsu, and figured he might as well put it to good use.
Without training, he developed an approach he called "Dynamic English"�a high-energy, full-body, take-no-prisoners form of English as pure entertainment. He focused on presenting classes that were "Fast, Fun and Friendly", and was notorious for his colorful puppets, loud singing, dramatic storytelling, and excessive sweating.
As his partner, I picked up on the style quickly. Soon, I was causing my own stampedes of 3-year-olds and getting my share of notoriety for creative book-reading. In one memorable moment, I was spreading my arms wide to demonstrate the concept of "big" when my blouse burst open. Talk about a visual aid!
We became something like rock stars among the kindergarten children. Imagine a hundred Japanese five-year-olds seeing big white Americans with squeaky oversized plastic mallets (great for elimination during "Simon Says"), an overflowing bag of what looked suspiciously like toys, and boisterous "Good Morning!" greetings. The kids would literally fall over laughing at our stunts, and never got tired of our silly songs and wild games.
We were doing what came naturally�fully engaging the students in a way that created real awareness of language, objects, directions, shapes, colors, and verbal and musical sounds. Our older students were thrilled with this active approach, so different from the "This is a pen" lessons they'd chanted in their mandatory English classes in middle school. By providing new triggers, surprising methods, and hilarious material, we were offering novel stimuli, fresh perspective, and 100% focus on the present.
Little did we know that a Harvard psychologist would later describe these same characteristics as essential for mindful learning! Dr. Ellen Langer, author of The Power of Mindful Learning, talks about the importance of being open to novelty, drawing distinctions, being aware of differing contexts and perspectives, and orienting in the present.
Learning a language can be incredibly tedious or outrageously active and exciting. We played with English and our students not only learned the lessons quickly but laughed heartily, burned calories, and created a whole new mindset about what it takes to learn something new.
Grif relied on mindful learning in developing his approach to teaching English�he was completely open from the beginning, and was never hampered by ideas of what teaching should look like.
He was creative about using games and songs he'd loved as a kid and turning them into fresh and powerful tools for teaching. He shifted the lesson plans when dealing with various age groups and English levels, and constantly improved his approach by paying attention to the responses and being fearless about making changes and trying out new ideas.
Years later, I am delighted to find myself applying this approach to teaching mindfulness. Instead of sticking with the meditation lesson plan, I've opted for the excitement of learning mindfulness in a way that is thoroughly engaging and surprisingly active. In fact, the basic guidelines for Real-World Mindfulness Training are remarkably similar to those for Dynamic English:
* Stay open to new things�including your approach to learning in general.
* Look for subtle differences in similar objects or ideas.
* Discover new uses for old tools.
* Explore shifting perspectives.
* Shake up stale notions.
* Engage all senses.
* Get physical whenever possible.
* Jump into the moment wholeheartedly.
* Be sure to have fun every single day.
Whether you're learning a language or developing mindfulness, the key is this: keep it dynamic.
And never underestimate the value of large squeaky plastic mallets. Just imagine how much fun it would be to use one in a room full of meditators!