As the bell signalling the start of class rings, English teacher George Vuong closes the door and blinds, shuts off the lights and walks toward the front of the room.
Rather than beginning with a class with a warm up or reviewing last night’s homework, he calls the attention of his students by simply saying, “Let’s meditate.”
The students, along with their teacher, then close their eyes and clear their minds for ten minutes. No phones, no laptops, nothing — just pin drop silence.
The purpose of this time is to allow students to de-stress and take a moment out of their busy day to reflect on their wellbeing.
“I think [meditation] does help because I feel a little bit more calm after,” said Kaushik Seshadri, a junior in Vuong’s American Literature 11 Honors (11H) class. “Most students seem to view it positively because everyone just needs a break in the day.”
For the first two weeks, Vuong played a guided meditation track, but the class has since moved on from the prerecorded guide and meditates without any aid. A typical routine involves taking deep breaths in order focus one’s mind on the body as well as paying attention to sounds in the surrounding environment: essentially a check-in with the body.
“Meditation in classrooms allows me to take a pause in a hectic day, which helps relieve stress,” said Kevin Cox, another junior currently enrolled in Vuong’s American Literature 11H class.
While widely practiced worldwide, the effects of meditation were not well-researched until recently.
New studies of the brain have confirmed that meditation is a useful tool for combating stress and anxiety. Research from Harvard University concluded that not only does meditation reduce stress, it alters the structure of the brain in a positive way.
These benefits are a large reason other Paly teachers have started meditation in classrooms too. For example, Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology teacher Chris Farina and English teacher Shirley Tokheim both have their students perform meditation at the start of every class period.
“As soon as the bell rings to start the class, I start the meditation music I play every time,” Tokheim said. “ I ask students to put away their cell phones and anything else they may be doing. I tell them to sit back, close their eyes, take a few deep breaths. I say they can put their head down if that helps them focus. I then set the timer for three minutes and ring a meditation bell. We sit quietly for three minutes until the buzzer on my phone goes off.”
According to Tokheim, meditation is not new for her. Due to her positive experience with it in the past, she decided to implement meditation in her classes.
“I’ve had different ways of meditating for years (trail running, attending meditation sessions, meditating at home), but it occurred to me a few years ago, when I was reflecting about what new practice I could bring to my students, that meditation would be an easy one to incorporate,” Tokheim said. “That summer I listened to a podcast about the benefits on the brain of meditation, so that’s what initially motivated me to incorporate the practice into the classroom.”
So far, there have been immense benefits for the students and many enjoy meditating.
“Meditation helps settle my students into class — they’ve just had a completely different world in their previous class, so this gives everyone a chance to take a breath, pause, relax — and then we begin class,” Tokheim said. “It always works, no matter what grade the students are in. It also gives wiggle room for anyone who might come a minute late — there’s no interruption to instruction.”
Tokheim adds that meditation has been a success across all grade levels. She notices that juniors appreciate the time set aside for them to destress and freshmen are more settled after meditating.
Cox appreciates the time that teachers dedicate to student health, but wishes to see modifications to the meditation program.
“If teachers opt to have students meditate in class, I recommend that they give a 30-second stretch break after so that the students can reinvigorate themselves before jumping back into their education,” Cox said.
This overall sense of drowsiness is part of a larger concern of students perhaps using this time to sleep rather than meditate, but at the end of the day, Seshadri feels that the advantages of meditation outweigh any possible disadvantages.
“The benefits of meditation are better than the chance that someone doesn’t use this time correctly,” Seshadri said. “If people don’t want to meditate, that’s fine, as long as they don’t disturb the meditators.”
Tokheim agrees with this perspective, adding that she doesn’t see any downsides to meditating in class.
Tokheim said, “We know from research that students are more able to learn when they are relaxed, so in the context of teaching, meditation directly contributes to a learning environment.”