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May 22, 2013

Zen and the art of succeeding in school


by Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

The setting is innocuous — a middle school classroom in San Francisco — but the scene is wildly disturbing. Disorder reigns as boys and girls talk loudly, roughhouse, and launch paper missiles, oblivious to the teacher at the front of the room. The teacher, in turn, seems oblivious to the mayhem: he toils through his lesson, doggedly changing slides on an overhead projector, even though none of his students are paying attention. 

Later we see the same teacher, Tom Ehnle, sitting with a boy named Omar. As Ehnle tries to persuade Omar to do his work, the boy silently turns his back on his teacher, his expression both stony and resigned. 

Involved parents, indifferent kids

The school is Marina Middle School, a low-income school that has one of the highest suspension rates in San Francisco. Many of the students at Marina “don’t do school,” according to the school's vice principal, and these are the kids who show up in Mr. Ehnle’s 7th grade classroom, and in Room to Breathe, a new documentary about mindfulness meditation and its impact on learning.

The film, produced by Gail Mallimson and Russell Long, introduces us to a group of students who don’t think school can make a difference in their lives. Along with Omar we meet Gerardo, a bright and articulate Latino boy who frequently skips school; Jacqueline, a quintessential “mean girl,” and her gentler friend Lesly, who is more interested in teen dramas than doing her homework. We also meet the kids' families, and they counter the comfortable assumption that kids go adrift because their parents aren’t involved. These parents all care and want their kids to achieve; they’re as baffled by their indifference to school as the teachers are.

Dangerous Minds

Enter Megan Cowan, co-founder and executive director of programs at Mindful Schools, who introduces the kids to mindfulness mediation. If this sounds like an unlikely plot — Dangerous Minds meets the Dali Lama — I hope it won’t be a spoiler to say that it works and the results are astonishing.

At first the kids in the class are skeptical; some refuse to cooperate at all. ”It’s boring and stupid,” one student tells Cowan. “You’ve got to make stuff entertaining!” another chides. But over time — and after a few of the most disruptive kids are asked to leave the class — the students slowly learn to meditate, and even, over time, to enjoy it some.

Research shows that mindfulness training eases stress, boosts focus, and increases impulse control — all of which can enhance learning, and at the end of Room to Breathe we learn that many of the kids in Mr. Ehnle's classroom are doing better in school. Check out these testimonials to see  how students say mindfulness training has helped them — from improving their school performance to reducing shyness. "I do feel like I'm a stronger person now with mindfulness," says Linh, a seventh grader.

Room to Breathe

By providing a close up look at a troubled school, Room to Breathe reminds us of what many kids are up against — not just at Marina Middle School but at similar schools around the country. Omar, for example, is only in 7th grade, but he’s already lost a brother and a close friend to gun violence. Marina’s classrooms are crowded, its teachers beleaguered, 79 percent of its kids qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 29 percent are English language learners.

Mindfulness training isn’t the solution to the many challenges these kids face, but, as Room to Breathe shows, it can make a small but powerful difference — in school and out. Mindfullness meditation, observes one of the students, “Is like something in your backpack. You can always pull it out and use it.”


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