Yoga and Literacy in the Classroom

Yoga helps students of all ages increase strength, flexibility, coordination, posture and endurance. It also improves concentration and can have a calming effect.

Thousands of schools and other institutions across the United States are implementing wellness programs involving yoga. According to Fresno, California elementary teacher Ms. McAlpine, “the biggest thing it teaches is looking at challenges in a different way. This teaches them to have patience and the dedication to keep going when they encounter a frustration instead of just feeling anger and giving up.”

Yoga stretches and breathing exercises are especially helpful before a test and are also recommended for a few minutes during the middle of each day to revive students’ attention. When I taught third grade in an Austin, Texas public elementary school from 2006 to 2008, every morning in my classroom began with a few minutes of yoga on the carpet at the front of the room. I also taught my students how to meditate. We started with 30 seconds and built up to about three minutes. Here in Guatemala with my ninth grade writing students, we practice mindfulness at the beginning of each class for three to five minutes. I have shared various techniques with them, from breath awareness to visualization to focused meditation on a song.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal reports research findings from California State University, Los Angeles that “yoga improved students’ behavior, physical health and academic performance, as well as attitudes toward themselves.”

Another study found that “yoga reduces feelings of helplessness and aggression, and in the long term helps emotional balance.” The benefits associated with a sustained, regular practice of yoga are particularly strong among children with special needs. The psychiatric unit at the Children’s Hospital of Colorado even uses yoga with children ages four to 20 who suffer from issues including mood disorders, eating disorders and autism.

By learning and practicing the relaxing, attention-focusing techniques of yoga and meditation with students, we can give them tools for taking ownerships of their minds and enable them to concentrate on reading and writing, both for school and for pleasure.

Why use yoga in the classroom? Yoga enhances focus and facilitates meaningful learning and teaching moments.

A key factor in literacy is focus. Readers and writers must maintain their attention on the text, actively engaging with the words on the page as they read, thinking critically and processing information to express their ideas and feelings clearly as they write. Once students are calm, focused and engaged, they naturally become more receptive to learning and interacting with each other, as well as with the literature they are studying.

Our modern world of rapid cross-cultural communication is the environment in which we now read and write, teach and learn. Thanks to the Internet, the media and other communication technologies, we are exposed to more information about other cultures than ever before in human history. With little to no training or formal education, we can see how we are different from others. However, only by reading, writing and developing literacy, can we understand why those differences exist — and that diversity makes life more, not less, beautiful. “Cultural differences and rapidly shifting communications media meant that the very nature of the subject of literacy pedagogy was changing rapidly.’ Words images, and video can now flow across national borders with ease.” (Williams, 510) Responsible teachers must ask: “How do we use the new technologies that allow us to communicate across borders as pedagogical tools to teach students about writing and reading in a cross-cultural world?”

A first step is to survey students and find out about their experiences with reading and writing across cultures. What books have they read by authors from distant cultures? Which foreign films have they seen? What international websites have they visited?

A classroom full of focused, engaged students is every teacher’s wish. Once students are focused on the lesson and subject matter at hand, they must feel safe and free to express their ideas, opinions, concerns and questions. “We all want to be heard, to tell our stories, to communicate our ideas to others. Reading and writing allow us to connect our minds to others — even when the work may be detached from personal experience.” (Williams, 512)

By studying literature from historical periods such as the Holocaust or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, students develop understanding of human conflict and have the chance to experience empathy for the humans that struggled so with negativity in the forms of prejudice, genocide and abuse. In her article, “Child Protagonists,” Ana Maria Klein promotes the use of literature about describes text interrogation as an instructional approach that “promotes literacy in three ways: (1) using a compelling genre; (2) providing readers with opportunities to articulate reactions, personal positions, fears, and concerns, and (3) the freedom to decide what to gloss over what they don’t want to read or deal with at that moment.” (Klein, 23)

She argues that “we need to reconsider how we bring global issues into our classrooms. The media-produced accounts of the world aren’t enough.” The Internet is a wonderful tool for accessing information, but there’s a lot of misinformation on the Web as well. Media outlets, both on- and off-line, seem to be moving toward more polarized dogmas all the time. One recommended antidote is the inclusion of transcultural literature in our classrooms, which “helps us promote concepts of equity and social awareness by providing concrete examples of unjust situations. Transcultural literature acts as an agent of change, stretching borders, sharing values, and developing an appreciation for our ancestral heritage.” (Klein, 25)

So, how do we empower student living in this overwhelming, fast-paced society of instant gratification to slow down, focus and think critically?
Bibliography
Glazer, Emily. “Namaste. Now Nap Time.” Wall Street Journal 28 March 2011.

Klein, Ana Maria. “Child Protagonists: The ‘Anne Franks’ of Today.” Multicultural
Education. Winter (2003): 23-26.

Slaby, Margaret. “Reading, writing and yoga: Teacher shares skills with her students..” Fresno Bee 24 May 2007.

Williams, Bronwyn T. “Around the block and around the world: Teaching literacy across cultures.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. 51.6 (2008): 510-514.

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