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Students learn to find peace of mind

In a school day crammed with instruction geared to meeting rigorous new standards, taking timeouts for seventh- and eighth-graders to meditate might sound like a New Age waste of time.

But at the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, educators say that pausing to jump-start the mind uses the power of positive thinking to calm rambunctious youngsters.

It also boosts academic achievement by helping students understand how their brains work, the teachers say.

Once a week, the students start class by taking about three minutes to sit quietly, close their eyes and breathe deeply, while silently repeating a favorite affirmation. They meditate on it as if it were a mantra.

School officials say the exercises put students in a better frame of mind for achieving personal and academic success.

“We start in the science area. We learn about different parts of the brain,” said JoAnna Nangle, the teacher who administers the program at Science Charter. “They learn how parts of their brain allow them to think certain things. It’s in their power to change their emotional state, and if they change it for the positive, they can think about problems more critically.”

Principal Mustafa Ersoy found the MindUP Program online in April 2013, some time after he read the book “How Children Succeed,” a best-seller that described how confidence and optimism can help kids succeed in academics and life.

Ersoy ordered the program, and over the summer, school leaders added it to the curriculum and rolled it out at the beginning of this school year. In the fall, the school became one of about 250 in the United States and Canada to employ the MindUP program.

During a recent seventh-grade class, Nangle demonstrated how MindUP can be applied to core subjects. The lesson for the day dealt with Mindful Seeing, and, in this case, Nangle applied it to English and science.

Mindful seeing involves seeing more detail and using vocabulary to describe it. For example, the class discussed the differences between crimson and ruby, circles and ovals, smiles and smirks. It was an example to show students how to write clear, visual descriptions in literary work.

“When we mindfully see something, when you really look at something, we use our minds to expand our vocabulary,” Nangle told the students.

To show how mindful seeing ties into science, Nangle led the class in “Pass the Message” challenge, an exercise that demonstrates how the mind receives and processes information.

For the exercise, each student represented a link in a message chain. Each person’s left hand represented dendrites, which receive messages. Torsos were cell bodies. Right arms were axons, which shuttle messages, and right hands served as the nerve endings that transfer messages to the next dendrites.

A roll of tape represented the message, which was transferred from person to person, left to right in the front row, and by the time it made it to the back row, the transfer shifted to right to left.

Nangle timed how long it took the message to get around the class and then repeated the process a couple more times. The more the students did it, the sharper their focus became each time and the quicker the message was delivered to everyone.

“This is how our brain works,” Nangle said.

But MindUP is also good for relaxation and higher self-esteem. Already students have begun adopting new behaviors and using them outside the classroom, at home and in relationships.

Seventh-grader Loren Williamson says he finds time to mediate several times a day.

“I do it when I’m down or sad, even when I’m happy,” he said. “I focus on my goals.”

The techniques he learned in Nangle’s class help him calm down and to “regroup himself.”

“When I’m real mad, I calm down and breathe, and by the time I get to 10, I wonder why I was mad,” Loren said.

During the recent holiday season, Jenilys Cotto persuaded her family – one little sister, a little brother, two older sisters and their parents – to try a meditative practice she learned in Nangle’s class that involves a singing bowl.

Everyone in the family was kind of stressed out from the holidays. Jenilys went to You Tube and found a video of a singing bowl – a musical instrument used for meditation and relaxation – and told them to focus on the sound.

At first, her sisters were skeptical that it would calm them down, she said.

But after they started the meditation, they had a change of mind.

“I put it on and told them my teacher teaches us to sit down and relax. We did it for 10 minutes,” she said. “They liked it.”