Guest Posting: Amy Timmins [1 of 2]

This posting is a guest posting brought to you by  Amy Timmins.  I met Amy recently at the annual HGSE Resumania event where alums give current students advice on their resumes and future career plans.  It was a real treat for me to meet Amy and to learn more about her studies and how she hopes to build on her visionary work post-program.  As you can see from the below posting, Amy’s focuses on deeper learning.  She provides her students not only with the scaffolding to be better writers and critical thinkers, but also the tools for students “to know and regulate their own emotional landscape”.  Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence in the late 90’s brought evidence-based research to the debate on how it’s not our IQ which determines how we thrive, or don’t, as adults, but rather our EQ, or Emotional Intelligence.  This is the first of two guest postings by Amy - the below posting provides context and rationale for her work, the next posting will provide an example of her work in action. 

The Power of Contemplation in the Classroom, by Amy Timmins

I believe the skills that will give children the tools to ultimately be successful in life are not solely the ones that are tested and reported in the newspaper.  Without a doubt, the ability to read and write clearly, understand mathematical concepts, and think critically are essential to a child’s future success.  However, giving kids the skills to look at their own lives and dedicated time for contemplation is just as important.

Merriam Webster defines contemplation as “the act of looking deeply at something.” For the past fourteen years, I have taught sixth grade English Language Arts. Each year, my students compose personal narratives about various events in their lives. 

I encourage them to choose events in which they had an obstacle they had to overcome, such as finding someone to sit with in the cafeteria, taking a difficult test, scoring the winning goal at the big soccer game, or missing what would have been the winning goal at the big soccer game.

Besides instructing kids to tell the external story of what actually happened, I teach them to tell the internal one.  What were they thinking as these events were taking place? What did they learn from either overcoming their obstacle, or in some instances, not overcoming it? 

This unit, adapted from Columbia University’s Writers Workshop, allows me access to the inner lives of my middle school students.  In several stories, the student author depicts one part of his mind filling their head with negative feedback like  “You can’t do this”, “You are such a baby”, or  “You are so stupid”.  Then the other part of their brain tries to counteract the effects of that critical voice with encouraging messages. 

The assignment teaches kids to craft compelling stories.  By creating meaning from their own experiences, they sharpen their writing and critical thinking skills.  However, this assignment does more.  It helps students become attuned to how their thinking affects them. 

It is necessary to give children the tools to know and regulate their own emotional landscape. The current job market wants people who are innovators.  Innovators continuously work in risk zones and play with boundaries.  They remain calm and focused when things don’t go as expected.  The ability to do this requires a person to know herself and have regulation over her emotions.

However, students do not only write about events that are heavy.  They also write about happy occasions like the day they got a beloved pet.  They write about funny experiences, such as the time they played a joke on a friend.  These situations also provide lessons and help a child to gain insight into what they value, what gives them joy, and the beauty of life. 

These benefits are often overlooked by a content driven curriculum. Giving students techniques to engage in contemplative writing and the opportunity to do so can be extremely powerful.  In fact, this component might be the part of the lesson that will be most valuable to student success in the long run.