Amidst Chaos, 15 Minutes of Quiet Time Helps Focus Students

| February 9, 2012 | 18 Comments
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Students at Visitacion Valley School in San Francisco observe 15 minutes of quiet time every morning.

By Kyle Palmer

On a recent morning at Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, Principal James Dierke looked out over the school’s auditorium at more than 100 eighth graders. A restless din filled the large room. Bursts of laughter and errant shouts punctuated the buzz. Most of the students seemed disinterested in Dierke’s announcements about the spring’s impending graduation, upcoming field trips, and recent birthdays.

Then, Dierke struck a bell and said, “Okay, it’s quiet time.”

And just like that, a hush fell over the auditorium. Students straightened their backs and closed their eyes. Some bowed their heads. Others rested them on the backs of their chairs. The once-boisterous hall became silent and remained so for the next 15 minutes.

“Visitors are always amazed,” Dierke said afterwards, “but it works. It really is quiet time.”

“Meditation strengthens the areas of the brain that control our ‘fear center.’ It helps kids reduce anxiety and increase their ability to reason and concentrate.”

“Quiet Time” isn’t just a slogan but a daily regimen at Visitacion Valley. The entire school—faculty, staff, and students—spend the first and last 15 minutes of every day in silence. Students are encouraged to use the time to meditate, but Dierke says students can simply clear their mind, think about schoolwork, or even sleep. Just as long as they are quiet.

“I’ve found that it makes people—students and teachers—more joyful,” Dierke said, “To have that time to reflect and be still is important.”

That is not always possible for his school’s students, Dierke said. He said the neighborhood around Visitacion Valley can be rife with violence and crime. “These kids hear gunshots on their way to and from school. That kind of stuff makes it hard to focus on algebra,” he said.

Besides dealing with problems outside school, Visitacion Valley faces challenges in school, too. Nearly 90 percent of Visitacion Valley’s students are classified by the district as socioeconomically disadvantaged and more than 40 percent are English Language Learners.

Dierke, who has been principal at the school for 13 years, said things reached a turning point about five years ago. “We were looking for a way to get kids to relax,” he said. “We saw kids with real post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. I noticed a lot of them missing school, fighting, and getting angry a lot. They couldn’t concentrate on school.”  

An assistant principal suggested the idea for quiet time after she saw Hollywood director David Lynch speak about the program and the accompanying benefits of transcendental meditation. Lynch runs a non-profit foundation that promotes meditation in schools and also sponsors meditation retreats for under-served students.

With the help of the David Lynch Foundation and the San Francisco-based Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education (CWAE), Visitacion Valley trained teachers on how to conduct Quiet Time sessions in their class. CWAE specialists counseled students on meditation techniques and five full-time staffers remain on campus to help maintain the program.

Since beginning Quiet Time, Dierke said things have improved: Daily attendance last year was more than 98 percent, and there have been fewer suspensions and higher test scores.

Angelica Mahinay, Visitacion Valley’s 8th grade student body president, said Quiet Time gives her more energy. “I get to school at 7 a.m. for softball practice. It helps me not be so tired during school,” she said.

Eighth grader Art Parkeenvincha moved to San Francisco from Canada in the middle of this year. “I can be really hyperactive,” he said. “I had never done meditation before, but now I do Quiet Time. I think of my mantra, and it helps me calm down.”

“Man, when I hear students getting an attitude, or they’re saying they’re going to fight, I say, ‘Hey! Just meditate!’”

Bob Roth, Executive Director for the David Lynch Foundation, said meditation is not just a way for students to relax but has real cognitive benefits. “Meditation strengthens the areas of the brain that control our ‘fear center’,” he said. “It helps kids reduce anxiety and increase their ability to reason and concentrate.”

Principal Dierke said, as a result of Quiet Time, the school’s image is changing. “This school used to be known as the ‘fight’ school,” he said. “Now, I have other principals asking me about Quiet Time. It feels good to have that reputation.”

Two other schools in SFUSD have begun their own Quiet Time programs and a district spokesperson said other schools have begun asking questions about Visitacion Valley’s success.

Visitacion Valley also got attention from actor Russell Brand, who visited the school just before Christmas on a trip sponsored by the David Lynch Foundation. “That was crazy,” Angelica, the student body president, said. “I got to sit right by him and the whole school meditated with him.”

In addition, Dierke said regular Quiet Time has also helped teachers relax. “Only two teachers have left in the past five years, outside of retirements and district layoffs. That’s amazing for an urban middle school,” he said. He attributes that to higher levels of job satisfaction.

Physical Education teacher Barry O’Driscoll agreed that Quiet Time has helped improve the staff’s quality of life. “I was very reluctant when it first started,” he said. “I thought it was just another fad. But now I meditate twice a day, and I do it at home. I think it’s helped my golf game, too.”

Visitacion Valley still struggles with significant challenges. This year, the school has had to integrate more than 100 new students onto campus after another nearby middle school was closed by the district. Likewise, test scores have increased in recent years but still remain low compared to other SFUSD middle schools.

“We’re not perfect,” Dierke said. “Quiet Time is just like an umbrella. When you have it up, it keeps the rain off, and you can focus on trying to build a culture with kids. That’s what we’re gradually doing here.”

The payoff might be most evident in students like Angelica Mahinay, who says, “Man, when I hear students getting an attitude, or they’re saying they’re going to fight, I say, ‘Hey! Just meditate!’”

[CLARIFICATION: Visitacion Valley Middle School is located in San Francisco, not South San Francisco, as the article originally stated.]

 

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  • http://julwilson83.wordpress.com/ Julia Wilson

    Wow this is an awesome strategy! Happy to see its effective in this school. 

  • Kate Sutton Jones

    … and it costs nothing! Changing the environment and culture of a school for better always reaps great rewards and seldom breaks the bank. Congrats Principal James Dierke.

  • Kennyji

    The future of education, now!

  • http://twitter.com/kenchawkin Ken Chawkin

    A win-win-win-win situation, for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YPPAA4SNLQE7HRZRVTJHS7HPWM Debi

    yes

  • http://twitter.com/tlccabin Louise

    Such a great article and fantastic news! TM has been an incredible boon in my life and it totally lights me up to hear it’s helping this kids! Now if every district in the country would just show an interest and try this. Wow!

  • http://www.mikedoughney.com/ MikeDoughney

    Oh, look. Another superficial, ridiculous, all-sweetness-and-light promotional press release about Transcendental Meditation, followed by nothing but positive comments, some of which are by at least one verifiably paid employee of the various organizations that teach and promote TM. (Hi, Ken!)

    (Given that public television today, unlike that I fondly remember from my childhood, is generally full of quacks, frauds, pseudoscience, and self-help whackos throughout every Pledge Week/Season/Year, and the morphing of public television into a specialized though commercial channel, I’m not surprised. But I digress.)

    Google “tmfree blog” for the rest of the story on Transcendental Meditation, a practice which is offered by a religion-based organization that views its products as perfect for every person, despite the laughably high dropout rate outside of controlled environments like schools and prisons. After all, most everybody knows someone who *used* to do TM!  The same outfit today sells astrology and horoscopes, too!  

    I should also point out that the organization is run by an all-male hierarchy, that wears fancy gold crowns and royal robes in a simulation of a theocratic, mythical Indian kingdom. Odd to see such a blatantly sexist, patriarchal organization having any credibility in San Francisco, but that’s what it really is. 

    It would be nice if another investigative documentary filmmaker would take up the subject, kind of like David Sieveking did with “David Wants to Fly,” but perhaps those days of public television being anything other than a convenient sales channel full of hard-sell pitchmen for bogosity are long gone.

    • Tetercreek

       This type of meditation is fairly universal and non-sectarian. It has no necessary connection to TM. It can be taught by anyone, and learned from any number of free sources. “In breath” and “Out breath” is all there is to it. And it is extremely effective for the reasons mentioned in the article concerning the brain’s stress mechanism and the autonomic nervous system.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YPPAA4SNLQE7HRZRVTJHS7HPWM Debi

         One of the main focuses is also on simply taking the time of silence and calm at the beginning and end of the day; the quite time alone helps one to redirect from the rush and bring focus to the tasks at hand.  It simply stills the spirit.  In cases like these, for those children and families who might be against meditation, seeing at as a purely religious action (which it is not), simply taking the time to be still…and quite would in itself produce healthy results over the period of time.

        I am SO glad to see this happening!

        • http://www.mikedoughney.com/ MikeDoughney

          Rebranding “Transcendental Meditation” as “quiet time,” just like rebranding a period intended for  Christian prayer as “quiet time,” is fundamentally deceptive. If the point is simply to add more structure to the routine of daily activity – an addition that might in and of itself have some benefit – there are plenty of other, non-sectarian, non-Vedic ways of doing that besides TM or prayer.

          These giddy endorsements of the vaguely defined “quiet time” program, which reportedly requires five full-time staffers to implement who work for an outside firm and not the school system, are just plain silly. What’s not silly is the fact that an outside organization is getting apparent full access to a public school, without any in-depth study or vetting of the nature of the program offered.  

          What is apparent to me is that a secular-looking front group – this CWAE – is a group of people with tight connections to the “Maharishi” brand global organization. A few seconds of Googling its executive director’s name reveals he doubles as the director of one of the local Maharishi “enlightenment centers.” One director is also a director of the Maharishi Heaven on Earth Development Corporation; another director is also a director of the David Lynch Foundation, which today functions as one of the main promotional vehicles of the global TM organization.

          The CWAE is merely implementing the first steps of what the TM organization on its own websites calls “Consciousness-Based Education,” a faith-based set of programs which includes material found in U.S. federal court to constitute a religion education program over thirty years ago.  

          All of this data and much more should have been disclosed in the above article; the story is that such an organization has been given carte blanche to run its religion-based programs in a U.S. public school, not all this blather about how wonderful their programs are.

      • http://www.mikedoughney.com/ MikeDoughney

        Transcendental Meditation™, as the organization teaches it, has nothing to do with the breath. It is the mental repetition of a mantra. The technique is believed to be derived from traditional methods; the particular method of instruction and the mantras the teachers use have been publicly available via a number of websites for close to two decades now. The organization apparently holds that the mantras are very, very special for some unspecified reason; this specialness is not supported by evidence other than their assertion that TM, and other practices promoted by them, are “vedic” origin.

        There is no evidence to suggest that meditation of any kind, including TM, is “extremely effective” for more than a few people who self-report such results. For example, a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded: ”  Many uncertainties surround the practice of meditation. … Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence.” I think the same goes for the effectiveness of meditation, generalized across all people who’ve tried it, no matter what the measure.

    • Anonymousaurus Rex

      You didn’t really point anything out, Mike; you kind of just rambled a lot.  I would say work on your rhetoric and delivery and try again when you’ve calmed down a little.  Hey, if nothing else, try meditating on it!

  • Oakalakaleah

    I love this article. It points a light to another totally different idea to try to help the culture of schools in which attitudes and fear are present. Just another good idea….thinking out of the box!

  • http://twitter.com/kenchawkin Ken Chawkin

    Thank you for this wonderful report. It really epitomizes your theme of shifting the mind into a more progressive way of learning. And thank you also for the opportunity to express our reactions to it, whether favorable or not, depending on our biases. It’s what digital democracy is all about. 

  • James S. Dierke

    Great Article however Visitacion Valley Middle School is a part of the San Francisco Unified School District and is located in Visitacion Valley.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for the clarification. The change was made in the article.

  • Mel

    This is seriously brilliant. I used to do a morning reflection journal and it really makes the day much less stressful to go into, and I’ve heard the same thing with evening journals. I can imagine the time for quiet reflection would really pay off.

  • sam prasad

    I am surprised that when people speak about quite time it is not keeping mind blank but a process of listening and talking to the living God who is non other than Jesus Christ-any other thing is a counterfiet