When walking into our growing Ambleside school, parents and prospective employees alike are struck by the calm, peaceful atmosphere that is found within our classrooms. From the preschool to the elementary classrooms, students are actively engaged in the process of learning: Discussion, copywork, computing, reading, painting, observing nature, handwork; any, or all, of these things occur within an Ambleside classroom every single day. But even an Ambleside classroom, with its engaging approach and varied curriculum, experiences moments when attention lags. What then?
After a particularly quiet Bible class, where little narration went on, I asked my class why they were not responding. One little guy finally spoke up and said that he had been thinking about the birthday party he’d had the day before. Another one opened his mouth and pointed out his very loose tooth, another was thinking about a new puppy that was waiting at home, and so on. I promised that I would help them do a better job of focusing the next day.
Enter Jeffery Schwartz, author of You Are Not Your Brain. Schwartz has helped many to understand how capable the brain is of redirecting itself. Things that Charlotte Mason astutely observed 100 years ago, Jeffery Schwartz and others now have the backing of PET scan images and modern technology to affirm.
I brought the ideas of Schwartz with me to the classroom the next morning. We spent a few minutes counting our breath, and starting over again at one if we found ourselves thinking about anything other than our breath. We spent a little longer, quietly thinking about the text we were about to experience. It took a bit, but the room became hushed, with a quiet energy. Attention was there, and it was focused, and our Bible class went much better than it had the day before. The children told us what had been read, discussed it, thought about what it meant.
In later follow up, all of the children found the technique helpful to them. During the holiday season, Ambleside saw its students producing worthy work, because students were able through simple, conscious, effort, and educator mentoring, to overcome the many distractions.
Learning is effort. Good attention can be given by children, regardless of the circumstances, when weaknesses are supported. Our gift was the delight that followed the act of steadily giving attention to work well done. Such delight is deep, profound, and hugely satisfying.