Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda to devote class hours to teach ‘mindfulness’

Robert McCartney
Columnist October 9, 2013

Overstressed, overworked, college-obsessed students at Bethesda’s prestigious Walt Whitman High School will receive “mindfulness” training during class hours to help them relax and focus.

Sure, it sounds mush-brained. For 30 minutes once a week, instructors from a local nonprofit organization will guide students in about a dozen classes to take a few minutes to sit quietly, close their eyes, pay attention to their breathing and grow more aware of both physical sensations and emotions.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

The eight-week pilot project represents pretty much the opposite of everything Whitman is known for. Students there are so preoccupied with brightening their résumés that they became the subject of a 2005 book, “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.”

Nevertheless, the plan has drawn remarkably strong support from much of the school community, beginning with Principal Alan Goodwin. He hosted a public forum on it in the school auditorium Monday evening that attracted more than 600 parents and students.

“This can have a profound effect,” Goodwin said. “I think the returns will benefit students in myriad ways, including being able to focus more keenly on instruction.”

The two main speakers at the event were quite the odd couple. One was Tara Brach, a slight, well-known meditation teacher, author and psychologist, who founded the Insight Meditation Community of Washington. No surprise there.

The other, however, was Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a tall, strapping former high school quarterback. He learned mindfulness techniques five years ago and was so impressed that he wrote a book about them, called “A Mindful Nation.”

“Everything just operated a little more smoothly” after the training, Ryan said. “One of my first thoughts was, ‘Why aren’t we teaching this to our kids in our schools every day?’”

Ryan stressed that his experience showed that the practice could benefit everybody.

“If mindfulness can make it to a half-Irish, half-Italian football player from Ohio, it can make it to anyone,” he said.

My personal experience, too, suggests that Whitman is right to take a chance on this. I began meditating for 15 minutes each morning several years ago after attending some of Brach’s lectures. I find it helps to relieve an overabundance of nervous energy that I like to blame on my genes (plus, admittedly, caffeine).

Some Whitman students have had a small taste of mindfulness and speak well of it. I interviewed several this week after witnessing a 90-second meditation in an AP Literature class.

Teacher Prudence Crewdson started holding what she calls the “good minute” after learning the technique last year in an antistress training event.

While the students sat quietly with eyes closed Tuesday, Crewdson suggested in a soft voice that they sit up straight, concentrate on their breathing, and experiment with slower and deeper breaths. She struck a chime to end the exercise.

“With all the stress of college apps and homework, it feels like this is one class where the teacher lets you have a second to breathe,” said Aryana Bolourian, 17.

Katie Choppin, also 17, said: “I personally find the mindfulness cleansing. I get very, very tense with sports and the stress of homework.” She said she used the technique before taking the SAT last weekend and found it “really helped.”

The pilot program, which begins in November, will absorb considerably more time than Crewdson’s brief sessions.

Whitman, like some other area schools, has held after-school meditation courses in the past. But it is the first public school in our region to devote precious hours in the regular school day over weeks to such training, local mindfulness teachers say.

Minds Incorporated, the nonprofit group doing the training, said it conducted one-day programs in the spring at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in the District, and Washington Episcopal and Bullis in Bethesda. It also did an eight-week program at private Brooksfield Montessori in McLean.

If the initial, eight-week program at Whitman is a success, it will be continued in the spring.

For now, the dollar cost is nil. The nonprofit group is using volunteers or staff members paid through philanthropic contributions. If the program is extended, Principal Goodwin said, parents’ donations will cover the estimated cost of $4,000 to $5,000.

Junior-year students in four of Susan Buckingham’s Honors English classes will receive the training under the pilot program. The teacher welcomed it even as she stressed that she was “a very pragmatic person” who is wary of educational fads.

“Instructionally, it’s surprisingly effective. It calms them,” Buckingham said.

It’s a worthy initiative for our schools, and one that sets a good example for the rest of our overly busy society.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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