“Room to Breathe” — A documentary film about mindfulness in a troubled middle school

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Room to Breathe documentary

Room to Breathe is a documentary about teaching mindfulness to students of the troubled Marina Middle School in San Francisco, which tops its district for disciplinary suspensions, and has overcrowded classrooms creating an environment in which it’s almost impossible for learning to take place. As assistant principal Anthony Braxton explains near the opening of the film, a significant number of students at Marina “don’t do school” — they don’t see school as being for them.

In the class of Seventh Grade teacher Tom Ehnle, we see kids who are unable to stay on task or to pay attention. They seem to be in a constant state of fidgeting, wrestling with each other, carrying on side-conversations, and throwing objects around the room. One time we see one student pursuing another around — and outside of — the classroom while the teacher looks on helplessly. There’s no way of knowing if this is a constant state of affairs, whether we’re seeing edited highlights of bad behavior, or whether the kids were acting up for the camera, but it’s clear that there are behavior issues going on that are serious enough to make learning all but impossible. It seems that a minority of students in the class are unable to focus, and drag the entire class into a state of mayhem.

As Ling Busche, a seventh Grade counselor at the school points out, the students are consumed by the drama of Facebook and the school yard, and the classroom is simply another place to continue those dramas. Some of the drama and disruption goes well beyond the normal “who is going out with whom.” One student, Omar, has lost a brother and a friend to gun violence. We learn such details — and more about the stressful circumstances of the students — as we cut from the classroom to students’ family lives, in particular focusing on four kids — Omar, Lesly, Jacqueline, and Gerardo.

With suspensions, punishments, and other attempts to modify behavior failing, it’s clearly time to try something new at Marina Middle School. So when a therapist suggested going into the classroom to teach meditative strategies to reduce conflict and improve focus, the school jumped at the opportunity.

Megan Cowan, co-founder of an organization called Mindful Schools, arrives in Ehnle’s class to lead 15 brief (20 to 30 minute) sessions of mindfulness. The kids are at first skeptical, and are unable or unwilling to sit still even for a two minute exercise of “mindful posture.”

But mindfulness is just what these students need. As Cowan explains, mindfulness gives impulse control, so that we have more choice over our actions. These students are not, on the whole, able to control themselves at all.

Early on, Cowan is understandably frustrated. She describes her encounter with the students as being like hitting a brick wall. The defiance is deliberate, the disruption too great, the class size (35!) too large. In one incident which is on the trailer but not in the version of the film I saw, she angrily orders a disruptive student from the classroom. She wants to reach the students, but can’t, and doesn’t know where to go next. Even though Mindful Schools’ policy is to keep even the most disruptive kids in the class, since those are the ones who most need mindfulness, it’s clearly not working in this case, and four particularly disruptive students are removed. (It’s not clear what they end up doing instead.)

Almost immediately, it seems, things change in the classroom, although it’s at this point that Cowan does two things: she has the kids take turns leading mindfulness, and she introduces a simple form of self-metta practice (developing lovingkindness for oneself) in the form of repeating phrases like, “I wish for myself to be happy.” I get the sense that this is the first time the kids have thought in this way.

Cowan teaches the students that they are their minds are the biggest influence in their own lives, bringing to mind the Dhammapada verses,

Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.

Neither mother, father, nor any other relative can do one greater good than one’s own well-directed mind.

It’s inspiring to see the students settle down. They become more still during meditation sessions. They spontaneously start to practice mindfulness outside of the classroom. “We were outside in the yard, and then some girl just made me mad. I just felt like pulling her hair out and dropping to the floor and choke her. I used mindfulness to calm down and not do nothing. I’m, like, ‘no’ because there’s consequences for that,” one student recounts.

“You have a tool now that you can use for the rest of your life” is the final message Cowan leaves the class with.

Room to Breathe is an inspiring documentary. It’s all too easy to write off kids like Omar, Lesly, Jacqueline, and Gerardo. It’s all too easy to brand them as being inherently unable to learn or incapable of controlling themselves. It’s all too easy to label kids like this as “bad.” But what they are is kids who have never learned the tools that allow of self-control and impulse control. They have no real freedom.

I can’t help thinking, if mindfulness can work in this school, it can work anywhere.

Room to Breathe was published on September 7, 2012. It is available on DVD from The Video Project, and you can read more about the film at roomtobreathe.com. Screening packages are available for people who want to host their own screenings of Room to Breathe, both to raise awareness about the benefits of mindfulness in the classroom and to begin brainstorming ways to implement mindfulness programs.

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