Twice a week I go to a 6am yoga class. I like to get there early in order to claim my favourite spot by the window, the one that lets me watch the sun rise as I practice. Once I've got my mat laid out and my body settled on it, I drift off a bit until class starts. Not sleeping, but not quite awake either. I'm usually awoken from my not-awake-yet-not-asleep stupor by the calm voice of the instructor, pulling us all together and giving us a focus for the class. Not too long ago, though, my instructor opened with a single word: Accessibility. Not a word you would typically expect to hear at the opening of a yoga class full of able-bodied individuals ready to move and sweat. But that's the word that my instructor offered up - accessibility. She followed up with the idea that we're all following the same set series of postures but we all arrive in different states, with different needs and different abilities. Some of us were maybe celebrating a bit last night and don't feel so fantastic today (wink, wink), some of us are feeling really keen and eager to push ourselves, some of us are a bit apathetic but know that this is the right thing to be doing right now. Some of us are uber-bendy, some of us not so much (hello!) and some of us are nursing injuries or other physical challenges. Regardless of how or why we are showing up, we can all be included in the same sequence of postures. By making use of more accessible offerings, slight or not-so-slight adaptations to a pose, everyone can participate. As I was lying there listening to this it resonated so deeply - 'Why can't school be more like yoga? It's basically the same thing...a bunch of kids following the same basic sequence but needing different accessibility options. YES."
The idea of school being like yoga ran through my head all day. I have a natural tendency to try to see things from all angles (a good and bad thing, let me tell you!), so I bounced this one back and forth for quite awhile. Is a classroom actually like a yoga class? Can we actually apply the same (or similar) strategies to kids? How exactly would this work? After rattling around in my brain for quite some time, I finally came to some conclusions.
Clearly, there are some pretty significant differences between a voluntarily-attended yoga class for adults and a required school day for kiddos. For starters, there's a fair bit more choice - choosing to attend yoga instead of spin or boot camp, choosing the time of day that suits you, even choosing the instructor that suits you. This aspect of choice leads to a group of individuals who should be more motivated to be there and improve. Secondly, these are drop in classes; while some of the students may stay consistent week to week, others may drift in and out. There is a different sense of urgency in this environment than there is in a classroom, where there is a constant expectation of growth and change. Finally, there is no singular goal or purpose for a yoga class; people come to stretch, to strengthen, to calm their minds, to center their souls. They take what they need and leave the rest. Not a perfect fit but I still think the idea fits. Read on.
So what works? What makes the idea of accessibility in yoga such a powerful one for our classrooms? Accessibility in yoga classes draws on a number of fairly simple ideas. One, the yoga class follows a standard set of postures, often called a series; some types of yoga have a very strict series that never wavers while others draw from a variety of poses to create something new each time. Either way, the poses become routine the more you practice, leaving space for individual yogis to adapt or modify them as needed. Even when I am introduced to a brand new pose, I can draw on what I know about how my body moves through other poses to consider how I might make this pose more accessible.
A second idea embedded in all the yoga classes I attend is the idea of taking what you need from what is being offered, which is different from taking what is offered. The first time I attended a yoga class where I saw someone lie in shivasana (corpse pose) for the entire class, I was dumbfounded. Lie there for an entire class? That's a thing? All of a sudden, I felt freed to stop pushing so hard and take rest when I needed it, a novel idea to a life-long competitive athlete.
Yoga also emphasizes both the inner and the outer worlds, encouraging us to practice in community (there is something magical about a collective sigh) but focus inward while we are there, moving away from the comparison that can come with being with others and into the support that is also there. Finally, and fundamentally, yoga is for everybody. Literally, every body. Everyone is welcomed, included and encouraged to participate to the fullest extent that they can. I don't feel shame when I fall out of a pose or take a modification; I feel encouraged, I feel supported and, most of all, I feel free to try again or take rest, whatever I need in that moment.
So, how does this translate to a classroom full of 5, 10 or 15 year olds?
As much as some of us balk at the idea of the routine, it serves a few very definite purposes. 1) It lets us, kids and adults, know what to expect, alleviating anxiety and energy spent on wondering what's coming. 2) When things become routine it actually frees up brain space, allowing for deeper thinking and learning. 3) Routines save time. No more explaining where the crayons go or what to do after lunch...it just happens. Magically.
Yes, setting up routines can seem to take forever...like, all of September and in to October forever...but the payoff is totally worth it. When the basics of your classroom run like clockwork you can really get in to the good stuff with calm, confident kiddos. Besides, no one wants to be explaining where the pencils are kept in June.
Accessibility is for Everyone
In yoga classes, the instructor never says - "Hey, Bryn, while everyone else is doing X, you'll be doing Y." Instead, they offer the adaptations up to everyone - "If you have bad knees or ankles, you may want to try X instead" or "If this is feeling good for you today, stay here. If you want to go deeper, try this." I can then decide which option I want to pursue without feeling singled out or less than anyone else.
There are so many fantastic websites these days that allow you to scale your reading and math tasks to a variety of levels. Using a site such as Newsela for example, you can print an article at 5 different reading levels and invite students to choose the one that best suits them today. Say something along the lines of "I have printed an article about ______ for us to explore together. On the front table you will see 3 different versions of the article; each provides the same information. The one on the right uses more familiar vocabulary and shorter sentences, while the one on the left will challenge you with interesting new words and a slightly more in-depth look at the topic. Please choose the one that suits you today." Worried that they might always choose an article below their reading level? Make a note of those students that seem to be doing this and set aside time for a conversation about this. Be curious about why they are choosing what they are choosing and champion their ability to try something a bit more challenging.
Allow lots of voice & choice
Being included means having a say in what is happening to you. Sometimes we forget how little of their day kids actually have control over; from what time to get up, to where be, when to be there, how to do things, kids of all ages lead fairly controlled lives. Inviting them to be a part of the design of the day, in whatever way you can, makes them feel like their thoughts and opinions matter, which means they matter. Allow them to choose their seating plan, their presentation method or their book club book. Already doing this? Dive deeper by bringing inquiry or genius hour into your classroom.
Offer opportunities for rest
There is this strange phenomenon that seems to take place in education, in which we expect kids to show up every single day, in the same mood and the same mindset as the day before and the day before that. In many ways we do it to save our sanity - planning for the known is much easier than planning for the unknown. It isn't fair to us and it isn't fair to students, though; if we don't acknowledge the fluctuations in energy and emotion that come with being human we risk an explosion. If we can shift to trusting kids to take rest when rest is needed we just might be able to get them further in the long run.
Acknowledge natural variations in ability
Not everyone comes to yoga being able to do handstands and side crow; heck, most people are working on just touching their toes. But you know what? The instructors know that and they plan for it. They incorporate blocks and straps, they provide adaptations, they break the poses down in to baby steps. You can do the same. Instead of going for a one-size-fits-none approach, plan for the natural variation in your class. Low-floor, high-ceiling tasks, literacy and numeracy stations, graphic organizers and Universal Design for Learning are just a few of the options you can try to meet the needs of every learner in your class.
As a teacher, your job is to make sure that each day, each kid makes forward progress on their path. Some days they will make huge leaps, other days they may seem to stall out; some kids may zoom ahead, while others make the tiniest little gains. It's all ok. As long as you, their teacher, recognize that learning and development aren't actually as linear as our school system would have us believe, you can meet their needs and keep them moving forward. And that, my friend, is the biggest and most important job of them all.
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!