“Sat Nam!” the voices shouted at 8:15 a.m. right before they headed down the hall on their way to start their day at school. I had just finished my Monday morning yoga class with 18 grades 3-5 students before starting my day as a 4th grade teacher. Sat Nam means: Truth is my identity and I call upon the eternal Truth that resides in all of us. It is the way we end all of our yoga classes together.
The yoga club has allowed me to share my passion for yoga with children in my district. I have practiced yoga outside of school for years, and recently had the opportunity for teacher training in the use of yoga for young children. I approached my principal, the curriculum coordinator, and the superintendent about taking this course, and they all felt that there would be many benefits to students having access to a yoga club, and using yoga strategies in the classroom to improve well being and academic performance. The frequent use of deep breathing, calming down, and focusing on the positive creates a peaceful and safe classroom environment. The before school yoga club has become a popular activity in our school.
Although not all of my 4th graders are in the morning yoga club, I use yoga throughout the day to help all of my students reduce stress and keep a positive focus. Most children love the strategies, and for those who “don’t like yoga,” they do enjoy the physical aspect of yoga and the fun and playful approach to yoga we use.
As I ran through the day’s agenda in my head, I was focusing on the reading workshop lessons from the last few weeks and how I could help my students better understand character development. That simple phrase, Sat Nam, made me think that the answer to this burning question just might be yoga!
Identifying the Struggle
Understanding characters, what makes them tick, and watching them change and grow throughout a story is what draws a reader in, and keeps a character with a person over time. Despite how invested a student is in a short story or novel, this is a skill that many of my fourth graders tend to find challenging. Certainly they can identify basic emotions like sad, happy, and scared. They can recognize how a character can change from the beginning of a story to the end on a surface level, but to really dig deep into a character’s traits and motivation can be difficult. They can identify that a character may start off as being nervous at the start of a story, but end up more confident at the end of a story once the conflict has been resolved.
After meeting with students in small groups and listening to discussions about characters during interactive read aloud, I began to notice that although they were making progress with many other reading strategies, character development was still stumping them. My question became, “How can I help these readers invest in characters in a way that they will be able to synthesize all of the elements of the story more critically, and ultimately help them understand and appreciate the characters more deeply?”
Small Groups: Yoga for Deeper Synthesis
Several of my students who are in the Monday morning yoga club had been reading Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles. Our conversations in small group had been about the relationship between the main character, Comfort, and her best friend, Declaration. The adjectives the students used to describe the characters and their relationship were fairly simple. They described them as happy, sad, and “best friends who are mad at each other.”
These were some of my top readers, and the vocabulary they were using to describe the characters did not match their reading abilities. We attempted to make connections with the relationships of the characters and the girls’ friendships at school and home. This was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t helping the readers see the whole picture. They were having trouble going beyond the surface meaning and into a deeper understanding of the characters in a way that would make them stay with them for a long time, well after they were done reading the book. Their real struggle was synthesizing all of the information.
I posed a question to the group; “What type of yoga exercises would you recommend for each of these characters to improve their state of mind and well being?”
“That’s easy,” was the immediate response. Each girl rattled off a set of poses and exercises that would help each character. Then I posed a second question, “If it is easy to develop exercises to improve state of mind and well-being for a character, can you develop a yoga set to show how each character changed throughout the book?” This was a little more challenging, but each reader said that she could.
The girls then worked in pairs to create their own yoga set for Comfort and Declaration. They pored over yoga books, looking at poses, discussing the benefits of each exercise, and having “talkworthy” discussions about the characters they had known only on a surface level. Their excitement was high, and the sets they developed were a very accurate account of how the characters changed. They chose to identify Comfort’s feelings in three parts: beginning, middle and end. They discussed that at the beginning of the novel Comfort was angry and sad, and identified three poses that best demonstrated her feelings: donkey kicks to get rid of her anger, mountain pose to calm down, and the archer pose to give her courage to move on throughout the story.
As the story progressed, the girls realized that Comfort was only getting more angry and frustrated, and instead of saying that she was mad, they identified her feelings as “furious.” I was excited, because they were moving beyond basic adjectives to describe feelings — they were really understanding how Comfort was changing. Again they recommended poses for getting rid of anger, like donkey kicks and woodchopper, but they added more poses for relaxation and tension release, like the butterfly stretch and downward dog. Choosing downward dog as a pose for tension release demonstrated to me that the girls were making connections beyond the surface level. They knew that Comfort’s dog, Dismay, was going to have a role in this story and the development of the main character. The play on words, with the dog being named Dismay, led to many interesting discussions that went beyond my expectations for this group of students.
At the end of the story, the girls could identify that Comfort had gone from being sad, to depressed, and ultimately, accepting and joyful. The set they developed for Comfort reflects this evolution; rock pose with lion breath and archer pose for strength, focus and courage, and concluded with corpse pose for a deep relaxation and meditation to reflect on the events in Comfort’s life. They were so excited that they wanted to teach the set to the class! The girls had made connections that went beyond surface meaning. They even demonstrated the poses for each other and talked about the characters in such a way that I know will stay with them for a long time, like all memorable characters do!
As the school year progressed, they used this technique to talk about other characters in their books and at times would say to me, “Mrs. Williams, my character really needs some yoga, it would make a big difference in how they feel!” They were making connections across texts, and it was amazing to see the strategies and skills start to synthesize in a way that made them more well-rounded readers.
In order to meet the needs of other students who were also struggling with this concept, I decided to use a series of books that they had been enjoying. They had been laughing their way through the Mercy Watson series by Kate DiCamillo, and although they enjoyed the characters, they were struggling to tell me about them. I decided to have them create a set for Mercy, to show how she exhibits joy, and a set for one of the characters to deal with her anger.
They dove right into this activity, and within three short 10 minute meetings, they had created the most wonderful set of yoga exercises for these characters. They were able to use what they know about yoga to relate to characters that they love, and ultimately develop a more in depth understanding of these characters.
A Teacher’s Dream
I have many passions. Teaching, reading and yoga are just a few. I used what I knew about yoga to teach children about character development and how characters change over time. But what if I didn’t know yoga, what then? How could I get my students to have a more thorough understanding of this vital skill? I would go back to the age-old teaching principle — use what you know. I would find that hook, that teachable moment, to get students involved with characters, whether it be by tracking with post-it notes, drawing pictures to show emotions, or using clay to make sculptures that express the main character’s feelings. I would do whatever it takes to make the character come alive and the reading experience meaningful.
You don’t have to know yoga or be a yogi master to teach children how to understand characters, and how they change over time — you just have to use what you know! By getting these students to connect with characters through yoga, I was able to tap into two activities that they love, reading and yoga. It was a teacher’s dream, for both the reading teacher and the yoga teacher in me. Sat Nam!
Ways to use yoga to improve overall reading skills:
- Choose a yoga pose to identify the predominant trait exhibited by a character.
- Develop a yoga set to show how a character changes over time.
- Identify a problem the character experiences and create a yoga set to deal with that emotion (anger, fear, anxiety, joy).
- Given a specific setting, create a yoga set to reflect this setting.
- Many yoga poses are named after animals. Using picture books with animals, create a yoga story and teach the pose.