Eleni Vardaki - mindfulness and mock exams

Mandarins, Mindfulness & Mock Exams

WHAT’S THE ISSUE? One way teachers schools can teach students well-being skills is through well-being initiatives that are championed from the top.  This is what’s happening at the International College of Hong Kong. But what if you want to  build well-being skills training into your classroom, through a bottom-up approach? This is the first of a series of articles where I share with you how I’m building well-being education into my History lessons as a Middle School and High School teacher. 


This is the story of how my Mandarins, Mindfulness and Mock Exams lesson was “born”.


It all started in January 2017.


Back then, I was responsible for teaching 30 IGCSE History students who were then in Year 11.


If you’re unfamiliar with the British system, Year 11 is 10th Grade, in the U.S.


IGCSE exams are for students aged 14-16.


January is mock exam season in our school.


It’s the first time our students see what it’s like sitting all the past papers for all three History exams.


Students have to revise two-year’s worth of content. It’s a challenge.


It’s also the first time in their lives that they’ve had to revise so much content.


Students come back from their mock exams exhausted, stressed, and unable to focus.


Many were stuck in a chronic state of stress.


By January 2017, I realized the issue was more than a few nervous students. This was a trend.


My students were coming back from their mock exams, unable to focus.


I realized that their exam-related stress was getting in the way of their learning


It’s a myth that the only kids who fear failure are the ones who have failed on their mock exams.


A lot of these fears come from students who are academic high-achievers.


Even if they do well for in their mock exams (A*, A, B), most students are still feel scared about the real exam.


Here’s a list of the most common fears:


  • “Miss, there’s no way I’m going to finish the exam on time.”

  • What if I fail?”

  • “How are we supposed to remember all this?”

  • “What if I panic and forget everything in the exam?”

  • “There’s no way I’m going to remember all this.”

  • “I have a bad memory.”

  • “There’s not enough time.”

  • “I’m not very good with time management.”

  • “What if I don’t finish on time?”

  • “This is impossible.”

  • “I’m going to fail.”

  • “Miss, I tried answering this past paper question last night and I like TOTALLY freaked out. I had NO idea how to answer it. What if that happens in the real exam??”


Now you might be thinking: “What’s the big deal? It’s normal to get stressed over exams. Do we have to teach kids ways of reducing their exam-related stress? They’ll survive.”


From 2012 to 2016, I did a shoddy job of responding to my Year 11 students’ emotional needs.  


I had a matter-of-fact, “Come on, now. We have a lesson get on with. Let’s focus on the History. You’ll be fine”, dismissive kind of type of attitude.


As a result, I ended up having the same conversations in reaction to my students’ worries and stress, again. And again. And again.  


I felt frustrated.


That changed after January 2017.



My Mandarins, Mindfulness and Mock Exams feedback lesson has evolved over the years.


This is the 3-step process I now use to guide my Year 11 History students through the Introduction to Mindfulness training part of my lesson.


You can chop and change the steps to meet the needs of the particular age group, class dynamic and context in which you’re teaching.



My goal, in leading this activity, is to inspire my students to reflect on how they can improve the quality of their focus and revision. But I never say this to them, up front! I let them get curious.


As they walk in to the class and see the mandarins, I answer any puzzled looks or questions with an “All shall be revealed!” and ask that they wait until we start to touch their mandarin. Instead, I prefer to start my lesson by telling my students that we’re going to do an activity that might seem irrelevant – at first. But that they’ll understand why we’re doing it, when we’re done. I like to leave a bit of mystery. Keep them guessing.


If you prefer a more direct approach, you can explain the purpose of the activity to your students right from the start.


Once everyone’s settled down and in their seats, I ask my students to close their eyes, and see if they can imagine a mandarin, in their mind’s eye. I tell them to imagine it in as much detail as possible, and then. They’ve already had a chance to have a glance at the mandarin that’s on their desk as they wait for the lesson to start. So I find the nods and yesses to confirm they can visualize a mandarin tend to come quite easily.


I then write the words and phases they come up with for how to describe a mandarin on the board. I tell them we’ll come back to this list, after we do another activity where we study a mandarin in a more mindfull way.



Let your students know that they can now touch the mandarin that’s waiting for them, on their desk.


Ask questions that encourage them to feel the weight of the mandarin, while letting it rests in their open palm. Do they notice that the mandarin starts to feel heavier, the longer they hold it up?


Next, ask questions that challenge your students to notice nuances in color, shade, shape, and texture. Challenge them to notice any specks of yellow, white or brown on the mandarin peel. If their mandarin has a leaf on it, is the leaf only one shade of green? Invite them to feel the texture of the mandarin, including the texture of the stem or leaves, if it has any. Challenge them to compare the feel of these different textures. What words would they use to describe each of these textures? And what exactly is the shape of mandarin? Is it as round or oval as you thought it was?


This next part is one of my favorites! Challenge them to see if they can peel their mandarin, all in one go. By this time, they’re focused…because they’ve never done it before, and they’re wondering if it’s even possible!


I love it when a student claims: ‘It’s impossible!’ I tell them to remember that comment, because you’ll be talking about how that relates to exams at the end of exercise. At least 2 or 3 students in the class will prove this limiting belief wrong. Sometimes the same student will prove themselves wrong by finding a way. I love it when this happens, because it’s a great time to do some coaching. Because the ‘It’s impossible!’ mindset is one of the reasons why some students start revising too late. They believe that if they start revising sooner, they’ll forget what they revised.


Finally, I bring the exercise to an end with one last challenge: to eat one piece of their mandarin, slowly. To savor it. To see who in the class can draw it out the longest. If it helps, they can imagine what it would be like if (for some mysterious reason), all the mandarins on the planet had disappeared! What if this was the last mandarin you ever ate? How could you make it last?”


And then I end by making a second class list of a description of a mandarin, after doing this mindfulness exercise. I find they’re keen to share their newfound awareness of what a mandarin actually looks like.



I then ask my students to describe the difference between the two lists, so that they see for themselves the impact on the details we write when we study an object in a mindful way.


When we’re done writing up the second list of details, we always find that list always ends up being about 3 times longer than the first list…and of a much better quality, too!


This is important for the kids who want to get the A*s, As, and Bs to understand. Because to get the top grades in IGCSE History, students writing in exam conditions needs not only to be thorough in terms of length, but also precise in terms of details, examples, concepts, and depth of knowledge.


We then discuss how the way we study an object (be it a textbook, or a mandarin) has a direct relationship with the quality of our memory of that object, and it’s contents. This in turn affects the quality of words they use to describe their memories of studying that object.





In the context of the mock exam feedback lesson, once we finish the mandarins starter activity, I give them time to study and see the parts of their exam responses that I’ve circled, which need more attention to detail. When they read the points I make about vague use of terms, word choice, or evidence, they’re now less defensive. What this means is less resistance, and more willingness to take the feedback in. As a result, students are more willing to accept the need to change their study habits for the final exam. So in the subsequent weeks, I see more students moving out of the old ‘‘I-must-hurry” mode of revising where they leave it to the last minute, and into a more organized, mindful, focused state of flow.


In the weeks that follow, I find my students are now coming into my class in a calmer state of mind, in that final term leading up to the exams.


So the quality of the class environment improves. The lessons flow more smoothly and productively than they did in the years before I started doing this lesson, with less exam-stress related concerns and interruptions.  


Also, starting the mock exam feedback lesson with the mandarin exercise helps my students understand the connection between the vague details they might have written in their mock exam essays, and the rushed way in which they revised (if their mock exam grades were not what they had hoped them to be). Even if they did great in their mock exams, it helps them see that they can improve the quality of their vocabulary by reducing their stress. Stressing less and focusing more through mindful observation is a win-win situation for them all.


I’ve noticed that after this lesson, most of my students make a more conscious effort to slow down and manage their exam-related stress, so that they can revise better and take in more details.


They get that they need to spend more time revising, so that they can focus more and stress less.


Less haste, more speed.


I’m lucky. I was trained by Christine Counsell as a PGCE and MEd student.


I appreciate Christine for encouraging us to continue our professional development over the course of our careers by continuing to read, reflect, experiment and innovate in our work as classroom practitioners.


Christine also taught a framework of transferable principles for effective course design. These now form the foundation of my practice.


One of the principles that influenced me the most was this: focus on principles for effective course design, rather than on doing the “right” activities.

Why? Because activities come and go. In contrast, principles stand the test of time.

One of the principles Christine taught that influenced my History course design philosophy the most was the following: “Build it in, don’t bolt it on”.


In other words, don’t wait until after you’ve taught students the facts to teach them how to analyse those facts. Build the analytic thinking and writing training into the unit, instead of bolting it on at the end.


I’d seen the power of this principle time and again in my practice as a history teacher.


But what I hadn’t done before was to take this principle, apply it for a different purpose: that of building well-being education into my history teaching.


Christine’s teachings planted the seed for me to asked myself, 9 years later, as I ate a mandarin as I sat on my couch on a cold, rainy January afternoon, the big question that ultimately inspired my Mandarins, Mindfulness and Mock Exams feedback lesson:

How can I build well-being education into my History lessons, instead of simply expecting students to bold it on to the end of their school day?

The second teacher who inspired me was Sharon Comberbach, who’d come to do yoga lessons after school for teachers like me, who were interested.

In the summer of 2016, Sharon surprised us with the fun mindfulness and mandarin exercise. As the activity came to an end, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wouldn’t if be great if we could do this exercise for students?’

After-school activities like yoga and meditation classes are important. But I do believe it’s possible for us, as classroom teachers, to play with ways of build well-being education into our lessons. Our students benefit. And so do we. 


What’s your biggest take-away from reading this article?


Are you also working to bring mindfulness into your classroom, through a bottom-up approach? If so, how?


I’d love to hear from you.


Let me know in the comments below. Let’s help each other grow!