But stopping work for one day per week is not the only rest we need. During our nightly sleep, the body can give its full attention to repairing damage. Athletic trainers say that rest days are essential for getting the results you want, not only because they prevent injury, but because the visible physical changes you want to see actually take place during rest, not during your workout. Rest is good for the body, good for the soul, and, most relevant to this post, good for the mind.
Have you ever experienced frustration because you just couldn't get something right, only to come back to it later and get it on the first try? I imagine we all have. I have a musician friend who has talked to me about this phenomenon. She noticed that she could practice a difficult section for hours with no success, walk away out of frustration, and then be surprised to be able to play it perfectly when she returned to the piano the next day. I have experienced it myself in my writing--particularly during my dissertation. I would work furiously on the weekends because I was working full-time and trying to take care of my family, but I could not work for six hours at a stretch without getting extremely frustrated. There was something blocking my ability to put the pieces together and write about it articulately. And then I decided I would try Mason's way--stop working before you get to the point of frustration and then go do something else. I started getting up at 5:00 and working for two hours. Like this morning, I often found that some piece had come together during the night. Sometimes I would be in the middle of flow and have to stop. That felt maddening. But what I found is that my brain continued to work on it all day as I was doing other things, and when I got home I couldn't wait to get back to the computer to get my ideas down. I won't go as far as to say that it made writing a dissertation easy, but it did make it more manageable, and I was definitely happier.
I was talking with another friend who knew Eve Anderson (who trained at CM College in Ambleside and died a few years ago). Ms. Anderson said that the key to a happy and productive classroom was short, varied lessons. I remember reading that in Mason's volumes, but sometimes it takes someone explaining the details of a principle for me to really understand how to apply them with real students. For Ms. Anderson, it was less about rigid adherence to a clock than it was about kid-watching. I liked that. She said you watch until your students reach the height of engagement, and then you switch lessons to something completely different, and you ride that wave of high engagement all day long. At first, this may seem almost cruel. But stopping the story at "just the wrong spot" or stopping the math lesson before anyone gets frustrated ensures that their brains will continue, subconsciously, to process those things long after the lesson is done, and the next time you pick up that book, the students will come to the table eager to find out what happens, or they may find that a math concept that gave them trouble yesterday has worked itself out.
Rest can also help children in narration. I have taught some children who had a very difficult time narrating right after we finished reading. What I have found is that, if I ask that student later in the day or even the next day, not only are they able to narrate, but sometimes they give the deepest reflections and make connections that others did not. Their brains needed rest (or a change--which Mason said is as good as a rest) in order to process the information or story to a level that made them feel satisfied.
But where I have noticed this phenomenon most is with math lessons. Mason taught math conceptually, using lots of objects (manipulatives), and never had children memorize an algorithm until they understood the idea. This approach is heavily reasoning-based, and reasoning can take a lot of time. When I am working in a classroom setting, I think problems are amplified because children tend to compare themselves to others. It is so easy for a child whose brain has just not finished processing the information to feel stupid when it seems to come so easily to others. They begin to feel stress. Stress makes their bodies produce adrenaline and cortisol, the chemicals that cause our fight, freeze, or flight response. These chemicals also inhibit brain function and actually make it more difficult to learn the concept. That is when the child either becomes agitated (fight), shuts down (freeze), or uses any strategy he/she can think of to shift attention away from the task at hand (flight). I try so hard not to ever let things get to that point, but sometimes they do anyway. When that happens, I explain the physiology of what is happening to take the pressure off and try to keep the child from going into a negative thought spiral. "You know what? Let's put this away for today. I know you are frustrated and you really want to figure this out, but right now your body is making chemicals that are making it harder to learn. I bet if we stop now and do something else, your brain will continue to work on this problem and you won't even know it, and when we try again tomorrow, you will think, 'Oh my goodness. How did I not see that yesterday?'" If they hear this message consistently and experience the truth of it a few times, it can change their mindset from "I'm not good at math" to "I need to take a break." Healthy.
I wish you joy and rest as you move through this Sabbath day. I'm going to go pour myself another cuppa.