Starting Anew

While the rest of the working world may find the turn of the calendar year in January to be the “new year,” for those of us who teach, renewal comes in August and September, maybe after a summer vacation or holiday.  While the practice of tying our school year to the rhythms and routines of our agrarian past may be on the wane, we still, for the moment, have a collective sense of starting over at this time of year.

In my early teaching career one of my colleagues pointed out to me that the thing they loved most about teaching was the many ways that we get to start over.  School years end, semesters end, school lessons, days, units, weeks and months all conclude and you get to try again.  We get to start fresh: sometimes with new students, new colleagues, a new building or curriculum.  There is a constant opportunity to reinvent yourself, to get better, to try again, to learn from experience, get more information and try something new.

What better affinity could we find with our meditation practice?  After all, the great grace of mindfulness is that we have the opportunity in any given moment to start over.  In trying again, we can loosen the habitual ties of thinking that bind us to outdated views of our students, our colleagues and community and even (maybe especially) our selves).  We are all beings in motion.  Not the same two days in a row.  Beginning fresh with each encounter can be the basis for a whole school year’s worth of practice.

So, as you settle into your new routines for 2010-2011, set your intention for mindfulness.  Commit or recommit yourself to your personal practice and to the renewal that mindfulness can bring to each day. Find ways to bring your practice to your classroom and your students, if that feels like a logical next step.  Support your intention by reading something new in the field of mindfulness in education. Take a class. Attend a talk or weekend retreat.  Connect with a group of like-minded people to help you process what you are learning and support your efforts.

And let’s not forget our students.  Students too, need a fresh start.  They change so fast.  It is our job to be recruited to their effort, to support their growth, find what is new, encourage the emergent next developmental stage that they are becoming.  So often a student’s return to school represents a literal return that puts them back into a box where they are already labeled, judged and found lacking.  Unlucky little ones cannot escape their reputations from years past and are stuck in a kind of perpetual war to get adults and peers to see that they are actually not the same year to year.  Can we find a way to see them anew, too and to encourage the growth that we see without making them feel bad about their past?  We are called to do this for each and every one of them.  Let’s make this part of our practice this year, to see the child in front of us as they are, uncluttered by our judgments and feelings, changing every moment, hoping for renewal, just like we are.

Spring Update

So much seems to be happening with Mindfulness meditation and education this spring that it’s been all I can do to keep up, let alone blog about everything!

The Mindfulness in Education Conference sponsored by the Mindfulness In Education Network was at the end of March.  There were so many good conversations there.  Here’s a link to some of the videos from the event.  I especially love Amy Saltzman’s talk about working with children.  She has a lovely way of conceptualizing mindfulness in a completely secular form.  As she says,  “It’s an innate human capacity.”  Like learning a language.  Everyone has the ability to do it.  Why not help people develop that ability?  So lovely. http://www.mindfuled.org/2010video/  Amy’s work goes by the name “Still, Quiet Place” and here’s a link to her website as well.  http://www.stillquietplace.com/

Dan Siegal’s talk about his new book,  Mindsight was also wonderful.  It will eventually be posted at this website http://thecenter.mit.edu/about/mission/  which is the home for the new Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT.   One of the great things about Dan’s talk was the emerging scientific evidence that we may be able use mindfulness practices and meditation in particular to literally build brain connections in areas that may be underdeveloped in people at genetic risk for things like bi-polar disorder.  They are doing preliminary research to see if kids who might have a predisposition for bi-polar can increase connections in critical areas while they are younger so that when the brain undergoes it’s normal “pruning” in adolescence, there is enough robustness already there to not end up deficient when the process is done.  What a tremendous gift to be able to access.  Also, Dan is doing a lot of thinking about mindfulness, kids and attachment issues, which I know concern a lot of us as educators.  Again, the message is more hopeful than previously thought.  I encourage you to investigate these resources.

Another area that was a big topic of discussion was how we can get more mindfulness practices into public schools and classrooms.  I was especially interested in a meeting of about 50 individuals all of whom had great ideas about mindfulness-based practices for young people, but none of whom had any real money or way to get their work  into the school system.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue.  I think of so many of you who talk to me about how stressed and cramped your days are and how it could be totally antithetical to the practice to try to cram mindfulness in on top of all the non-instructional tasks you all do already.  As valuable as it is,  I think we need to begin to explore how to offer mindfulness work to young people in all kinds of venues.  We can’t do everything in the classroom.  I’d love to hear your ideas about this one.

On the other hand…mindfulness for teachers is ALWAYS welcome in the classroom.  I wonder how much our students gain just by our capacity to hold them in our mindful presence?

Mindfulness, Sustainability & Mathematics

Our guest blogger for this week is Educating for Sustainability M.Ed Student,  Stephen Jamme.  He  talks about developing mindfulness practices for himself and his students at as part of his practicum work at Antioch New England.  Enjoy!!

At the beginning of the Fall one of my practicum goals was related to developing mindfulness.  I wanted to:
1.  To begin to introduce to all my mathematics students the benefits of  self awareness and reflection.
2.  To start a meditation club that provides any interested student in our Upper School the opportunity to experience various meditation methods and their  benefits.
3.  To build a faculty professional development strand into my school’s ongoing
in-service training.  This will help faculty practice mindfulness in their  work.

Upon reflection at this midpoint in the year, I find that my most significant progress in regard to this goal has come in the realm of my personal meditation practice.  As I have studied various texts and attended multiple talks, workshops, conferences and classes my personal practice has grown.  As my personal practice grows I can better model the mindful qualities of self awareness and self reflection for my school community.  I now meditate one full hour each morning using Insight Meditation guidelines.  Sharon Salzberg’s work The Force of Kindness has also provide me many tangible examples of how to practice mindfulness in my classroom.  The very tangible results of my work have been a noticeable increase in calm, respectful, and focused behavior in my students.  .

My meditation experience with Susan Dreyer Leon, a member of the Antioch faculty, during the Summer 2009 ANE session started my thought process toward having meditation as a key component in my school’s curriculum.  Her simple presentation of meditation basics has been the model I’ve followed in the meditation club I co-sponsored this fall.  I further followed her mentoring by attending the Mind and Life Institute two day conference on “Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century.  Scientists, educators, and contemplatives gathered to discuss how educators can help foster inner peace and happiness in children.  The Dali Lama, who presided over this gathering, emphasized the secular nature of this work.  Fostering the skills needed to better manage emotions and live a compassionate life was discussed.  His holiness emphasized that this was secular work to be engaged in by all faiths and agnostics.  Presenters shared many dynamic emerging strategies.

In October I participated in a six week Mindful Parenting course offered through the Insight Meditation Community of Charlottesville (IMCC).  The focus was on how one might actively employ skills of meditation toward effective child rearing.  In short, Lindsay Diamond, the instructor emphasized pausing, relaxing, opening, accepting, listening deeply and speaking the truth.  This method was reinforced through a variety of class exercises and became the groundwork for the changes I witnessed in my mathematics classroom.   The pause allows one to survey one’s emotional landscape and to consider the long run effects of whatever response might come to mind.  Calm adult responses reinforce calm thoughtful responses in children.

By Stephen Jamme – EFS class of 2011.  Please contact Stephen at sjamme@stab.org if you have questions.

And if YOU are interested in sharing your meditation experiences as a teacher or with your students and would like to be a guest blogger, please contact Susan Dreyer Leon at sdreyerleon@antioch.edu

On being helpful

Lately, I’ve been encountering (or is it noticing) some important messages on theme of helping.  This train of thought sort of started a few weeks ago when I had a chance to here the Buddhist Meditation teacher, Herb Ferris speak on the topic.  He suggested that many of us are interested in meditation and mindfulness precisely because we want to follow the path of what some Buddhist traditions call “bodhichitta.”  One translation of this concept is that it’s the desire to pursue mindfulness in order to be of benefit to other people and maybe even help them to follow the same path.  This goes back to one of my early fall posts on cultivating mindfulness in order to get clear so that we don’t “disturb other people” with all our turmoil.

I think, as teachers, we especially resonate with these ideas.  We want to be helpful to our students, first and foremost, but also to our colleagues, our schools and communities.  It’s the aspect of teaching that is more like a calling than like a job.  And we want to teach with some awareness so that our own issues and moods and all the inevitable peaks and troughs of our personal lives do not create upheavals in our classrooms and for our students.  We look to cultivate some equanimity for their benefit as well as our own.

But, here’s the thing that Herb Ferris said at his talk.  It’s not easy.  It turns out that the seemingly simple intention to help others is very, very hard.  And it’s hard on several levels.  First of all, it’s hard because we don’t always know how to help.  It’s not clear what the right course of action is.  And then, to make matters more complex, it’s virtually impossible to figure out in advance what kind of help will have unintended harmful consequences.  And then, on top of all these logistical questions, there are deeper questions of motivation.  Are we helping because we are seeing clearly how we can be of assistance, or are our motivations clouded by unrealized personal needs on our part?

Sometimes, it’s easy to do a seemingly simple good deed (give food to your local family center or food pantry).  It seems, however, that the kinds of “help” that teaching requires get sticky much more quickly.  How much do we do for our students?  How much do we let them do for themselves, knowing the frustrations and risks down those various roads, maybe better than they do.

I can vividly remember the sort of “soul shock” that hit me when I had been working very hard to “help” a teenage student of mine get out of his family’s house where I believed he was being abused and neglected.  He was finally placed in foster care.  Right away he gained about 20 pounds and I remember feeling so vindicated that he was at least thriving physically in his new setting.  Then he was moved into a substance abuse rehab center.  He didn’t do so well there and ended up in a juvenile detention facility where he had some horrible experiences.  At the end of this three month odyssey, he was placed right back in his house and things returned to the way they had been before he left.  Except he didn’t trust me anymore, and he stopped coming to school.   He sided with his family, who told him that the “system” was trying to put in him jail and break up his family.  Of course he did that.  He needed them to survive and he loved them and needed them to love him back.

It wasn’t until a compassionate counselor and I started talking about this young man’s situation that I really understood what a lot of folks “in the system” had been trying to tell me.  We actually don’t have good options for abused teens.  They’re too old to go into the foster care system.  Long-term residential placements are rare and expensive.  I had been under the delusion that there were spaces and places for kids where they could heal and be nurtured into adulthood free from their dangerous home lives.  But actually, what we mostly do is incarcerate our poorest troubled teens and they grow up in the prison system, where they are often trapped well into their twenties and sometimes beyond.  It’s actually quite lucky this young man was able to get out of the detention center.  If he had had a more serious fight there, they could have charged him with felony assault and kept him for years for that crime.

If I had all this to do over again, I think I would have tried much harder to get family counseling for this young man and his family.  To try to heal at the community level the environment in which he was destined to spend the four remaining years of his youth.  In truth he loved his family, for all their problems, and he didn’t want to be taken away from his home.

I couldn’t see all that at the time.  I wasn’t looking clearly at the situation.  I was just seeing it from inside my own head.  That’s where the value of mindfulness comes in.  It allows you to pause, to seek multiple perspectives.  It doesn’t mean you don’t act.  It just means that you can act with greater clarity and less certainty (which in this case would have been a good thing).  I think the desire to be of use, is still a wonderful motivation for teaching, but I also think that tempering that desire with mindfulness practices can only be good.

At the School Reform Initiative Conference in January we spent some time with Marge Piercy’s poem “To be of use.”  It’s such a wonderful statement of the intention of many of us in the educational world.  The line that really hit me was,

“But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”

I think we all know this feeling in our hearts when we’ve done it right.  The thing well done “clean and evident.”  This kind of helpfulness comes from that deeper place of insight and understanding.

To read the whole poem, follow this link.

http://www.panhala.net/Archive/To_be_of_Use.html

To read an article by Pema Chodron on the concept of bodhichitta, follow this link.

http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=1469

To learn more about Herb Ferris’s class on mindfulness and other programs at Time & Space in Springfield, VT,  follow this link
http://www.studiotimeandspace.org/

“Let Us Turn Our Thoughts Today To Martin Luther King”

This opening line from James Taylor’s song Shed a Little Light has been much with me this morning.  This past Saturday,  I joined about 300 colleagues from around the country for the inaugural event for an organization called School Reform Initiative (SRI).  In truth, we have been together, many of us, for more than 20 years, looking for ways to reform education so that our schools really do meet the needs of all our students.  But really, we aim for more than “meet the needs.”  Most of us really want our schools to feed the souls of all of our students.  To empassion them to rise to the challenges of their individual lives and to the challenges of the time and place into which they have been born.  As James Taylor’s song says “We are bound together by our desire to see the world become a place where our children can grow free and strong.”  And in that room in Boston, we were also bound by the deep conviction that each of our children are all of our children– every single one of them.

Our key note speaker was Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford University.  She’s been with us on this journey too.  Traveling every week from California to Washington D.C. to talk with lawmakers and policy makers about the absolute moral and practical imperative to fund our schools equitably and to guarantee that every classroom is led by an outstanding teacher and that every teacher is given access to outstanding support and professional development throughout their career span.  Her new book, The Flat World and Education:  How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future (2010) presents a cascade of evidence (more like a Niagra Falls of evidence) about how our persistent national refusal to face the appalling inequalities in our education system are strangling our national growth, not just economically, but morally and spiritually as well.  She told us that we must, as a community of educators, stand up.  We must begin speaking out and teaching our own families, friends, communities, parents, voters, policy makers and politicians what we mean by a good quality, equitable education.

As teachers, we often fight for our students certainly, and for our individual schools.  But to argue for changing the system?  That is again a different matter for most of us.  Change it how?  To what end?  According to which agenda?  Darling-Hammond purposes “a new paradigm for national and state education policy” that has five key elements

1.    Meaningful Learning Goals
2.    Intelligent, reciprocal accountability systems
3.    Equitable and Adequate Resources
4.    Strong professional standards and supports
5.    Schools organized for student and teachers learning.

(Darling-Hammond, 2010, pp. 279-280)

There, that’s not so radical, is it?  Oh…but it is.  Just consider number three for a moment.  At least 40 U.S. States have law suits pending regarding equitable funding of education.  You know, in our country we do not all agree on whether it is appropriate or desirable to use one person’s money to educate another person’s children, especially if those children are different from us or appear to pose some threat to our sense of self, our position in society or our economic opportunities.  Number three is still very much a radical idea for many of us.  But you don’t have to start with number three (although surely number three must happen).  I bet most of you could argue passionately for numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 ☺ !

And so, as we turn our thoughts today to Dr. King,  I urge each one of you to pick an item from that list of five.  Educate yourself as best you can on the facts and figures and start talking.  Talk to your friends and families and tell them that you support accountability for teachers, but you also support paid time and resources for teacher collaboration and planning.  Tell your state departments of education that research tells us that massive, proscriptive curricula that are a mile wide and an inch deep do not help children build the depth of understanding that they need for true mastery of concepts critical to their future educational success.  Don’t just let them hand this mess down.  Talk back up to them!  Tell your federal legislator that while you support the notion of leaving no child behind, you decry the assumption that national one-size fits all assessments can do a better job of measuring student learning than locally developed, performance-based measures that serve as a means to improve a students’ understanding of their own learning process and guide them on their next steps.

At the SRI Winter Meeting we read and discussed our feelings about the Langston Hughes poem, Freedom’s plow.  It calls us now just as urgently as it did when it was written. Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund has said that “education is the civil rights movement of the 21st Century.”  Thank you for being on the front lines. “KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW.  HOLD ON.”

To see James Taylor perform Shed a little light, follow this link

To see information about the organization School Reform Initiative, follow this link
http://schoolreforminitiative.org/

To see information about Linda Darling-Hammond’s new book, follow this link
http://store.tcpress.com/0807749621.shtml

To read Freedom’s Plow, follow this link.
http://thepoetryplace.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/freedoms-plow/

Mindful Shopping?

This is the time of year when lots of us end up doing a lot more shopping than we usually do.  And we often do a lot of it at the last minute and in a bit of a time-induced pressure haze.  I can remember being in Macy’s in New York City in December and they always play the fastest part of the Nutcracker Suite over the PA system.  It’s perfect for all the dashing and grabbing, rushing and pushing that can happen there!  But maybe this would be a good year to adopt some mindful shopping practices.  In fact, it’s never been easier!

I spent this past weekend down at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, where the weekend’s speakers were founding meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, Daniel Goleman and his wife Tara Bennet-Goleman.  In addition to some lovely time for meditation practice and wonderful, precise, instructions for meditating from Joseph, we had a chance to talk about the application of mindfulness for fields like education, business, ecology, and the creative process.  Daniel Goleman,  who’s probably best known for his book, Emotional Intelligence (1995) has a new book called Ecological Intelligence (2009).  For more information on this work, check out his blog link below.

Goleman gave us quite a bit of “bad news” about humankind’s environmental impact on our planet.  That’s not a surprise, for the situation is certainly dire.  But his overall  message was more optimistic.  He is finding in his research that systems are being developed to help drive us towards more and more responsible manufacturing processes.  In that vein, he talked about some organizations that are responding to consumer’s interest in knowing the real impact of the products we buy.  The idea is that we want to be mindful shoppers, but we don’t have the information we need to make really good decisions.

One of the new organizations Goleman discussed is call Good Guide and it can be found at their website http://www.goodguide.com.   You can do your own investigation about the neutrality and intentions of Good Guide, but on its face, it looks pretty solid to me.  Their intention is to provide us, as consumers, with a quick way to assess the products we buy.  We can type in a product and find its environmental rating on a scale from 1-10.  And we can quickly and easily compare it to other products in the same category.  You can even just search for the highest rated products of a certain type, like dish soap or diaper creams!

You can look at it in terms of the impact of the ingredients of the product on your health (and presumably that of the folks involved in manufacturing it) and you can look at the environmental and social impacts of the company that produces the product.  And then you can choose.  One of the goals of the work is to especially reveal what’s behind “green” labels.  I found that it was absolutely the case that my husband’s 99 cent Shampoo, that I’ve ragged him about for years, has a higher rating than the $7.00 supposedly “cruelty free” product that I buy at my local co-op.  Who knew?  Well, now we all can.

So, as you head to the stores this month, take a few minutes to check out your purchases.  And spread the word to others you know.  This could also be a great project for your classrooms.  We have a special responsibility as educators to help our students be smarter shoppers.  And we can maybe all save some money in the process.  I’ll be saving “$6.01” on my shampoo each month !    The more we can put these tools in the hands of consumers, the more impact we can have on the behavior of companies, the lives of our fellow humans and the health of our planet.

For more information on Daniel Goleman’s research, visit his website and blog at:
http://www.danielgoleman.info/blog/2009/08/26/when-ecological-awareness-hurts/

For more information on programs at Insight Meditation Society, visit their website at:
http://www.dharma.org/

A Season of Kindness

Since my November posting about the Arising of Compassion, I’ve been thinking some more about how we can cultivate joy in our classrooms (and our lives).  This led me back to a wonderful book by Sylvia Boorstein’s called Pay Attention for Goodness Sake (2002).   She talks about something that captured her imagination very early on in her mindfulness practice.  It was a small plaque that read “Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind?”  I think that this simple idea lies at the heart of what many educators strive for with their mindfulness practice.  We are reaching for the inner resources that can allow us to maintain our kindness towards ourselves, our students, our peers, and our families even during stressful times, in fact, especially during stressful times.

The practice of kindness is one of those things that generates its own energy beyond just the simple act itself.  I can still remember vividly the winter of my sixth grade year.  Sixth grade was a tough year in our district.  Students moved from small local elementary schools to a big, impersonal middle school.  Low level violence and bullying were routine daily experiences for many of us and it was struggle to feel seen by teachers as we moved from class to class every 45 minutes.  I hadn’t found my place in this new world yet and was often anxious and overwhelmed.

One thing that was consistent for me from elementary school was reading.  Each month we had a chance to order books from the Weekly Reader magazine and I always eagerly awaited the arrival of my new choices.  This particular month I had brought in money to order books as usual but when the books arrived, my order wasn’t there.  Somehow, in the shuffle of my teacher’s desk, my order had not gone in.

Merry Decker was the teacher.  She had actually been absent quite a bit that fall and I didn’t know her well.  I didn’t think she knew me either.  I can still remember exactly how I felt approaching her desk.  I was half ready to yell and half ready to cry.  I was both fiercely disappointed and mad at her.  I can’t remember anything about what I said or what she said, I just remember the feelings.  I remember feeling seen, heard, comforted.  I remember that she gave me books that she had ordered for the classroom to replace some of the books that I didn’t get.  And I fell in love.  Right there in that five minutes of interaction, Mrs. Decker became one of the most important people in my life, for that year and for many years afterwards until long after her retirement and my departure for college.

As it turns out, she was having a terrible year herself.  A divorced mother of two, she had just lost her adult daughter, Susie, in a car accident and was suffering a great deal.  I’m not even sure I knew about the accident that year, but I know that she somehow managed to bring her best self to the classroom each day.  I often marveled that she had lived up to her unusual name, Merry.  There was nothing superficial about her joy.  It was deep and wise and generous.   It could encompass suffering, hers and others, and produce not bitterness or despair, but kindness.  And that kindness allowed me to relax and begin to participate in the life of my new school more fully.

I’m sure that many of  you could think of similar stories in your own educational lives:  the small act of an individual teacher that made all the difference.  To cultivate this ability in my own teaching is definitely one of the goals of mindfulness practice for me.   It means I have to be open.  I have to really see the student in front of me.  It sometimes only takes a moment to really see, hear and help another person.  That’s going to be my practice this season.  I’d love to hear from some of you about your experiences with kindness in the classroom.  I think we can all draw inspiration from stories of those like Merry Decker, who have shown us the way.