Exploring Mindfulness Through Meditation

“Mindfulness is a refined process of attention that allows children to see the world through a lens of attention, balance and compassion. When children learn to look at the world with attention, balance and compassion they soon learn to be in the world with attention, balance and compassion.”

– Susan Kaiser Greenland

 

“Art, Poetry, and Meditation” was the name given by my students to the final project of 2018. The project commenced with sitting meditation, in which the children and I sat on the garden stage in silence, bringing focus to the breathe and enjoying the stillness of our minds, all the while objectively watching the comings and goings of our thoughts.

After five minutes of sitting, I rang the singing bowl to signal the transition into silent moving meditation. Everyone slowly stood up at her own pace. Tallulah drifted toward the bed of flowers; Gautier hopped from one garden stone to another. Violet crouched down and met a red flower at eye level while Zohe positioned herself by the trunk of the orange tree and gazed up at its leaves, which gently rustled with the wind. Ruby made her way around the garden perimeter, playfully swaying from side-to-side, and Niko strolled with hands behind her back, clearly caught in deep contemplation.

After fifteen minutes of silent movement, I brought out the art supplies: freshly sharpened artist’s drawing pencils, a stack of card-stock paper, and markers of various colors. This was an invitation to begin art meditation. It was in this final phase that the students created their drawings and poems.

(Samples of student work will be posted in the next few days)

The Conference Room

“Un bambino ha tre insegnano a scuola: adulti, altri bambini, e l’ambiente.”

“A child has three teachers at school: adults, other children, and the environment.”

  – Loris Malaguzzi

The Conference Room is designed to inspire collaboration through face-to-face dialogue, encouraging children to think deeply,  spur  creativity, and develop empathy for others’ perspectives.

Every physical space in Strawberry Land is set up to be a dynamic partner in the children’s learning. Therefore, we construct the environment with purpose and care. This intention defines our relationships and reflects our identity as a school.

Dr. Naama Zoran writes, “The school’s identity is a lifelong journey, where every meeting and interaction adds to who we are.” Our KMS identity is visible in every space, and we can always see that who we are is reflected in where we are. The following story illustrates this concept and shows how cogently the environment speaks to the ideas, values, and attitudes of the children who use it:

Ruby, Niko, Zohe, and Esther huddle around the wooden table in The Conference Room, brainstorming ideas for their writing project. Their voices buzz with a euphony of meaningful dialogue. The young writers are, as the saying goes, in the zone. I stand aside and tune into their conversation.

“So the Goblins in my story, they’re going to be breakdancing,” says Niko.

“You can make one of your goblin dancers move like this,” Ruby demonstrates by  performing a slow moonwalk dance across the floor. 

“Yeah,” says Niko. That’s a good idea. The goblins are going to be breakdancing on the stage for other people. Ok, now do you guys have any ideas about what chapter 2 should be about?” Her question stirs another round of discourse.

A few minutes later, Zohe shares the progress she’s made on her second and third pages. She holds the book for all to see as her writing partners carefully study the work. “What is the red part on the top?” Esther asks. “Maybe it’s the top part of a rainbow?” Niko shrugs. “Maybe it’s a cloud,” Ruby ponders.

As I listen to the conversation, I take note of the fact that Zohe, Ruby, Niko, and Esther utilize the The Conference Room for its intended purpose: to confer, debate, and confide.

I’ve always admired The Conference Room’s faculty to humbly kindle the exchange of ideas and opinions, questions and answers, and to act as a safe space for conflict resolution.  The Conference Room, however, is more than a physical space where people go to talk. It is a philosophy which is defined, refined, and practiced by the children every day. It is understood by staff and students alike that everyone can help someone. Such altruism is a reflection of our identity, and it can be seen daily in The Conference Room.

At KMS age does not define who you are. We’re all in this together. No bias, no ego – just good-natured humans lending a helping hand. After all, every child has the right to speak up and be heard. The Conference Room is the perfect place for this to happen.

The Pretzels of Harmony

I woke up from a dream where I was teaching at an elementary school in Reggio Emilia, Italy. In my dream Loris Malaguzzi walked into my classroom while I was playing freeze tag with my students. I feared that he would reproach me for playing such a physically active game inside instead of outdoors. Instead he gave me two thumbs-up and said, “Keep up the good work!”

That morning, I woke up to the 6:00am sound of my alarm feeling great. The Loris Malaguzzi – father of the Reggio Emilia approach to education –  found me in my dream to tell me that I was doing a good job!  I reached for my phone, opened the web browser and typed “Loris Malaguzzi quotes” in the google search engine. “Not without Joy,” read the first line. I decided this would be my Malaguzzi quote of the day. I got out of bed, set my stopwatch for 20 minutes, plopped onto my zafu (round cushion used for meditation), curled my legs up in the shape of a pretzel, and closed my eyes. My mind swerved through the serpentine network of thoughts, questions, and realizations. I thought of what being a teacher means to me, and came up with the following meaning: teaching is a perpetual journey to collaboratively explore the world and make cool realizations about ourselves and to discover all the awesome forces that connect us to one another. In the teaching journey, the kids are teachers and the grownup teachers are students. Through our interactions, we, the kids and adults cultivate seeds of kinship, which are sure to grow into meaningful friendships. Such was the inner monologue brewing in my head while I sat in meditation. Then my alarm went off. I opened my eyes with an idea in mind: I would lead an activity that would be educational, provocative, collaborative, and fun. I would need three things: a bag of pretzels, a paper cup, and my group of students.

On my lunch break I went to the corner grocery store and bought a bag of pretzel. I entered the school gate and casually meandered across the playground, deliberately holding the pretzels in plain site of the children as they played.

“Hey! What’s that?” Emma yelled across the yard. She caught up with me and asked again, “What’s that, Allen? Is that pretzels? What are you going to do with them?”

“Oh these pretzels?” I asked. “These are just nothing,” I bluffed.

But Emma’s acute perception was not to be fooled. Her eyes were already lit up with delight, as if she’d figured out the whole caboodle. “No it’s not!” she said. “We’re going to play a game with pretzels, aren’t we?” She was jumping up and down clapping her hands as she skipped off to share the news with her friends. “You guys! Allen is going to give us pretzels after lunch!”

“Mission accomplished,” I said to myself and returned to the classroom to prepare. I placed the cup and bag of pretzels in the middle of the circle rug, and used the last 10 minutes of my break to eat my own lunch.

Recess was over at 1:00pm. As everyone returned to the classrooms. I instructed my group of first graders and kindergarteners to sit next to one another around the bag of pretzels and paper cup. “As tempting as it might be,” I said while passing out two pretzels per kid, “Please do not eat the pretzels yet.”

I continued with the instructions: “Each of us will take turns putting one pretzel into the cup. As you do so, you have three options. Option #1 is to share what it means to be a KMS Kid. Option #2 is to give someone a compliment. Option #3 is to not saying anything at all. Regardless, you are required to put one of your two pretzels into the cup.”

Fourteen hands shot into the air, ready to share. “Let the games begin!” I announced.

“Being a KMS kid means to be kind, caring to everyone,” said Charlotte, putting her pretzel into the cup.

“Being a KMS kid means to make friends,” Sophia said.

“Being a KMS kid means having fun and having personal responsibilities, like cleaning after yourself,” Emily said and put her pretzel in the cup.

Then Daniella : “Scarlett, I want to compliment you for being so quiet and listening when the teacher is talking.”

Scarlett blushed for a moment, humbly shrugging her shoulders. “Thanks, Daniella. And I want to compliment Allen for being such a good teacher.”

Now it was my turn to blush. I did not expect anyone to say anything toward me. I put my hands together in gratitude and said, “Thank you, Scarlett. That’s a really sweet thing to say.”

Before I could call on the next student, Emily took the floor: “And I want to compliment Allen for being my favorite teacher. You always play with us and read to us and help us write.”

And you play freeze tag with us during recess,” Scarlett added.

“Yeah, Allen!” Daniella said. “You are the best teacher we ever had!”

“I like when you teach me to read,” said Mia.

“Well this is just great!” I said in jest. “You’re about to see your teacher cry.”

“But why?” Asked Diana. “We’re saying nice things to you. Why are you sad?”

“I’m actually quite happy,” I said.

“I am so grateful to be your teacher, I replied. “If you say I’m a great teacher, that is because you are all great teachers.”

And then there was silence. We all just sat there tacitly enjoying the moment, in which I felt beholden to the compassionate heart of Loris Malaguzzi and to my own path of becoming a Reggio-inspired teacher.

“Now can we eat our pretzels?” Diana asked with a huge happy grin.

“Yes!” I exclaimed. “But what about the pretzels we put in the cup?”

“Let’s take them out one at a time and eat them,” Layla said.

“But this time,” I added. “As we each take a pretzel, let’s say one word to describe how we feel.”

“Happy!” said, Mia and took out a pretzel.

“Encouraged,” said Caroline, and took out a pretzel.

“Like,” said Layla while pointing her finger at me.

“Thank you,” said Celine.

“Love,” said Chloe.

And so, we concluded our Friday afternoon in a place of happiness, feeling encouraged, showing gratitude, and sharing the love. I believe Mr. Malaguzzi would be proud of me. This afternoon everyone took another step deeper into the already strong sense of community we all feel at our school. Indeed, nothing that day was performed without joy.

 

The Restaurant

 

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“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

– Plato

“Hey Mr. Allen!” Danny (6 y/o) yelled from across the school yard. “Come look at what we built. We made a restaurant and you can eat anything you want!” He and his friends – all in my grade 1 class – were huddled in the corner of the playground.

“Ok!” I yelled. “I’m coming!” Toora noticed my approach and sprinted over to meet me. She was out of breath, panting with controlled patience, ready to reveal something inevitably amazing. “Mr. Allen, Mr. Allen, she said between breaths. “We have this amazing restaurant! You can have anything you want! What would you like to have? Do you want dumplings?”

“Well what else do you have?” I asked.

“Um, we have…any kinds of food you want. Just say something and I will go make it for you.”

Then Danny came dashing behind Toora and stopped in front of me. “Mr. Allen,” he said. “I’m a server, and we want to invite you to eat at our restaurant.”

I perceived Danny’s invitation as an excellent opportunity to join my little actors upon a stage of imaginative artistry – engineered and steered solely by the hearts and minds of these children. They choose who gets to participate in their world of fantasy, and they call the shots of how the play will go.  That’s just how it is, and that is how it ought to be. With permission to enter their sacred place of imaginative play, I walked in.

“Hmm,” I said with dramatic sobriety. “I don’t know, Toora. I was hoping to see a menu of some sort. I’m a pretty picky eater.”

Toora and Danny exchanged glances.  “Ok, wait right here, Mr. Allen,” Danny said. “I’ll be right back.” They ran away to confer with their colleagues. Danny returned with his entourage of restaurant staff: Mark, Natalie , Steve, and Robbie. “Come with me,” Danny said. “We have a menu prepared for you.”

On our way to the corner of the playground, Steve said, “I’m the manager of this restaurant. You can ask anyone who works here and they will tell you what we have. Please sit down. Someone will be with you soon.”

Natalie  escorted me to a lawn chair and said, “Here Mr. Allen, sit down and we will serve you some delicious food!”

Danny walked up to me holding a large green leaf, which he folded into the shape of an ice cream cone. He had filled the cone up with soil and stuck a few twigs into it.  “These are Hula Sticks,” Danny explained. “They retain you and help you stay hungry until the food comes.”

“Excellent! I’ll take a Hula Stick,” I said.  “What else do you have?”

“We have chicken and strawberry kabobs,” said Robbie. “Would you like one?”

“Yes,” I said. “But I would also like a vegetarian kebab with pineapple and watermelon.”

“Sorry, Mr. Allen, but we don’t have that,” Robbie said with a sympathetic frown. “But we do have vegetarian dumplings. Would you like a vegetarian dumpling?”

“Indeed I would, good sir!” I exclaimed.  “What else is on the menu?”

“Well we have this really great salad,” said Danny. Now Danny was holding a yogurt container filled with dirt. “The dirt is brown cheese,” he explained.  “It tastes just like blue cheese but it’s brown.”

“Brilliant!” I stammered. “I always wanted to eat brown cheese that tastes like blue cheese!”

“You should really have some dessert,”  said Robbie. “Our ice cream is organic. And it has toys on the bottom for little kids.”

“Toys on the bottom for little kids,” I echoed. “I would be delighted.”

“I am so satisfied with the food!,” I said loud enough for all the children to hear. Your restaurant rocks! And what perfect timing: I’ve just finished my dessert and it’s time to go back to the classroom for lunch!”

As the children ran off to eat,  remained back with me. She asked if I could give her a piggyback ride to the classroom. As always, I agreed. I knelt down low enough for her to hitch onto my back. On our way, we talked more about the restaurant. Natalie  informed me that their restaurant would be open again tomorrow, and that I was invited for a brand new menu of food. I told Natalie  to have a table ready for me at 12:30pm sharp. As I turned my head to catch Natalie ’s reaction, I saw her beaming with happiness. We walked the rest of the way in silence, tacitly sharing a feeling of closure to a wonderful journey that took place in a small nook of the playground.

In those 15 minutes of spontaneous role-play, I experienced my students shine in their element as little geniuses; as teachers who led me through a workshop on how to understand them through play.  The workshop taught me that to really understand a child is to pay attention to her calling to join in the fun, and when that invitation comes flying at you, offering the opportunity step into the child’s sacred space of the imagination, you say, “YES!”

Don’t Ever Give Up

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I remember the day in 6th grade when I nervously sat in the principal’s office at Miller Creek Middle School, awaiting the inevitable sentencing for some minor offense I’d committed during recess. When the principal finally came in, she caught me staring at a black and white sketch with the frog gripping to the bird’s throat pinned to her door. Ms. Shepard fixed her eyes on the same picture, and we both just studied it in silence. It was awkward. The school principal – my judge and jailer – inviting me to share some tacit truth about life.  Finally after a few moments of intolerable silence, she began to nod her head, and a wickedly mischievous grin broke out on her stone-cold white face.  “Allen,” she said. “You’d better learn something from this moment.” I remember the decisive intention in her voice. I had been expecting a blow from a fire-breathing dragon, but instead got a lesson in life from a caring teacher. I received a rather light sentence:  Two hours of garbage pick-up and a phone call to my parents letting them know I’d been a naughty bugger. Twenty years later that image of the frog holding on to dear life, the shared silence between Ms. Shepard and I, her advice that I’d best get my sh*t together and persevere in life. It all makes perfect sense to me now. Don’t Ever Give Up!

The Power of “I’m Sorry”

As an educator, I do my best to make emotional space in my heart for times when I have to apologize to my students for having done something I shouldn’t have done.  For example, my students already know that if I raise my voice, I apologize on the spot for creating an emotionally unsafe space for the kids.  And if I forget to apologize, I’m always reminded with remarks such as, “Um, Allen, you didn’t apologize for raising your voice.”  Then I end up apologizing for forgetting to apologize for raising my voice!  It’s all good fun, really.  

 

Today, Jerry (6 y/o) appropriately called me out for being a total bonehead because I undermined his intelligence.  Consequently I realized just how powerful and important it is for a teacher – given the appropriate circumstances – to practice humility by saying two golden phrases to a child:  “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.”

 

Here’s how it all went down.  My first graders and I were chilling in the school library, exploring books while lounging on the comfy bean bags and floor pillows.  I was reading a picture book to a few children who had crowded around me.  Once I finished the story, I made an announcement that it was time to head back to class for Writer’s Workshop.  As the children filed out, I jumped up on my feet and slammed my head on the low loft ceiling above.  “Ouch!” I shrieked.  The kids stared at me as I stood there holding my head in pain.  

“Are you ok, Allen?” the children sympathized.  

“Yes yes, I’m fine.  Let’s go upstairs for Writer’s Workshop.”

When we returned to the classroom, I reminded the children to make sure that books they checked out must go into the appropriate book bins of the classroom library.  I noticed Jerry putting a book about snakes into the wrong bin.

“Jerry, please check your book again,” I said.  “Is this a fiction or non fiction?”

Jerry completely ignored me and continued to place the snake book in the same bin.

“Jerry,” I persisted.  “Please rethink your decision.  This book is non-fiction.  Where does it go?”

Jerry stared at me in frustration, as if to say, “Allen, I know what I’m doing.  What is wrong with you?” Ignoring me again, he put the snake book in the same bin and waited for my move.  

“Sorry, dude,” I said shaking my head. “Try again. You have a non-fiction book and you’re putting it into the fiction bin.”

He refuted my claim again, this time shaking his head with resolute force. It seemed that Jerry and I were stuck in a debate with no apparent winner in site. But then Jerry went in for the kill, ending this debacle once and for all.  He put his finger directly under the “non” of the “non-fiction” label and said, “Um, Allen,  this is the non fiction bin.” I looked at the label again and indeed it was the non-fiction bin.  Jerry had been making the correct decision all along!  “Looks like Allen had a brain fart,” I thought to myself.  

Then Jerry said, “Please wait here, Allen, I have something that will help you.”  He ran off toward the bathroom and came back with a soaked paper towel.  “Here you go Allen.  Put this cold paper towel on your head where you got the bump.  This will help you take care of your brain since you didn’t know where the non-fiction books are supposed to go.”

“It’s ok, Allen,”  Jerry said.  His voice sang with empathy and care. “You just hit your head.  Your brain wasn’t working properly.”  Then he walked to his writing spot to wait for me to begin the writing lesson.  But I followed him, knelt down to one knee, looked him in the eyes, and said, “Jerry, I’m sorry for doubting you.  Thank you for your kindness.”  Jerry blushed and nodded his head in acceptance.  

I got up to my feet – slowly this time.  “Boys and girls, I’m glad to see you all gathered on the rug in your writing spots to begin today’s Writer’s Workshop…”  My eyes met Jerry’s.  He was still smiling at me, sitting tall and looking proud to be an excellent 6-year-old teacher.  I smiled back with gratitude for being his 33-year old student.