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Category: Teach Our Children Well

The Courage to Leave

The Courage to Leave

“If you ever find yourself in the wrong story,
leave.
(…unless you can change the story from within, of course. But if you can’t? Please leave, I beg of you.)”
-Elizabeth Gilbert

Well, I finally went ahead and did the thing I’d been terrified of doing for a very long time: I officially walked through the threshold that appeared so threatening and resigned from my teaching position.

Arch

I had been struggling with this dilemma for a few years. The scale finally tipped, and my inner knowing that it was the right thing to do outweighed my fear. I don’t know what’s next, but all the energy that went into “Should I or shouldn’t I?” is now freed up to figure that out. I feel a tremendous weight has been lifted. That weight is a double whammy called the Common Core and New York State’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) teacher evaluation system. Together, they have at least tripled both the teacher workload and the amount of testing young children are subjected to, and ultimately turned kindergarten into something unpalatable to my soul.

I apologize in advance for what will probably be a lengthy post. But I have a story to share and want to emphasize from the beginning that this decision was not made on a whim. I was passionate about teaching and had to work hard and overcome many obstacles to become a teacher. And I am not in a financial position to just quit my job.

I entered the teaching profession relatively late in life as a divorced mother of two, after staying home for several years to raise my children. Prior to having children, I had been working on an MSW degree, specializing in hospice care.  After becoming a mother, however, I was drawn to working with children and felt called to be a teacher. When my youngest child was in kindergarten, I began substituting in our local school district prior to pursuing a career in teaching. I had a long, complicated, expensive path ahead of me that involved obtaining a Masters degree, completing extra academic and internship requirements necessary for multiple teacher certifications, gaining experience, and finally landing a job in a highly competitive job market. The investment of time and money would be huge, but I knew I would have regrets if I didn’t pursue my dream. So I embarked on the long journey fueled by passion and focused on one step at a time so as not to be overwhelmed by the complexity and immensity of it.

There was a variety of unforeseen obstacles that I overcame along the way. For instance, in the middle of my graduate program, my ex-husband lost his job, and child support payments ceased. In order to proceed in the program (which that year consisted of a semester of full-time, unpaid student teaching), it was necessary for me to rely on student loans to cover basic living expenses. But I did it because I was passionate about teaching and anticipated it would be a lifelong career. One step at a time, I made my way towards my goal, not only for my own fulfillment but also to model to my children that when it comes to actualizing your dreams, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The day I was offered my teaching position was one of the happiest days of my life. I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week straight and was so excited I could barely sleep!

Eight years later, at nearly 50 years old, I have very little in savings. I do not have an inheritance of any sort. I do not receive child support. I do not have a spouse who carries health insurance, holds full-time employment, or has any kind of retirement plan. I do not have a nest egg or safety cushion. I need to generate income to pay the bills.

The fact that I left my job despite all that speaks volumes about how my career has changed in recent years.

I had been contemplating leaving for a few years and did a great deal of reflection to determine, beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether resigning was the right course of action. I inhabited that possibility all summer, trying it on for size to determine whether it was a choice I really could live with. Any time I imagined myself returning, I knew doing so was not a viable option. My work environment had become a desert with a hot, unrelenting sun beating down every day, and my soul had moved on in search of sustenance.

Over the past seven years, I have grown and learned so much as a kindergarten teacher. My life has been enriched by so many wonderful children, families, and colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of knowing. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to educate their children, share my knowledge and passion, and be a supportive, compassionate, creative – and hopefully inspiring – presence in their lives.

This June, I received a tremendous gift. During a quick trip to my car during my lunch break, I ran into more than half of the students from my very first (kindergarten) class. They were all dressed up for the Moving Up ceremony (which marked their transition from elementary school to junior high school), which would take place later that day. They ran around the playground in search of kindergarten classmates, and about a dozen students gathered around me and shared their favorite kindergarten memories. It filled my heart with joy to see the light in their eyes as they spoke of: the Eric Carle seahorse collages we made, our “Gingerbread Baby Travels the World” (multicultural celebrations) unit, retreating to the Peace Table, the interactive and artistic alphabet books we made, watching a monarch caterpillar transform into a butterfly, being the Star of the Week, and more. Many of them echoed what I’ve heard from numerous parents of former students through the years: That the book all their classmates contributed to during their “Star” week (to celebrate what is wonderful and unique about the Star student) remains one of their most cherished possessions. It has been a most incredible journey, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be a positive, nurturing force in the lives of so many children and families.

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So, what compelled me to resign after only seven years? To be candid, the way the Common Core has been implemented in my district at the kindergarten level conflicts with my core values and beliefs about early childhood education and has made it increasingly challenging to teach from my strengths and passions. As I expressed during my last post-observation meeting with my principal, I feel I’ve been working in an environment in which my talents, strengths, and passions are no longer valued. Kindergarten has become a whole new ballgame that differs radically from what I signed up for eight years ago. Veteran teachers insist that the decline began with No Child Left Behind, and I recall subbing for devoted teachers who returned from meetings in tears, distraught over foreboding changes that already were set in motion. Despite putting forth my best effort, I ultimately found it impossible to keep my passion alive in the new kindergarten culture. Working in an environment in which teachers’ professional experience and expertise was micromanaged, disregarded, and bypassed was demoralizing – and exacerbated by budget cuts and several changes in administration during the shift to the Common Core. Since I started teaching, we’ve had two principals and an interim principal, two superintendents and an interim superintendent, and two assistant principals (and a period during which that position was eliminated).

In my last formal observation, the evaluator entered my classroom unannounced in the midst of my most challenging student having a complete meltdown. Within a few minutes, I was able to calm her down enough to have her sit next to me as I taught a math lesson, and she followed along every single step of the way. That was an incredible accomplishment for this child, and it was completely unacknowledged in my observation write-up. This is an example of what is so disheartening and frustrating.

Early childhood educators are responsible for both teaching a more rigorous curriculum and keeping a handle on misbehavior that I believe is fueled by the more demanding expectations we now put on our youngest learners. When you are the only adult in a room of 20 or so kindergartners, and disruptive and/or dangerous children are sometimes not removed at all, or removed only for a brief time (i.e. 5-10 minutes) before returning to the classroom – only to repeat their disruptive and/or dangerous behavior – it is hard to adhere to the curriculum map. And that is what happens when school psychologist and classroom aide positions are reduced or eliminated due to budget cuts. Such lack of support becomes exhausting and demoralizing on a daily basis. It takes the wind out of your sails.

What looks good on paper and in theory often doesn’t hold up when real, live children are involved – especially when the policymakers and powers-that-be lack actual classroom or grade-level experience, and early childhood educators are required to do more with less, year after year.

For the past few years, I have felt like a fish out of water and have questioned how much longer I could continue. I realized it came down to making a choice between changing my mind and leaving my job. Prior to deciding on the latter, I tried in earnest – for years – to change from the inside. I attended conferences and enrolled in (self-funded) online courses aligned with my professional passions, values, and beliefs in hopes of reigniting my enthusiasm and finding ways to reconcile my personal and professional values with the new realities of public education. I returned to my classroom with renewed energy and optimism only to have them drained by the day-to-day, rigorous, and developmentally inappropriate demands of the Common Core.

So much that is important to me and that I believe is beneficial to children has fallen off the plate because it has been edged out by the Common Core curriculum and the excessive assessment that accompanies it and APPR. It became clear to me that I must leave in order to express and grow my soul.

I was thrilled to be appointed as a Kindness Club Advisor when the club began in 2012 because social-emotional learning is one of my greatest passions. However, it was anguishing to have to step down from that position because the workload resulting from the shift to the Common Core that year was so overwhelming.

Through 20 years of parenting and teaching experience, observation, and study, I have developed a personal philosophy of education concerning the nature of childhood and the importance of play and developmentally appropriate practices. I included my philosophical statement on my teaching résumé. Here are two excerpts:

The ultimate purpose of schooling is to cultivate the whole human being. School is a place for developing intellectual and technical abilities along with the social-emotional factors, creativity, and strength of character necessary to use them wisely.

Ideally the end product of education is an individual who loves to learn and is engaged with life, and in whom the healthy seed of self-respect has blossomed into respect for others and an attitude of social and ecological responsibility.

I believe early childhood education should focus on the whole child and be developmentally appropriate. Pushing an accelerated curriculum down to kindergartners can be detrimental to children who, for example, are not ready to read at age four or five. It saddens me that recent public education mandates have raised the academic bar so much higher for kindergartners, and as a result there is little tolerance for the natural developmental rhythms of diverse learners who come to kindergarten with a wide range of background knowledge and exposure. I always told parents at the beginning of each school year that my primary goals for their children are for them to enjoy coming to school, to love learning, and to feel good about themselves. And yet, even in kindergarten, teachers are required to identify children who are not meeting grade level benchmarks and provide them with intervention services designed to accelerate their learning so they will catch up by the end the year and be where they are expected to be.

Although I agree – and have seen for myself – that children are often capable of more than we may imagine and are able to meet higher standards when the bar is raised, I am concerned that this approach may diminish the self-esteem of youngsters who are struggling. Some children are ready for the new, more demanding and accelerated kindergarten curriculum, but others are not. I showered my students with empathy and compassion, and still, those lagging behind were aware that they were not measuring up and felt bad about themselves. It breaks my heart to see children break down and cry because they are not able to perform at the level that is now required of them…and they know they’re not measuring up, no matter how much I try to ease the pressure and emphasize their strengths. I worry about future, unintended consequences (i.e. stress-related illness, drop-outs) stemming from this early push to achieve and don’t want to be part of a system that I believe, in my heart of hearts, is harmful to young children. I aspire to work in an environment that respects professional experience and expertise and offers greater freedom to honor and trust children’s developmental rhythms rather than pressure them to perform at a level that might not be appropriate for their developmental rhythm.

Given what I have explained above, it seemed quite clear that the most responsible and honest action was for me to move on to new opportunities that more fully embrace and utilize my particular skills, talents, and values and make room for an educator whose principles and philosophies about early childhood education are better aligned with the direction the school district has been heading in recent years.

And so it was with a heavy heart and a strong inner knowing that I submitted my official resignation letter last week.

Now all my personal teaching possessions are stacked in a storage unit. It saddens me to take inventory of all the materials I made and purchased with my own money to facilitate joyful engagement and provide authentic teaching that honors and inspires young learners. This includes a library of literally thousands of children’s books and materials that have gathered dust for the past few years because they have been muscled out of the curriculum by “non-negotiables” and time-consuming assessment.

collagestorage

As word got around, I received an outpouring of communication from parents of former students who expressed gratitude for the special connection I had with their children, the seeds I planted in them, the confidence I instilled in them, and how I awakened them to the beauty and wonder of nature. They also expressed sadness for their younger children and all the other children who will miss “such an amazing experience and journey through kindergarten with you.” They said I’m one of those “special teachers” who entered the profession for the right reasons at a most unfortunate time. I believe the relationship between student and teacher is the true curriculum, and these parents expressed gratitude for elements that can’t be measured but are ultimately more important than any test score. They knew I loved their children as if they were my own, that I listened to what was on their mind, and celebrated their special strengths that often weren’t represented on report cards – just as my special strengths as an educator were absent from observation checklists. No rubrics can measure what is ultimately most important in the student-teacher and home-school relationship.

People who know me best have unanimously expressed joy that I finally had the courage to follow my heart’s wisdom and release myself from something that weighed so heavily on my soul and compromised my well-being. They expressed relief that they will not have to continue witnessing me being tortured by anxiety and returning to a broken system that is driving out many of the best teachers. A system that, instead of backing up teachers, reprimands them severely and accuses them of “stirring the pot” when they act with integrity and look out for a student’s health by sharing relevant information with a concerned parent.

For a couple days after submitting my resignation letter, I was thrilled that I finally had the faith and courage to follow my heart and leave what had become a poor fit. Then I felt angry. Angry that it had to come to this. Angry that politicians hijacked the career I felt so passionate about, taking children and teachers hostage. Angry that (as another colleague put it) something I was so passionate about was squished and torn right out of my soul.

And sad. Sad for the former students who would come to my room first thing in the morning for a few kind words, a hug, and a smile only to learn that I’m no longer there. Sad that I won’t have the chance to get to know a lovely little girl who would have been in my class this year and whose sister had been in my class three years ago. (I hadn’t seen my class list prior to resigning, but her family had received the letter, and her mother sent me a lovely, heartfelt message that hit me hard.) Sad for all the other children I wouldn’t have a chance to fall in love with and nurture this year.

But below the anger and sadness was a much greater, abiding sense of peace at my core.

When I was floating in my kayak on the river earlier today, I visualized myself teaching in an environment that is not bound to APPR and the Common Core – and felt hope arise in me. An environment that honors and educates the whole child. A holistic environment in which the arts, social-emotional learning, awareness and mindfulness, and nature are integrated uncompromisingly throughout the curriculum. I know such schools exist because I have been in the presence of teachers who work in them. When I attended a conference recently, I was blown away by what some innovative schools are doing and how they prioritize and weave into the curriculum uncompromisingly all that is in alignment with my heart and soul. Hearing these educators and administrators describe their schools with such love and gratitude brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my soul…and propels me onward.

And so a new journey begins.

© 2015 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness mentor whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Creating Board Games Based on Children’s Literature

Creating Board Games Based on Children’s Literature

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is sharing quality literature with children – which is rooted in positive, engaging experiences I had reading and discussing books with my own children. When my daughter and son were in elementary school, they rarely were seen without books in their hands. They toted them around wherever they went. When my son was five, he began creating movie posters and sequels based on favorite books. It was something he loved to do! Some of my favorite family memories revolved around J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series. My daughter began reading the series  when she was in third grade and introduced us to the first movie, which got us hooked. From then on, we spent summers anticipating the release of a new book or movie in the series. We completed the series through a combination of reading aloud and listening to audiobooks together.

Following the release of the fifth book, we created a Harry Potter Monopoly board game as a family project just for fun. But it could have been a great school project, as well. Creating a literature-based board game is a creative alternative to the standard book report. Comprehension can be demonstrated through the creation of questions written on cards, directions located on the board, and/or illustrations. For example, cards and game spaces could reference positive events that move a player forward and negative events that set a player back. Creating a board game also can be a means of reinforcing lessons in social studies, science, and math, and integrating technology. It even could be an alternative form of autobiography. The level of technology used in creating a board game can be varied according to factors such as student capabilities and home or classroom resources.

The rather involved and high-tech process of creating our Harry Potter game touched upon numerous learning standards for English Language Arts (ELA); Math, Science, and Technology; and the Arts. This post will describe in detail instructions for creating board games from books. It also will describe the specific procedures involved in designing our Harry Potter Monopoly game.

Choosing a Theme and Format

Materials:

  • Store-bought board games

After reading the book, the first step in creating your own game is to choose a theme. The rich details in the Harry Potter series offer endless possibilities. However, virtually any book or series that appeals to a child could be incorporated into a game. For example, picture books written by Eric Carle or Jan Brett are well suited to the basic Candyland format.

It goes without saying that there are many different kinds of board games. The next step is to examine a number of pre-existing games. Consider theme, rules, design, and whether they are based on skill, chance, cooperation, or a combination. After comparing and contrasting a few different games, you can begin thinking about what kind of game you would like to create. We chose to create a Monopoly game, which is a fairly complicated undertaking. However, simpler formats could be based on examples such as Candyland, Slides and Ladders, Trivial Pursuit, or Sorry.

Designing the Layout

Materials: 

  • Paper (larger is better)
  • Pencils, pens, makers, and/or crayons

After selecting a format and a theme, it’s time to design the board by sketching a rough version on a piece of paper. For example, you could create a meandering design like Candyland or a grid of squares like Chutes and Ladders.

Game templates (click to view and/or download)

This step might involve some mathematical computations, in order to create evenly sized spaces or determine how many spaces can fit. Now is not the time to make a final version of your game board. It is best to wait until the rest of the materials have been created so you can test it out to see if it really works.

We examined our store-bought Monopoly game and plotted the individual spaces on our Harry Potter board by identifying significant locations and innovations mentioned in the books. After reading the fifth book in the series, we decided on the following color-coded spaces:

Purple: Wizard Chess, Quidditch

Light blue: Privet Drive, The Burrow, Grimmauld Place

Magenta: Platform 9 ¾, The Leaky Cauldron (pub/bed and breakfast), Eeylops Owl Emporium

Orange: Flourish & Blotts (bookstore), Madam Malkins’ Robes for All Occasions, Ollivander’s (wand shop)

Red: The Three Broomsticks (pub), Zonko’s Joke Shop (had we made the game after reading subsequent books, this would have been Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes) , Honeydukes (sweets shop)

Yellow: The Infirmary, The Library, Slytherin House

Green: Hufflepuff House, Ravenclaw House, Gryffindor House

Dark blue: Dumbledore’s Study, Ministry of Magic

There also were four spaces related to transportation (Hogwarts Express, The Knight Bus, Portkey, and Floo Powder) and two related to magical inventions (Invisibility Cloak and Time Turner). There were two special spaces: Snape’s Dungeon (lose a turn) and Lab Fee (make a payment). There were three Trivia Challenge spaces and three Chance spaces. When a player lands on these spaces, he or she chooses either a Trivia Challenge or Chance card (described below). The four corner spaces were: “Go” (collect money), Azkaban (jail), Free Parking, and “Go to Azkaban.”

Creating Cards

Materials:     

  • White cardstock or blank, unlined index cards
  • Scissors and/or a paper cutter
  • Stamps, stickers, pens, colored pencils, or crayons (low tech version)
  • Ink jet printer, page layout or drawing program, Internet access, browser, and clip art (high tech version)

Cards are an optional but effective means to demonstrate comprehension and incorporate the book’s events into the game. Blank index cards work well. They can be used whole or cut in half. First, write questions or statements on the front of the card. You could include positive events that move a player forward and negative events that set a player back. Then decorate the back with stamps, stickers, simple drawings that are easily reproduced, or even digital images.

If you decide not to use cards, directions and/or illustrations on the game board can serve the same purpose. For example, you could write directions on individual spaces that reflect events in the book. One (Winnie-the-Pooh related) example could be: “Tigger is stuck in a tree; go back three spaces.”

Here is an example of a Simple Board Game Template.

Our Harry Potter Monopoly game required two sets of cards. First, we created “Trivia Challenge” cards. For these, we came up with multiple-choice format questions about characters, places, and events in the books. This activity was rather time-consuming; we ended up with 250 cards and could have kept going! We started by writing the questions on index cards but then decided to give them a more “professional” appearance by putting them into a desktop publishing program, with 15 cards per sheet. (Correct answers were indicated in purple ink.) After formatting all of our comprehension questions, I searched for and then downloaded a whimsical PDF image of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I used the image to create a design to be printed on the back of the cards. Finally, I printed the cards on cardstock, front and back, and we cut them to size.

HP Trivia cards

After completing the set of Trivia Challenge cards, we made “Chance” cards with Harry Potter scenarios and consequences that involved going to a certain space on the board or paying or receiving money. This was fun for everyone. A couple examples we came up with were: “You came out in the wrong fireplace; go back 3 spaces” and, “Snape caught you wandering the corridor at night; advance to Snape’s Dungeon (but don’t collect any money for passing ‘Go’).” After creating about 50 of these cards, I designed a back, printed the cards on cardstock, and then we cut them out.

HP chance cards

Creating Game Pieces

Materials (choose one of the following):

  • Flattened marbles (in different colors)
  • Small, polished stones with or without stickers
  • Light cardboard (cereal box weight) and pens and/or pictures and glue
  • Small, dull stones, Mod Podge, glitter, a small paintbrush, and small photos or other images
  • Any other small objects

Almost any small objects can be used for game pieces. The most important considerations are that they can fit on the board spaces and be easily distinguished from one another. You can make a simple game piece by putting a sticker onto a smooth stone. Or you could make a simple cardboard game piece by drawing a picture or design on a small piece of light cardboard. (Alternatively, you could glue a picture or photo onto the cardboard.) Cut out the game piece. Next, cut a ½” rectangle from the same kind of cardboard. Cut a slit in the middle of the rectangle, going halfway through. Also cut a slit of the same length in the bottom of the playing piece, and fit the two pieces together to create a standing figure. Or simply save game pieces from commercial games.

We made magical game pieces out of small, smooth stones. First, I downloaded and printed images of several of the most prominent Hogwarts students onto plain white paper. For a low-tech alternative, children could draw and label their own characters on paper, cut out Harry Potter character images from print ads, or use stickers. We carefully cut around the images and then decoupaged the images onto the stones using Mod Podge mixed with a bit of fine glitter. We applied three coats of the Mod Podge and allowed the stones to dry between coats. Once the final coat dried, we had magically sparkling, beautiful, and durable game pieces.

HP game pieces

Printing Currency (for Harry Potter Monopoly)

Materials:

  • White cardstock
  • Internet access
  • Ink jet printer
  • Scissors

We decided that our Harry Potter Monopoly game could be played either with regular Monopoly money or wizard money. Conveniently, the Harry Potter section of the Activity Village Web site (http://www.activityvillage.co.uk/harry_potter_coins.htm) contained free downloads of galleons, sickles, and knuts. I printed out several sheets of all three kinds of wizard currency, on white cardstock. Then we cut out the coins. We had to make lots of them! It became clear that players could accumulate ridiculous amounts of galleons (the largest coin) during the game, so we decided to use regular Monopoly $50, $100, and $500 bills to represent 50, 100, and 500 galleons, respectively.

HP money

Creating Mortgage Cards (for Monopoly)

Materials:

  • Page layout or drawing program
  • Ink jet printer
  • White cardstock
  • Colored pencils or crayons

To make mortgage cards, I returned to the file in which I created board spaces. I enlarged the spaces, eliminated the images, and listed the rental amounts. There is actually a “dollars to galleons” converter on my favorite Harry Potter website, and I determined rental amounts by using the regular Monopoly properties as a guide. We decided to include both dollar and wizard currency amounts on the mortgage cards. This fairly time-consuming step was one I did on my own. After printing the mortgage cards, we colored them in manually with colored pencils because we liked the effect.

DSCF4878

Testing the Game

Before making the final version, it is highly recommended that you test the game by playing it a few times. That way, you can discover what elements need to be changed, eliminated, or added in order to make it work better. Refrain from making the final version until you have it just how you want it.

Before testing the game, it’s good to talk about how to help the creator(s) of the game by providing kind and constructive criticism. For example, you could establish a rule that before someone suggests an improvement, he or she must say one good thing about the game. Suggestions must be useful and neither critical nor hurtful. In the end, the creator(s) of the game has the final say.

When we tested our Harry Potter game, we found it cumbersome to work with a large amount of galleons, so we decided to also use regular Monopoly $10 and $20 bills to represent 10 and 20 galleons. We also realized that, depending on the age, math ability, and attention level of the players, using three types of wizard coins might slow down the game too much. Therefore, we added an option to use only galleons (the coin with the highest value). If players decide to use only galleons, they would also determine whether or not to round sickles to the nearest galleon. For example, if there are 17 sickles in a galleon and the cost of a given property is 20 galleons, 12 sickles, and 18 knuts, players could decide to simply consider the price to be 20 galleons, or to go an extra step and round the number of sickles up or down to the nearest galleon. In this case, 12 sickles would be rounded up, making the price 21 galleons.

We also realized that we needed to spell out on an instruction sheet the number of knuts in a sickle and the number of sickles in a galleon. In addition, we had to determine a realistic reward for answering a Trivia Challenge question correctly. Finally, we found it necessary to designate in writing the number of coins and bills players would receive at the beginning of the game.

 Constructing the Game Board

Recommended materials:

  • Corrugated cardboard, illustration board, a cereal box (unfolded and trimmed), or an old, unwanted game board
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Scissors
  • Poster paper or tag board
  • Elmer’s glue and paintbrush
  • Permanent markers (Sharpies work well)

Optional materials:

  • Double-sided tape or spray adhesive
  • Wrapping paper, mulberry paper, etc.
  • Stickers
  • Clear contact paper
  • Waxed paper
  • Magazine photos
  • Paint
  • Felt
  • Colored paper
  • Aluminum foil

You can be as creative as you want with this step—though simpler tends to be better. In general, games are easier to play when the board is less cluttered. Begin by sketching the design using a pencil and a ruler. You could draw directly on cardboard, draw on poster paper and then glue the paper to the board, and/or cover the board by gluing wrapping paper or mulberry paper all around it. You could paint the board; glue on felt shapes, colored paper, or foil; draw on the board with permanent markers; create a collage out of magazine or book illustrations; or create designs, logos, etc. using a computer. To better preserve the board, consider laminating it with clear contact paper. (If you are drawing on poster paper that will be glued to the board, laminate the poster paper prior to gluing.) Make sure that the spaces are large enough for the game pieces to fit on them. We found that cutting the board in half is an easier alternative to creating a board that folds. If you use glue, you can prevent warping by wrapping the board(s) in waxed paper and pressing them overnight (or longer) under a stack of heavy books.

To make our Harry Potter game, I formatted the spaces in Quark Xpress (desktop publishing software), using the regular Monopoly board as a guide. This was the most time-consuming step. It involved searching the Internet for free and appropriate clip art to download. (Alternatively, children’s drawings could be used.) Images for the board spaces were comprised of: chapter illustrations from the books, stills from the Harry Potter movies, and general clip art found on teacher Web sites.

After selecting images for all of the spaces, I converted U.S. dollars to wizard currency with the help of The Harry Potter Lexicon Wizarding World Currency Converter. At the bottom of each of the spaces, I listed a price for that “property” both in wizard money and dollars to give players some flexibility about which kind of currency they want to use in any given game. After listing all of the prices (using the regular Monopoly board as a guide), the game spaces were ready to be printed onto cardstock and cut to size. We printed the game pieces with the colors at the top of the spaces already filled in and decided we didn’t like the way they looked. So we printed the game pieces a second time, leaving the color rectangles empty, and then colored them in ourselves with colored pencils. We all agreed that the colored pencil effect looked much better.

To assemble the game board, we lined up all of the spaces on a large piece of illustration board to make sure everything fit together all right. I cut the board in half (for more convenient storage) and used Elmer’s glue to cover each half with dark green mulberry paper embellished with gold threads. Next, we glued decorations to the center of the board (spaces for the Trivia and Chance cards, game logo, the Hogwarts shield, an illustration of Harry, and gold stars). Then I carefully arranged the game spaces onto clear contact paper (with the front of the game spaces against the sticky side of the contact paper), put glue on the back of the game spaces, attached the contact paper to the game board (making sure that the spaces lined up precisely), smoothed the contact paper down, and trimmed the edges. To prevent the board from warping, we individually wrapped both halves in waxed paper and pressed them under piles of books for 24 hours.

DSCF4866

Packaging and Storing

Materials:     

  • Shoe box or larger box
  • Permanent markers
  • Rubber bands
  • Ziplock bags
  • Small tin container (such as Altoids; optional) or fabric pouch

The final step is to organize and package all of the parts to the game. To keep the game intact, you’ll want to rubber-band cards together and keep game pieces and other paraphernalia in plastic ziplock bags and/or small tin containers. If you can’t find a box large enough for storing the game board, then store everything but the game board in a shoebox, and rubber-band the board to the shoebox, or just keep the board and shoebox next to each other. In a classroom setting, it’s preferable to store the board inside the box if at all possible. Decorate the box so it can be identified clearly. When the game and packaging is complete, the game can become part of the classroom resources for indoor recess or center time, or an addition to your family’s game library. Students or siblings can exchange their games with one another and enjoy playing one anothers’ games.

In our case, we rubber-banded the three sets of cards (Trivia Challenge, Chance, and mortgage) separately. Then we put the three different kinds of “coins” into ziplock bags. We stored game pieces and dice in a revamped Altoids tin. First, we created a “Game Pieces” label for the top of the tin. We laminated the label with wide tape and then attached it to the tin with double-sided tape. Then we measured and hot-glued a piece of felt to the inner, bottom surface of the tin to make a nice cushion for the game pieces. We stored everything (cards, money, game pieces) in a shoebox. We sometimes used glass jewels for hotels and tiny, colored pebbles (fish tank gravel) for houses. Other times, we used the regular Monopoly houses and hotels for our Harry Potter Monopoly set, but left them in the regular Monopoly set until they were needed.

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Conclusion

For our family, the process of creating a Harry Potter Monopoly game was much more involved than we initially anticipated. However, my children got to practice a variety of skills, had a great time demonstrating their comprehension of the Harry Potter book series, and were obviously proud of the way it turned out. The finished product was a beautiful, one-of-a-kind game that everyone was eager to play.

PlayingGame

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Right Angle

The Right Angle

Yesterday afternoon, I walked my kindergarten students to their buses with a spring in my step – for once the buses pulled away, Winter Recess began! It was a blue sky day, and my first order of business was to take my camera exploring! I needed to do this not only because it is my passion, but also because I needed desperately to unwind from a very high energy day at work. The persistent misbehavior of some of the children throughout the course of the week had managed to drain my energy, and I needed to recharge my battery.

I had no specific destination in mind, although river and mountains were calling to me. I headed east along the Battenkill River toward the Vermont border and was dazzled by the scenic, snow-dusted Green Mountains in the distance, which stood out vividly against the backdrop of clear, blue sky.

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I breathed in the stability of the mountains and the beauty of the view – and felt serenity wash over me. Healed by nature, once again!

On a whim, I followed a road leading to the Rexleigh Covered Bridge that connects the towns of Salem and Jackson, New York. Whether in the form of barns, cardinals, this bridge, or other structures, I find the contrast of red against a snowy landscape dramatic and compelling.

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After a chilly photo shoot, I headed back down the road and noticed a baby evergreen tree growing along the side of the road. The sun was shining on it just right, and it captivated my attention. As I drove slowly past the tree, the angle of sunlight changed, and the tree didn’t look so extraordinary.

It occurred to me that, in terms of photography, circumstances, and people, the right angle makes all the difference. Thinking of my challenging students (and how their behavior affects my energy and attitude toward my work), it seems important to regard them from a more flattering angle, in order to really connect with them. If I go to work dreading having to manage persistent behaviors or feel my energy being sucked out the instant a certain child walks through the door, it means I haven’t yet found that angle – or that I’ve lost sight of it. If I am not connecting with the child’s light – his or her highest good – then I’m not engaging the magic. The child’s needs are not met, and he or she doesn’t shine. Neither do I.

In contrast, I recall how children’s faces light up when I present them with a cardboard star ornament painted their favorite color. In the center of the star, I print the child’s name, and on each of the five points, I write one lovely quality I see in the child (for a total of five). It is a joy to see my students beam as they gaze at the special star in their hands. The same thing happens when I give them a “What We Like About (You)” book written and illustrated by their classmates. I truly believe that when we see people from their most favorable angle and connect with their inner light, we help them to shine. Doing so makes real understanding, communication, and relationship possible. If you don’t feel an outpouring of love and compassion toward someone, you probably have not yet found that angle.

The same is true for circumstances. With effort, we can change the way we perceive a circumstance or situation. It’s not always necessary to change the circumstance. Oftentimes, changing the way we see it makes a critical difference. Therefore, when we have a negative attitude toward our circumstances, I believe it is useful to reflect on whether there is a more positive, empowering way to perceive them. And if we’re honest with ourselves, chances are the answer is yes.

How easy it is to fall under the spell of certain thoughts which might not serve us. Thoughts are not truths. They are like angles of light based on our position relative to the various external elements of our life. They are not the light itself. We must choose them wisely, as a photographer considers lighting in composing a photograph.

This is what the baby evergreen taught me as I drove by it.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Schoolhouse Rocks

Schoolhouse Rocks

It was an awesome day in kindergarten. I couldn’t hold out any longer. Today was the day to introduce the youngest generation to stone balance art. I didn’t plan to do it. But all of a sudden, the moment felt right, and I seized it. I use humor a lot in my teaching and have a running joke with my students that when they don’t follow our rules and make it difficult for me to do my job, I sometimes start dreaming about becoming a princess or a rock star. This morning, I decided to explain what I mean by “rock star.”

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During our Morning Meeting, I turned on the SMART Board, opened my Flickr album of Stone Balance Art, and showed them some of my balances. They started oohing and ahhing and wondered how I was able to balance the rocks so precariously. They were amazed to learn that stones they assumed must have fallen immediately remained balanced for a couple days. Then we sat in a circle on the carpet, and I took out my basket of beach rocks.

I explained that the rock basket is our newest indoor play center and that they can either arrange, stack, or (if they want a real challenge) balance rocks. Then I demonstrated each, beginning with arranging rocks in a spiral pattern – for arranging is about lining up stones to make shapes, patterns, or pictures. I also showed them how to stack the rocks by laying them flat, one on top of the other like a tower. Finally, I modeled how to concentrate on balancing stones on their ends and then ever so carefully placing more stones on top.

A couple basic ground rules to begin with were:

  1. No throwing rocks.
  2. Be careful not to knock down anyone’s rocks.

I also explained that rocks will fall, and that’s okay. Just start over again, and it will be even better the second time. When the rocks fall, it means you were trying something difficult and learning what does and doesn’t work. No big deal. I explained that eventually all of the balances I photographed fell down but that pictures make them last forever – and that if they create a balance they are proud of, I will photograph it and put it on our class website.

What I didn’t tell them is that every time you try to balance rocks and they topple before you’re done, you have a golden opportunity to transform failure into resilience. Every time you choose to keep trying, you strengthen your resilience response, and that is one of the most crucial life skills you could develop in any classroom. Failure is permanent only when you stop trying as a result. Learning to fail without giving up is essential practice for life.

When it was playtime at the end of the day, a number of students went straight for the rocks. They got right to work and within minutes approached me with great excitement and asked me to come see what they had made.

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I was every bit as excited as they were. After taking a few pictures, I invited them over to my computer to look at what other stone balance artists have created. We explored the portfolio on Michael Grab’s Gravity Glue website, and they were blown away. They seemed so interested and excited, asked questions, and commented on what they liked most about the pictures. There are so many talented members of the international stone balancing community, and I intend to expose my students to a variety of artists and styles, to inspire their creativity.

They returned to their work and called me over a few more times to see and photograph their stone art.

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Genuinely thrilled, I complimented their work. They seemed so proud. They were beaming. They worked cooperatively, and everyone was careful not to knock over anyone’s stones.

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At dismissal time, as I walked the children to their buses, one boy who had called me over several times to see his stone art looked up at me and announced, “I’m going to miss you.” I told him that I will miss him, too, but we will see each other in the morning. But I understood what he really was trying to say: Thank you for noticing and valuing me. He felt good about himself. Every year during our Open House night, I tell parents that although my job is to teach the Common Core curriculum, my overarching objective is to help their children feel good about themselves and love coming to school. For that little boy, balancing stones served that purpose today.

For some it is art. For others, music or sports. The list goes on. As an early childhood educator, it’s the best feeling in the world to see a child light up with pride and passion. Ideally, my role is to provide the materials and a dose of inspiration and then stand back and and allow their natural curiosity and creativity to lead the way and amaze me. The best days in my classroom are the days when I’m able to create the space and time to be truly amazed.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

First Day of School

First Day of School

Today was the first day of school with my new crop of (mostly male) kindergartners. By the end of the day, my voice was shot, but I felt mighty tall – something I only experience in my classroom! And so a new year begins.

This year, I’m working with several families I’ve worked with before, and it was heartwarming during our “Meet the Teacher” open house yesterday to hear older siblings up to sixth grade who are former students of mine sit down at the art table and reminisce about kindergarten. They remembered the most surprising things. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall last night listening to them prepare their little brothers and sisters for their first day of kindergarten.

As for me, I reread a couple poems I wrote when my youngest child started kindergarten, to remind myself that – despite all the ways in which early childhood education has changed since then – sending a child to kindergarten is still a big deal for parents. The first poem, “Five,” was written a few months before my son (who is now learning to drive) started kindergarten and originally was published in the March/April 2004 issue of Mothering magazine.

Five

Sacred season of frog pond,
humming and mommy time
appreciates dandelions three-fold
with fistfuls of I-love-you bouquets,
proud salads of tender, hand-picked greens
(despite their bitterness),
and seed fairies blown into the wind.
He digs, snuggles, makes books
(humming all the while),
relentlessly searches for lilacs
to grace the kitchen table.

Budding scientist employs sticks, nets,
stones and containers as tools
of observation and exploration;
young monk sits straight, cultivating
meditative awareness of an anthill.
He plants peach pits,
stops to smell flowers,
cares for salamanders, frogs and insects
yet is fearful of bullfrogs and snakes
(who have no place in this pond).

Five dwells in the realm
of imagination and possibility,
bonds with the living, breathing world.
He creates fairy houses,
constructs the perfect train track,
names the pair of robins who
frequent our yard,
always enjoys a campfire.

Five is precious like a late autumn day
sunny and warm with clear blue sky
when a new season beckons.
Though winter silences the voices
of crickets, birds and frogs,
I beg Six
and school teachers
to spare the sweet songs
he hums throughout the day.

He says, “But I’ll always
be like I am, when I’m six and seven
and eight and nine and ten…
and twenty-eight and—what comes
after twenty-eight?”
Gratefully, I smile
as Five continues counting.

© Susan Meyer 2003

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The next poem was written during his first week of school…when I wasn’t in a punctuating mood.

First Day of School

bit of scarlet in the treetops
bit of silver glistening in my hair
bit of chill in the morning breeze
as a season draws to an end

summer was sprinkled with showers
of anticipatory grief
crying at the drop of a hat
at the thought of him going
to kindergarten

the first day of school
we walked together to his classroom
bypassing the dreaded school bus goodbye
that left a trail of mothers’ tears
all along our road

I handed him off to a woman
with a beautiful smile
who remembered his name
all I needed was the bridge formed
by looking into her eyes
and beseeching her, without words
to please take good care
of this precious boy
who already felt at home

tearlessly I walked away
returned to a quiet house
and cleaned the morning dishes
no small shadows
following me around
asking how to spell words
or begging to go to the library
feeling as if I were missing
an appendage

he bounced off the bus
jubilant about his day
eager to ride the bus in the morning
and sure enough
he was dressed and ready
first thing in the morning
so as not to miss it
he is well attached and ready

along the sidewalk, mothers
wearing tee-shirts and ponytails
push strollers,
nourish hearts, souls, and bodies
without wristwatches

some look tired, expressions
of marathon days, diaper changes,
tantrums, lack of privacy and solitude,
moments of sheer exhaustion
when a poorly timed spill triggers
a full-fledged breakdown

some look serene, expressions
of the perfectly timed kiss
that replenishes and brings you back;
innocent, kind words; new milestones;
gracious belly laughs

how many times have grandmothers
and mothers of older children
babbled to me with that knowing look
about how quickly time passes?
now I have arrived at the other side
of this first crossing
I am one of them

now there is time
to begin where I left off
time to launch a career,
make phone calls and appointments,
think uninterrupted thoughts,
sit down to meditate,
entertain new possibilities

bit of scarlet in the treetops
bit of silver glistening in my hair
bit of chill in the morning breeze
yesterday’s eternal season
has drawn to an end
like a flash of lightning
in the summer sky

© Susan Meyer 2003

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mindfulness and Education at Omega

Mindfulness and Education at Omega

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
-John Lennon, “Imagine”

I recently spent three days at Omega Institute for the sixth annual Mindfulness and Education Conference: Bringing Mindfulness to Children Grades K-12. I had wanted to attend the conference for the past few years but this year received a full scholarship that finally made it possible. My guess is that about 300 people attended the conference, and it was powerful to gather with that many like-minded educators who value holistic education, social-emotional learning, and mindfulness. Actually, I’ve never experienced anything like it! I have a few friends online who teach in schools committed to a holistic approach to education, and the college from which I received my master’s degree offers a holistic, student-centered educational experience and a faculty that attracts a diverse and alternative-minded student body. One faculty member literally “wrote the book” (several, actually) on holistic, progressive, and alternative education. It’s been eight years since I completed the program, and it was my last experience of being in community with so many like-minded educators until going to Omega this summer. For the past few years, I have felt like a fish out of water in the current educational environment and have questioned how much longer I can continue in the profession. I attended the conference hoping to connect with kindred spirits and to be inspired.

Buddha outside Ram Dass Library, Omega Institute

A passion for social-emotional learning brought me to the teaching profession in the first place. After trying to implement the MindUP curriculum in my classroom for the past three years with limited success, I was in need of practical suggestions. Is it possible to implement such a curriculum successfully without support, given the present realities of public education? How do you fit it into an already packed school day?

Keynote speakers included Jack Kornfield, Amishi Jha, and Daniel Rechtschaffen. Social-emotional learning expert, Linda Lantieri, also was scheduled to present but was unable to attend due to health issues. I took so many notes at the conference, and there is so much I want to share! I am organizing this post around the ideas that stood out the most for me, indicated in bold. Clicking on the numerous hyperlinks included throughout the text will provide you with a wealth of information about mindfulness in education if you are are interested in learning more about it. I’m also including a list of book recommendations at the end.

The major understandings and inspirations I took away from the conference are as follows:

Mindfulness must be wed with compassion.

It’s not mindfulness unless it’s also heartfulness! Teach children to discover their worth, to value one another, to befriend themselves. Honor them by holding a beam of love and understanding. Teach them not only how to calm their minds and focus their attention but also how to be wise and loving beings.

Mindfulness and compassion training should not be something you’re forced to do but an invitation to well-being. It is a process of paying kind attention. The teaching of mindfulness and compassion is not religious; it promotes the development of universal human values, or what H. H. the Dalai Lama refers to as secular ethics. It is about teaching children and teachers to train their mind, regulate their emotions, and be more loving and compassionate.

Establish the classroom as a place of mindfulness, for tending and befriending ourselves. Consider beginning mindfulness exercises with a bell or a poem. Depending on the needs and energy of the group, there are times when sitting, walking, or heart practices are best.

Trace thoughts and feelings to the body.

Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings must be traced to the body – to where you feel them. One way to practice this with children is to put your hand in the air (where the thoughts are), and trace thoughts down the arm to the part of the body they’re attached to. The first step is to notice the thoughts and track down to the sensations in the body. The next step is to bring self-care to the body. Our body needs so much love and compassion when our head is spinning!

I realized that I tend to live in my head. Since the conference, I have reminded myself to drop down into my body, and it is a powerful practice! I did this once in a doctor’s office when I was in the midst of my “white coat” anxiety habit (in which my body seems to have a mind of its own), and the results were quite profound. Another time, I was awakened during the night by a thunderstorm, and immediately my mind started spinning. It was right after the conference, and my mind was trying to make sense of why I experienced such an emotional response to the conference. (More about that later.) Within a few minutes, my mind had created a tidy theory and was quite pleased to have wrapped it up so nicely. But there still was tension in my body. Then I remembered to sink into my body and practice mindfulness – to feel the sensations and hold them in kindness and compassion. A storm had come along, and I got caught up in a whirlwind of thought for a while, until I remembered and practiced – and quieted my mind. A couple hours later, I was awakened by another clap of thunder, and my immediate response was to practice. It was as if the thunderclap was a meditation bell! I sank down into my body and felt the sensations, thus strengthening that response. And that is what it is all about. Making an analogy between meditation and exercise, one of the speakers at the conference said that each time you bring your mind back is the equivalent of one rep. I love that.

I’ve also found that sometimes it helps to physically touch the place in which I experience the sensation in my body – for example, putting a hand on the solar plexus (where I often feel a stab when I remember my mom has died) or the heart. When I am falling asleep, I sometimes like to rest one hand on the pelvic valley and the other hand on the solar plexus and become aware of the wave of breath between those two areas. It is like ocean waves and is so calming. Likewise, you can teach children to focus on their breath by inviting them to put one hand on their heart and the other on their belly.

Create a safe place.

Establish safety first! Do whatever you can to help a child feel emotionally safe and relaxed and present in their bodies. We must get kids into a place where their parasympathetic nervous system is in control so they can grow and learn. Help them to understand that they are not alone in their suffering – that we are all in the same boat! Help them to see that other children have divorced parents, have felt bullied, have fears, etc. Let them see each others’ beauty and troubles. Teach them of their own goodness and vulnerability. Teach them mindfulness and heartfulness when they’re calm. Young children need to learn what it means to “pay attention.”

Include movement first.

Younger children have so much energy that you need to allow them to release a little through physical movements before asking them to sit and breathe. Include a movement activity before attempting seated mindfulness practice. When kids are antsy throughout the day, do yoga poses.

I find this is also true for myself. It’s always easier for me to do seated practice following yoga or another form of physical exercise.

Begin with yourself.

For years, I have struggled with how to teach focused awareness to a whole group of children – some of whom struggle with attention control or can’t sit still – without any assistance in the classroom. When I try to lead a core practice in mindful awareness, inevitably one or two students will effectively sabotage the whole experience by acting out, seeking attention, etc. For example, in the MindUp curriculum, there is a daily core practice of focused listening (to the sound of a resonant bell) and deep, belly breathing. Each year, I have grown weary of trying to manage behavior throughout mindfulness practice – and abandoned it altogether because the behavior management became so exhausting. But I always was pleasantly surprised when some children later begged to listen to the bell ring because “We haven’t done it in a long time.” They must like how it feels to do the practice, and I don’t want to allow the behavior of a small minority to ruin the experience for the whole!

One of the biggest realizations I brought home from the conference is that if you can’t control anything else in your school environment, the most basic step you can take is to maintain a daily mindfulness practice. Even if I’m teaching in an environment that doesn’t actively embrace the benefits of mindfulness, I can do it in my room, in whatever capacity I can manage. Some years I might be able to do more than others. The first step is for me to practice mindfulness every day. Before school and even during the school day when the kids are out of the room, I can turn off the lights, lock the door, and do it! Do it on my own, deliberately. Make it an individual practice until the cavalry comes. Or if the opportunity arises, link up informally with others who are doing it.

Chris Cullen, cofounder of the Mindfulness in Schools project, offered these priorities to keep in mind:

  1. Be mindful.
  2. Teach mindfully.
  3. Teach mindfulness.

Rather than throw my hands up in frustration because I’m not able to teach mindfulness the way I’d like to, focus on being mindful. That is a great start! And if that’s all I can manage, then that is enough! It is a worthy accomplishment to succeed at that first step. If you’re doing it, you’re doing a good job! Success is not opening the refrigerator or turning on the cell phone!

The missing piece: Caring for teachers

Teachers cannot solve the whole problem of fixing what is wrong with public education. Because we are the ones on the front line, we need to cultivate self-compassion – so we can stay in the job! Someone at the conference said they realized they had to make a choice between changing their mind or leaving their job.

Our schools aren’t failing. Our kids aren’t failing. Our schools are failing our teachers. The missing piece is taking care of our teachers. When you’re doing your best in an impossible situation with an impossible workload and your professionalism is questioned when you act with deep integrity on behalf of children, and your core values are not reflected anywhere in the curriculum, and you don’t feel supported or valued, how can you create a safe space for children? Our schools are filled with burned out, stressed out teachers who are expected to do more with less each year. Children absorb the teacher’s energy and ultimately are the ones losing out despite the teacher’s most sincere and heartfelt efforts. The teacher’s state of consciousness is the unwritten curriculum.

If our schools fail to care adequately for teachers, it is essential that teachers practice self-care. It is so much more satisfying and empowering than being a victim and squandering precious time and energy by complaining and feeling bad. That is precisely how I became serious about nature photography. I challenged myself to connect with beauty every single day. It was a way for me to unwind and re-attune after an exhausting day at work and often occurred during a walk (for physical exercise is also essential to mental health). Now I’ve added some quiet time for seated meditation, for I find that it makes a huge difference in the quality of my day. It clears my mind, weeds the garden of my senses, and is time well spent. It’s so easy to get caught up in the endless stream of work during the school year, but it is essential to learn how to put work aside and take time to care for ourselves and enjoy our families. It sounds so basic, but with the extra demands put on teachers now, the need for self-care becomes more urgent than ever.

Keynote and Breakout Presentations

Jennifer Cohen Harper, founder of Little Flower Yoga (The School Yoga Project) encouraged us to be our students’ superhero and to have a plan for when we’re not feeling like a superhero – a song, breath work, etc. Everything is harder when you’re exhausted, so give everyone time to relax during the school day. She asserted that children make their own experiences and meaning when you slow down and leave lots of space. There’s no need to process everything! Allow some experiences to simply be. And if what you’re doing isn’t working, stay connected to your kids! That is the most important thing.

Her program is based on five elements:

  1. Connect – with the world around us, to other people, and to our own inner experience
  2. Breathe – nose to belly breathing
  3. Move – joyful experience
  4. Focus – teach how to pay attention, mindfulness activities
  5. Relax – guided visualization or storytelling but also quiet time.

She emphasized that the relaxation element is crucial and makes everything else you do during the day more potent.

Cofounders of the Holistic Life Foundation (Mindful Moment Program), Andy Gonzalez, Atman Smith, and Ali Smith, described how they use guided visualization, yoga asanas, breathing, movement, chair-based exercises, games, and student leaders in their work with schools. They underscored the mentoring component (in which older kids help younger kids) and the use of students leading their peers through mindfulness exercises. In order to become a leader, a child must model good behavior. An added benefit is that kids go home and naturally teach their parents (and probably their dolls and stuffed animals, too)!

Daniel Rechtschaffen, who facilitated the whole conference, led us through a “popcorn thoughts” activity from his book, The Way of Mindful Education. It is a great exercise for elementary school-aged children. Explain that your mind makes thoughts like a popcorn maker makes popcorn. Instruct children to sit quietly and focus on their breathing. Whenever a thought comes into their mind, they raise their hand (like a popcorn kernel popping) and let it fall as the thought falls away.

Amishi Jha‘s presentations were energetic and engaging and truly wonderful, but I don’t want to get into the neuroscience of attention here and encourage you to visit her website and/or the website of Dan Siegel (who wasn’t at the conference but is a major researcher).

The most poignant part of the conference for me was a guided visualization led by Jack Kornfield. Up until this time, I was interested but not emotionally vested in the conference. After a very tough school year, I was at the end of my rope, unsure about returning to my job in the fall. I’d even revised my resume and applied for a non-teaching position right before leaving for the conference. But I was open to inspiration and miracles. Jack Kornfield invited us to see ourselves in the toughest situation we’ve experienced at work. In the middle of it, there is a knock on the door, and a luminous figure (for me it was H. H. the Dalai Lama) enters my body and takes over managing the situation while I witness it as an invisible presence. A while later, he goes back to the door and on his way out gives me a gift and whispers some words. To my great surprise, somewhere in the middle of the visualization I realized that, lurking below my residual feelings about my most awful experience, there is still a pulse in my teacher body. I was very surprised to discover this! We took a short break, during which I retreated to my room to release some tears. When we returned, I looked into Jack Kornfield’s eyes and told him that I’m a teacher who was this close to not going back for another year but realized during the visualization that there is still a heartbeat. He held his hands to his heart, expressed gratitude, and held my hands in his. From this point forward, I was fully engaged!

On the final day of the conference, there was a panel discussion of administrators and teachers who have put mindfulness into practice in their own schools. Here are some examples of what some schools – both independent and public – are doing to promote a deep culture of mindfulness and compassion:

  • Whole school participates in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course
  • Create a breathe room – a quiet, inviting space you can drop into anytime during the day
  • Mindfulness as a special class, like music, art, and P.E. (Oh, how I love this idea! I want that job!)
  • Every teacher receives chimes and a copy of Linda Lantieri’s book on cultivating inner resilience
  • Begin faculty meetings with a couple minutes of mindful breathing, or lead them in a moment of mindfulness.
  • Faculty gratitude circles: Reflect on what you are grateful for that happened in the last week, and send out intentions for next week
  • Yoga class for teachers
  • Offer stress reduction workshops for families.

I love the idea of a breathe room! But paring it down to something simpler, you could establish a breathing space in a classroom. I have a single-person “Quiet Tent” in a quiet corner of my classroom right next to my desk (which is my private, quiet space). I’ve always allowed children who need some quiet space to retreat to the Quiet Tent when they need to. However, it also could be a place for mindful breathing once I teach them how to do it.

Someone else spoke of bringing children into nature as an important part of mindfulness. Read them some stories or poems (perhaps Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry) to open their eyes. Then invite them to write or draw. As a photographer, I might show them an image I captured and ask them to consider why I took the picture. What drew me to that image? Where is the beauty? How did it speak to me?

Pond outside the Sanctuary at Omega Institute

There was a teacher from Manhattan’s independent Blue School on the panel. I had learned of Blue School from a panel discussion during the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit that included two founding members of the Blue Man Group. The school looks like this dreamer’s dream come true! The Blue School teacher described a joyful, holistic environment that includes singing bowls, singing lullabies, yoga poses, art, breathing, and children leading breathing. She spoke of so much goodness that I couldn’t write it all down! The school also has a mindfulness blog, and parents drop in for mindfulness on Friday afternoons. Wow.

The general consensus was that mindfulness programs did not encounter anticipated resistance but spread with joy – though it’s best to take the time to grow them slowly. One panelist suggested starting in kindergarten by training kindergarten teachers and then filtering it up. They also emphasized the idea of teachers practicing together. Even if there aren’t any school-wide mindfulness or yoga classes for faculty and staff, a small group of colleagues could meet and practice mindful breathing for ten minutes before school, to set the tone for the day. It’s much like having a workout partner. You are less likely to skip your exercise if there is someone else to whom you are accountable. Similarly, if your school does not have a room devoted to mindfulness, you can cultivate an environment or create a space in your own room. If all else fails, simply maintaining your own mindfulness practice makes a big difference!

If you do encounter resistance in implementing a mindfulness program, there is a lot of neuroscience data to back it up. Dan Siegel’s book, Brainstorm, is a good resource. You also can emphasize that you’re not stealing time from the rest of the school day curriculum but are replacing pieces that don’t work with what does work, and you are educating children to take care of themselves. Furthermore, you can ask families to notice that their children are coming home more relaxed.

Closing

At the end of the conference, we were guided to reflect on the ways in which we were inspired and what we need as we go back into the world and return to our classrooms. My greatest inspiration was discovering that there is a heart inside me still beating to teach in ways that allow me to:

  • Reflect to others their own inner beauty and help them to love themselves
  • Open the hearts and minds of others to the beauty and interconnectedness of nature
  • Appreciate and acknowledge the light that shines through nature and people – the essence that shines through the forms and connects us all.

My needs are to practice myself and to feel valued in my work environment. I could begin by sharing with anyone who might be interested what I have learned from the conference and through my own experience. Perhaps I am mistaken in assuming nobody would be interested. You never know until you try! (Postscript: Two days after publishing this article, I received a bulk email from a teacher at my school who wants to offer a yoga class once or twice a week so colleagues can practice together!)

As I prepare to return to my classroom in a few weeks, I will bring with me an excerpt from a poem entitled “School Prayer” by Diane Ackerman, which Jack Kornfield quoted. I intend to post it in a prominent spot and read it daily:

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

Book Recommendations

The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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