Early this year, I was given a magical gift from a magical person. The kind you didn't know you wanted or needed or even existed until it appears in your life. This magical person said, I have a little something for you, I saw it and thought of you. When she realized we wouldn't see each other for a little bit, she put it in the mail for me, even though we live in neighboring towns. So one day I got a package on my doorstep, containing this:
I read through it slowly and gradually, and just now finished. It's amazing, in so many ways. I want to put together some thoughts about it, for myself, and for my classroom.
Our mission as teachers is not just to transmit knowledge, but to form human beings, to construct a worthy, beautiful human race, in order to take care of our precious planet.
~Thich Nhat Hanh
It's hard to know where to start here, because this book is, basically, everything. In the forward and Thich Nhat Hanh's letter of introduction, we get the wide view. Our young people experience so much suffering, which we want to alleviate, but we, too, have our own suffering. And so, "the first thing is to come back to yourself--the way out is in" (p. xviii). Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that with mindfulness, we can be present to ourselves, compassionate with ourselves, and in the present moment, we can suffer less. It makes me think of the airplane safety lesson that you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others; we have to attend to our own suffering before we can begin to try to address the suffering we see around us.
It's not just limiting suffering, though. "The practice of mindfulness is the practice of joy" (p. xviii). In the practice of mindfulness, we can find joy and happiness. we can enter into deep listening and loving speech, we can build relationships and build community. We can understand the causes of challenging behavior, and we can develop focus, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence. Deeper into the book, the exercises of sharing in circles with deep listening and loving speech make a natural connection to building a positive school climate and developing practices of restorative justice. When I first looked at the cover of the book, the promise of happy teachers changing the world sounded a little too good, too easy, but almost immediately, in the first twenty pages, it became so clear to me how actually grounded and real that promise is. And that by happiness the writers don't mean being cheerful, or excited, or, I don't know, perky. Here: "True happiness means that you don't need to run after anything anymore. There's a feeling of satisfaction in being in the here and the now, when you recognize you have so many conditions of happiness, wherever you are." I need to repeat that. "True happiness means that you don't need to run after anything anymore." Learning to live in that truth would most certainly change the world.
The book also makes it clear that the first and most critical step is for teachers themselves to practice mindfulness, and that even if we never speak about it or teach about it to our students, it can transform our work in the classroom, our relationships with our students, and their experience of school. One of the teachers in the book put it this way, which deeply resonates with me: "The most wonderful gift you can give a child is presence and connection, make them feel seen, trusted, and accepted" (p. 181). So my first take-away is that this is something for me, personally, to try to learn and practice. The writers also emphasize the importance of practicing in community, which is still a question for me. I have a few people in my home life with whom I could possibly share a mindfulness practice. It also makes me think about trying to develop a group at school. With this book for a guide, we could treat it as a Professional Learning Community, with a small group of interested and motivated teachers, learn and practice together, and explore ways to introduce mindfulness to our students. I think there might be others interested, and I'd love to make this practice part of my school life and community.
Even as I was reading about the necessity to practice yourself first, then consider if, when, and how to introduce it to your students...I couldn't help but think about how mindfulness could be a part of our classroom life in the coming year.
The class that I'll have in the fall feels particularly suited to share mindfulness practice with, for several reasons. During our extended school year (our summer school program) I had nine of the eleven students I'm slated for in the fall, and overall, these rising fourth and fifth graders feel a lot younger than my group last year. There are also a lot of things going on in the sensory, attention, and impulsivity departments. I can imagine mindfulness practices helping a lot in those areas, as well as social-emotional regulation, and our community life. Also, this younger group feels like a good audience to try these exercises with; I think they'll be open and willing, and ready to try new things. And maybe I'm wrong, and I'll have to do cartwheels to sell them on it! We'll see.
These are really preliminary thoughts. I'd thought that I would write through my ideas and plans for introducing it, but I don't think I'm there yet. I think I'll do better sketching out plans piece by piece, and then writing more about it when we start trying it out in class. So, more to come!
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.