In Joy and In Sorrow: How Mindfulness Helps Balance Life, Love, and Loss

Death may be a part of life, but that doesn’t make dealing with it any easier for most. This past summer, my partner Jesse and I celebrated our 8 year anniversary. This past summer, my partner Jesse also found out his mom Martha has spinal cancer.

It was the last day in June, and I remember attending a friend’s wedding celebration after learning about her initial diagnosis and thinking how weird it felt to celebrate the beginning of a new journey while a loved one’s journey might soon be ending. I remember looking for the color red at the dinner party and taking a mindful pause each time I saw it, reminding myself to stay present and allow myself to be happy for our friends. I knew then that the next few months would be filled with similar moments of trying to find a balance between joy and sorrow, but I was unsure of what exactly that would mean.  

I’ve been fortunate to never experience this predicament, so it’s left me asking the same questions again and again. How do you support a loved one through such a heavy loss, even when that loss hasn’t happened? How do you continue to live your life with the impending loss of another?

BE OPEN TO RECEIVING HELP.

When Jesse first received the news, he didn’t share it with me. Long story short, this led to a huge blow-up of anger and frustration. Frustration on my part for him holding back, and anger on his part of the very real possibility of losing his mom, whom he loves very much.

We decided to attend couples therapy to learn how to better communicate and how to handle the uncertainty of such a severe diagnosis. The doctors had assured everyone that spinal cancer, while devastating, is not an immediate death sentence, and we found comfort in the fact his mom has had cancer before and went into remission. Still, we had no clue how many emotions this diagnosis would throw at us and knew we needed to figure out how to talk about it. We practiced labeling our emotions together- numbness, anger, guilt, frustration, resentment, sadness, gratitude, love- and learned to not judge what we feel but how to acknowledge it and decide how to respond.

Something we hashed out in a session was whether I should still take my 5 week trip to Costa Rica. When I first decided to attend TEFL school it was late April, almost 2 months before we knew about his mom’s condition. Now that the circumstances had changed, I was worried to leave Jesse. I thought about all the possible what-ifs and things that could go wrong while I was away. I told him I had no issue postponing my trip, but after talking it through, we decided I should still take the opportunity as planned. If I needed to come home early for any reason, we would make it happen. It was so helpful to know I didn’t need to feel guilty for leaving and to know Jesse had no resentment or reservations about me going.   

BE READY TO HURT.

Unfortunately, despite therapy, sometimes communicating with Jesse has been extremely difficult. Not because of his actions or inactions, but because of the general nature of what we’ve had to discuss. I’m aware there are so many ways to practice building resiliency, and while I’m doing my best to do so, I’d be lying if I said I have it figured out.  

On July 24th, I was visiting my family in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Jesse was traveling on business in Chicago. I missed a call from Martha and called her back. She was crying and I could barely understand her; she kept saying she needed to talk to Jesse. I calmly reminded her he was traveling and not available. And then she told me that the doctors finally told her that she has 3-6 months to live. Hearing those words made me feel like someone punched me and my eyes immediately filled with tears, so I took a deep breath and asked her to take a deep breath with me. I told her I loved her and that I would tell Jesse to call her as soon as possible.

At that moment, I knew there would never be a “right time” for Jesse to hear this news. I knew he needed to know, and I knew I would have to be the one to tell him because both of his parents were understandably upset. Some part of me hoped that if he heard the words from me, it would remind him that he’s not alone in this, even if he was alone at an airport thousands of miles away. I knew even though my own heart was breaking, I needed to be strong for him. I focused on my breathing and let the tightness I felt in my chest ease up. I wanted more than anything to be able to get to Chicago and talk with him face to face. I had to tell him that our uncertainty was now becoming more certain and that he’d most likely lose his mom by the new year.

I checked his schedule and waited to be sure he had landed for his layover. I called him and asked him if it was okay if I shared a hard truth with him so he could prepare himself before talking to his parents again. I encouraged him to remember to stay present, to not get overwhelmed by the “future thoughts” our discussion would create. He agreed, and I told him: “The doctors cannot operate and have given your mom 3-6 months”. Jesse said nothing; I said I was so sorry and that I love him. He was stoic, quiet, and quick to get off the phone. I knew he had a lot to process and I gave him the space to try. It’s probably the hardest conversation I’ve ever had with anyone, but it prepared me for the harder ones still to come.

We said our goodbyes, and it wasn’t until that moment I allowed myself to feel the full weight of this news. I remember my own mom holding me and just letting me cry when I got off the phone. I had to drive back to Austin and took that three-hour drive to contemplate the hurt and the anguish Jesse and his family were experiencing.   

KEEP LIVING YOUR LIFE.

Jesse and I didn’t get to talk to or see each other until the next evening at my yoga teacher graduation ceremony. I remember gathering with my classmates for our final two-hour class that afternoon before the official ceremony and struggling to keep from breaking down. I was supposed to be celebrating our accomplishment that had taken 10 months to achieve, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Jesse and his mom. I practiced tracking my thoughts and trying to find sounds in the room to help keep me more present and centered. One of my classmates even commented how great it was to just be together, to be healthy, to be alive. I cried during savasana.

Jesse came straight from the airport to the studio and I remember our hello hug feeling fake because I knew we needed more. We needed to release what we were holding inside. We needed to crawl into bed together, hold each other, and turn the world off. But life doesn’t work that way. Instead, I got my certificate, and we had dinner and cake and I felt genuinely proud and grateful to be part of such an amazing group of people. I have pictures of me smiling with my instructor as proof.

I intentionally chose not to share our sadness with my class because I didn’t want to let it overshadow the joy we were creating in that moment. The truth is, while we were at the studio, we knew Jesse’s mom was at home with her loving husband, and she was okay for the time being. It was a reminder to both of us we are allowed to keep living even when someone we love is dying.

LET GUILT GO. HOLD ON TO HOPE.

That experience showed us we cannot dwell in our sadness and we cannot expect our lives to be full of celebration, either. We have to take our emotions as they come to us, day by day, moment by moment.

Thankfully, Jesse was able to leave in early August to spend time at home with his family in Indiana and eventually I left for Costa Rica in early September. We traveled together in early November to visit Martha where she now stays at the VA Medical Center’s Hospice Care in Cincinnati.

When we first got to the hospital, we ran into Martha in the hall and she told us she was experiencing double vision that day and that it was a new symptom for her. She saw a  specialist the next morning and had tests completed. I’ll never forget being in the room when the doctor explained her cancer has metastasized to her brain. Instead of months to live, she most likely has just weeks. Again, another punch. More tears. Anger, sadness, hurt, sorrow, and somehow, love. I watched Jesse hold his mom in that moment of pain and fear. I watched him embrace both of his parents. I watched him hurt while he showed love. And still, the doctor reminded us to focus on Martha still being here with us now — to find comfort in our remaining time together. The news was fresh and still hurt, but we did encourage each other to listen to the doctor’s advice. That same day happened to be my dad’s 72nd birthday. When we left the hospital, I called to say happy birthday and remember feeling grateful and sad at the same time. I was still hurting for Jesse and his family, but I knew it was okay for me to celebrate my dad’s life, too.

The past 4 months have been filled with both sadness and smiles. Jesse and I have faced some of the most difficult emotions we have encountered in our relationship while simultaneously enjoying some of the happiest moments we’ve ever experienced. Together, day by day, through the ups and downs, we’ve continued to live our lives while making time to visit Martha as much as possible. Thankfully, I’m only working part-time right now and have a very flexible schedule. Jesse, on the other hand, has a rather demanding job and he even received a promotion in October. It hasn’t been easy for him to not be 100% committed to his career, but Jesse’s coworkers have been a huge help by allowing him to travel home when needed and encouraging him to prioritize time with his family. Knowing he has the support of his team has been pivotal in easing the guilt he initially felt. Our friends and family have assisted us in so many ways as well. They’ve offered to watch Brick (our pit bull son), check our mail, volunteer to pick us up from the airport, or just send messages reassuring of us of their love and support. I am grateful to have the support system we do.

From each of the highs and lows, we have both learned that there is no shame in needing help, professional or not.  We are constantly working to find a balance between joy and sorrow, and I have found strength in what mindfulness teaches: to allow yourself to feel your emotions-good or bad-and to live life moment by moment —not getting stuck in the past or overwhelmed by worrying about the future.

So when people ask how’s life, I can honestly say I’ve been really happy and I’ve been really sad, and I’m okay with that. And it’s my way of learning how to balance life, love, and loss.

Advertisements

Pura Vida: Part 1

Two Weeks Too Fast!

In my previous blog, I mentioned how nervous I was to come to Costa Rica for the TEFL program. I am already laughing at that fear and have no intention of leaving early! I truly cannot believe I have already been here for two weeks. Most days it feels like I’ve been here for years because everyone is incredibly friendly. People make eye contact in the streets and at restaurants. People say buenos dias or pura vida when you walk by them. People SMILE here. And it’s not difficult to see why. Even though this time of year is considered the “low season/rainy season”, it is absolutely gorgeous!! Costa Rica only has two seasons per year: the rainy season and the dry season. Since I’ve been here, it has stormed every day, but usually not until after 5PM or much later, and only for an hour or two at most. We have been lucky in that it has only rained once during our school day, around 1PM in the afternoon. I wake up to sunshine and birds–PARROTS–singing in the trees, and ocean waves just a block away.

 

img_6355

Accommodations

I am staying at the Hotel Playa Samara, located in the center of Samara (Sam-uh-ruh). It is owned and run by an ex-pat named Daniel, who is always on property and is always ready to help or to just sit and chat. I upgraded to a room with A/C, cable, and breakfast every morning. The cable only has 3 English channels—CNN, HBO, and STARZ. My room costs $20 per day because we get a discount through the TEFL program. Without the discount, the rooms here range from $14-35 per day, depending on if you want A/C or not. In this part of Costa Rica, it is common to have your bathroom and showers outdoors, but the rooms have private bathrooms. The water is “heated” by solar panels, so even thought it’s not ice-cold water, it’s certainly not hot like showers are back in the States. However, after spending time at the beach or just walking around in the humidity, the water here feels fantastic!

 

TEFL School

I cannot say enough about the CostaRica TEFL instructors, campus, and students!! It’s an amazing program. The campus is located about a 5 minute walk away from the hotel and the beach, and has great A/C and WiFi, considering most businesses in Samara do not. Our instructors are incredibly humble and patient, and we have classes with them for 3 hours a day, Monday through Friday. We work on lesson planning a couple of hours a day in the afternoon, and then teach evening classes to local residents—Ticos—from 5:30PM-7:30PM.

We are learning methodologies, teaching strategies, activities, and games that I wish I had learned years ago. Only myself and one other student from Canada have previous classroom teaching experience, but my other classmates are catching on fast thanks to the support and encouragement of our TEFL instructors. My classmates are from Canada, California, Long Island, Kansas City, and Virginia, and range in ages from 45 to 21! It is a very cool group of people to learn with and I’m already so excited for what the future holds for each of us when we graduate in two weeks.

Our classes range from Beginner 1 to Advanced/Intermediate students, and the age range of our students is from 15-65+. It has been a refreshing experience to work with students who have a true desire to learn. We are required to create lessons that follow 7 Steps to Mastery and involve about 11 planned activities each!!! The activities include a lot of hand-made materials because the school does not use smart boards or computers for everything, since many foreign language schools do not offer these tools. I have no cut and pasted so many words and pictures as a teacher—EVER. It is tedious and time-consuming work, but the gratitude our students show after each and every lesson makes the planning process worth it! The students are absolutely the best part of CostaRica TEFL.

Another favorite part of this program is the opportunity to practice yoga together on the beach every Wednesday morning before school. I think this is something every school (on the beach or not!) should definitely offer to teachers!!

 

FUN IN THE SUN

Last weekend, my new friends from CRTEFL and I went hiking nearby to a secluded beach known as Izguerra, and we could see La Chorra island and the blue, BLUE ocean for miles.

Samara Beach has to be one of the best kept secrets of the travel world. It is located about 2 hours away from the Liberia airport and is surrounded by lush greenery for miles during the rainy season. There are heladarías and fruit stands on almost every corner. The ocean water is warm and welcoming, and the sunsets are spectacular. I have yet to catch a sunrise, but it’s on my to-do list for sure.

 

What Did I Do? What Am I Doing?

What did I do?

I think most of you know by now that I taught high school English for 14 years, with 6 being served at John B. Connally High School in Austin, Texas. I made the decision to resign this past May after consulting my family, partner, closest friends and mentors numerous times. It was not an easy decision. My students and my colleagues are some of the best people I’ve ever known, and resigning from CHS felt like I was abandoning them. I get a little teary-eyed when I think about how much my students have taught me over the years. I’m so grateful for my time as a high school English teacher, but I knew it was time to listen to my heart and leave public education.

I decided I wanted to try working from home in order to have a more flexible schedule to earn my TEFL certification and to pursue teaching yoga and mindfulness. As much as this life-changing choice excited me, I was also completely terrified to leave my position at CHS.  However, on the last day of school, one of my students reminded me that I was only doing what I’ve taught so many others to do: follow your dreams, pursue your passion, and live life to the fullest.

So, now what? 

Almost 3 months have passed since I quit teaching. During this time, I have responded to at least 20-30 online postings for freelance writing jobs, and today I have 3 steady jobs with Asure Software, Tango Software, and PodcastBuddy. Each range in pay from $10-50 per hour, and range in how many hours I’m required to work per week. Some days I’m finished working by noon, others I choose to work late at night. I have deadlines I’m expected to meet, but for the most part, I have a very flexible schedule.

What’s that like?

First, and I think all teachers out there will totally understand why this is first: I cannot tell you how liberating it feels just to be able to go to the bathroom when I have to go!! I don’t have to wait for class to end, or find someone to watch my room, or make up an excuse to a room full of students that “Another teacher needs me right now, I’ll be right back”. Bathroom freedom is AMAZING!

The next best thing is not commuting to work or being expected to be anywhere by a certain time for a set period of time. I sold my car in July because I no longer have to drive 12 miles to and from work every day. My morning commute would range between 20-30 minutes on any given day, and average between 40-60 minutes in the afternoon thanks to Austin’s notorious traffic on I-35. I’ve gotten back 4-5 hours of my life every week, and I have been mindful to use that time for more yoga, reading, walking my dog, or just sitting outside.

What about teaching yoga and mindfulness?

I am newly certified as a 200 Hatha yoga instructor! I had the honor of leading a yoga session at a retreat held here in west Austin a couple of weeks ago, but that is the extent of my yoga teaching for the time being. I plan to enroll in courses to earn my 500 hour RYT certification this fall and recently applied for a mentorship program at Yoga Yoga Austin that begins in January.

I am currently enrolled in a Mindfulness Meditation Certification Program with Sean Fargo. I am in the depths of my required reading and am learning so much! I have a goal of completing this program by December, but I am not rushing this process. I am encouraged after speaking with Sean to keep pursuing my dream to become a full time consultant.

Are you productive working from home? Be honest!

I am super productive! I still get up before 7 every morning and try to stick to a morning routine of a morning walk with Jesse and Brick, and then try to read or listen to a podcast before I start working on anything. I check my calendar and schedule my most difficult tasks first to get them out of the way. I open the patio blinds and turn on some music and work. I get to take breaks as needed. Sometimes my breaks are quick and short, but sometimes I decide to go the trails for 20-30 minutes just to get outside and enjoy the fresh air.

img_6127

                                      My favorite tree on the trails near Lady Bird Lake.

I thought for sure I’d ride my bike around town more to local coffee shops or the beautiful downtown library to do my work, but mostly I’ve enjoyed just being in my home. I mean, I am paying for it, so why not actually be in it more? Have you ever thought about how much we pay for the houses/apartments/condos we live in but how little we actually get to use and enjoy them? I’m here every day now, and I absolutely love this space. I have access to fresh food and snacks, lots of natural light and a sweet sound system, and yes, my very own bathroom!

What’s next?

At the end of this week, Saturday, September 8th, I’ll be flying to Samara Beach, Costa Rica, to earn my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification. I will live at the Hotel Playa Samara for 5 weeks while attending school and teaching 5 days a week!! I am so so excited about this adventure but also very nervous. I have never lived completely alone where I know absolutely no one, much less in a foreign country! I know this is an amazing opportunity and I will probably look back at my fear and laugh. Or I will just fly home early and chalk it up to a learning experience!!!

I will update as this new endeavor unfolds next week, but figured I’d update on what I did and what I am doing.

Any regrets?

Nope. I’m only making half of my teaching salary but I truly believe that is only temporary, and have plans to double that income when I get back home. Basically, I do miss seeing my students and colleagues, but I don’t miss the very heavy stress of being a teacher. I know that I will always be a teacher in some capacity, and if it’s not in public education—especially in Texas public education—I’m learning to be okay with that and to not feel guilty for “living my best life”.

Because we only have one life, y’all, and I intend to love it.

xo

Month of Mindfulness: Part 4

Last week’s practice encouraged mindful thinking, and this week’s post is a continuation of thinking with positive intention.

October 20-27th

In order to be more connected to others at work, school, or even at home, try these exercises:

  1. Consider your emotional wake.  How do others feel during and after interacting with you?  How do you want them to feel?  Just like a boat on a lake, our actions leave ripples that stretch beyond what we see.  Be mindful of the words you choose to use throughout your conversations.
  2. Find a quiet place.  Close or soften your eyes and take a deep breath.
  3. Think about someone you see everyday for whom you care about (friend, family, teacher, student, pet).  See if you can imagine them doing things that bring them joy and make them smile—actually—imagine them doing things that make them grin or laugh out loud.  Keep this image in your mind.
  4. Repeat the following wishes to yourself and “send” the wishes to whoever you’re thinking about:I wish for you to be healthy.

    I wish for you to be happy.

    I wish for you to be peaceful.

    I wish for you to have joy in your life.

  5. Keep your eyes soften or closed, and imagine them receiving these wishes.  Imagine if they just got a text from you with these happy words.  How would that make them feel? Now notice your own heart and how you are feeling.
  6. Think specifically about a colleague or student that could use kind words this week. Challenge yourself to actually send them via email, text, phone call, or a face to face visit.

 

 

Month of Mindfulness: Part 3

Last week’s practices focused on mindful listening.  This week, the focus shifts to MINDFUL THINKING.  

OCTOBER 15th-21st

In order to be more present at work, school, or even at home or in daily conversations, try these exercises:

  1. When your mind begins to wander–which is totally natural and okay–try to label your thoughts past, present, or future.  A lot of times we allow ourselves to stress over things that are completely out of our control, and more often than not these stressors have either already happened or haven’t even happened yet.  For instance, while sitting in a meeting after work, you might begin thinking about an email you received earlier in the day that just got under your skin.  Maybe it was the subject or the tone, but whatever it is, you feel bothered by it.  Instead of being “present” at the meeting, your mind starts to wander to this email and maybe you begin to recall what you wrote back.  These thoughts would be considered past thoughts.  You can’t do anything to change the fact that you received the email, and there’s not much you can do about the response you sent (if you did send one) because each occurred in the past.  On the same note, if you didn’t send a response yet, thinking about the email you plan to send after you get out of the meeting is considered a future thought.  Again, there is nothing you can do about an email you haven’t even written yet, and letting your mind wander and worry about the future takes you away from the present moment.
  2. When you find yourself focusing on a thought labeled past or present, ask yourself what you can do to draw attention to what needs to be done right now.  What are you able to do in the present moment that actually is in your control?  It may be as simple as taking a couple of deep breaths and drawing attention to how your body is feeling in the current moment.  If you find a past or future thought upsetting, it might cause your body heat to rise or your heart rate to increase.  Instead of allowing yourself to remain upset, focusing on your breath and drawing attention back to the present can actually help decrease your heart rate and lessen your body heat; mindful thinking can help change how our body reacts to negative stimulus.

Obviously, just labeling your thoughts past, present, or future will not magically make you feel less stressed.  However, labeling your thoughts in this way can create the space to allow you to choose how you will respond when you do find yourself reacting to something from the past or the future.  Are you going to get upset and annoyed?  Or will you remember to focus only on your present self?

Month of Mindfulness: Part 2

Last week I posted a few strategies about noticing your body’s reaction to difficult emotions like anger, frustration, guilt, etc.

This week, the mindfulness strategy to practice is MINDFUL LISTENING.

October 8-14th:

Remember that mindfulness helps to create more awareness in the present moment. There are so many different ways to listen mindfully, but I am sharing two specific practices you can attempt throughout your week:

  1.  Take a walk outside or sit in your classroom (or bedroom, office, etc.).  Focus only on what you hear.  It might be the sound of your breath, cars passing by, people talking, or any number of things.  As you focus on sound only, try being mindful of how your body reacts. Do you feel your breath slowing down or speeding up? Do you feel relaxed or anxious?  If your thoughts start to wander, what sound(s) can you focus on instead to be more present?  Sometimes in order to feel present, we need to focus on only one thing at a time.  Mindful listening helps to focus our attention.
  2. When speaking with others throughout your week, practice not interrupting.  Be mindful of allowing the other person to completely finish talking before you respond.  Notice how it feels to focus only on the other person’s voice and what they are saying.  Do you notice any reactions in your own body?  Is what they are telling you easy or difficult to hear?  Do you feel your lungs constrict or your heartbeat start to quicken?  Or maybe your thoughts begin to wander?  Try to focus only on the sound of the other person’s voice and what they are telling you.  Pause before responding and be mindful of what you say.  Be aware that there is a significant difference between giving attention and giving advice.   Mindful listening involves giving attention

**Remember that mindfulness creates the space to allow you to think about how you will respond instead of impulsively reacting so that you can be more present and experience more peace.

**One literature resource to check out:  Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.

October: A Month of Mindfulness

A few months ago I began taking online mindfulness courses offered by Mindful Schools. These courses have positively influenced how I interact with others and how I manage my classroom. I feel noticeably less stressed and am better equipped to handle  challenges that normally would have ruined my day in the past. I feel more peace in my relationships with my partner, my colleagues, and my students. I really wish I knew about these courses years ago when I first began my teaching career!!

I was given the opportunity to lead a professional development session about mindfulness to about half of our teaching staff when school began in August. I received a lot of supportive feedback and have since received a lot of questions from colleagues asking for tips or tricks to better incorporate mindfulness in their classrooms.  So, to honor my own desire to be a more consistent blogger and to honor my colleagues’ requests for assistance, I am going to post one mindfulness strategy per week for the month of October.  October can be an especially difficult month for teachers because it is usually the longest month of the fall semester and not every school gets “Columbus Day” of “Fall Fair Day” off.

I hope these strategies prove to be beneficial, and I welcome any feedback you might have.

OCTOBER 1-7th:

Mindfulness helps to create more awareness to the present moment. In order to be more aware this week, practice the following strategies:

  1. Take a deep breath. Pay attention to where you draw your breath from and where you feel it the most. Is it your stomach? Your chest? Your nose? Your mouth? Wherever it is strongest for you, consider this place the anchor of your breath.
  2. As you go through your week, take time to just notice how your body physiologically reacts to difficult feelings like anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, and so on. Does your face get hot? Does your heart rate increase? Do your shoulders tense? Do your eyes start to water or begin to scowl? Do you have the urge to immediately lash out? Do you immediately begin to raise your voice? Consider writing how your body reacts down on a notepad or in a journal.
  3. As the week continues, when you notice these difficult feelings and reactions taking place, pause and focus on the anchor for your breath. Breathe. Then decide how you will respond to the difficult feeling instead of reacting to it. In your classroom, your response might look like deciding not to yell at a class that still hasn’t followed your instructions. Maybe you calmly talk to them and tell them what you are feeling (anger, frustration, impatience), and ask for them to try again. Outside of class, your response might look like deciding not to honk at every unskilled driver that cuts you off in traffic. Maybe you notice your body starting to tighten so you return to your breath, breathe, and just continue driving.                          **Please know mindfulness does not excuse inappropriate behavior or disrespectful actions. It simply creates the space to allow you to think about how you will respond instead of impulsively reacting (or overreacting) to difficult situations, so that you can be more present and experience more peace.

 

 

THE BEGINNINGS OF A MINDFUL CLASSROOM

My goodness this semester passed by in a blink of an eye!  I have so many notes that say MUST BLOG ABOUT THIS, but a lack of posts to show for it.

In an effort to catch up on what’s been going on in my teacher world, I decided to begin with my journey into creating a more mindful classroom for both my students and for myself.  I first experienced mindful practices at #SXSWEdu in March and I could not wait to get back to school to try out what I had learned.

Before we took our big state test in April, I tried an activity called 5-4-3-2-1.  I started this practice by inviting students to sit quietly in their chairs, with their feet planted on the ground and their hands on their knees.  I asked them if they were not going to participate to honor those that were by sitting quietly and to not distract others.  I asked everyone to be mindful of the silence we were creating together, and that their voices were not needed for this activity but their minds were.  First, I asked them to look for 5 colors within their field of vision.  Then, they tried to notice 4 different sensations, whether it’s the coolness in the air from the AC, their body temperature, or maybe their hands tingling.  For the third step, students listened for 3 different sounds.  Then I asked them to take 2 deep breaths, and finally think of 1 positive thought that makes them feel good.  At the end of this activity, I had students in every class tell me how calming yet energizing it was for them.  One student said it was “the most relaxed he had felt in days.”  I knew I was on to something.

After some research, I easily found a ton of online resources like CASEL and Mindful Schools.  These sites provide not only different strategies teachers can use, but they also provide the brain research associated with practicing mindfulness.  I’ve been teaching  high school for a while now, but the unpredictability of teenagers never ceases to amaze me.  I know reading more of the brain research will help me to better understand my students.  Likewise, just from the few mindfulness activities we have tried, I believe students will better understand themselves.  So far, my favorite practice is called a “body scan” that I took from this site.

After our daily reading time, I invited students to make the decision of whether or not they wanted to participate in another mindfulness activity.  If they did not want to participate, I asked them to return to their seat and sit quietly.  If they did want to join, I told them to find a space on the floor and sit down in a comfortable seated position, but to make sure there was enough room around them to lay down.  I followed the steps suggested on the site but added my own words as well.  I dimmed the lights and told students to slowly lay back in the space they chose.  The body scan begins by focusing on your head and then moving your focus to your feet, so I instructed them to squeeze their eyes shut, scrunch their nose, make fists, and finally, to tighten their legs and toes.  As they did this, I had students think of anything that was stressing them out:  major grades due this week for my class or others.  Upcoming AP tests.  Babysitting.  Having to work after school.  I said to keep holding everything that bothered them in this tension, and then to take a deep breath and let it all go.  I told them to actually let it go by relaxing their face and spreading their fingers as wide as possible.  Then I invited them to either place their hands by their side or to place one hand on their heart and one on their stomach.  I asked them to pay attention to their heartbeat and their breath, and to try to slow down each as we remained in silence.  I used an ocean-sounds playlist I found on Spotify to allow them about a minute and a half to concentrate on what they were feeling.  After a couple of minutes, I told them to wiggle their fingers and turn on their side in order to add energy back to their bodies.  Then I asked them to sit up slowly and take one more final breath, while thinking of something positive to focus on.

IMG_1416

Above: Taken at the end of the “body scan”.  Some students are still focusing on their breath.

After the activity, I asked students to give me feedback in order to show my administrators since I plan to incorporate more  mindful strategies next year.  But honestly, I didn’t need written feedback.  They were very vocal about how much they enjoyed it and I could feel the difference in the room.  Everything felt much more relaxed and my students told each other how much more ready they felt to do the work we had to do.

IMG_1436

Student feedback 

This summer I plan to take a course in Social-Emotional Learning and Character Development offered by the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools.  I am so excited to know more about how to help my students navigate the daily stress and anxiety they experience on top of the assignments I give them.  In order to better serve my students, I must understand how to help them understand what it is they’re feeling so they can find ways to manage the stress of being a teenager.   I’m currently reading a young adult novel called He Forgot to Say Goodbye by Benjamin Alire Saenz and a line by one of the main characters validated having a mindful classroom:

“You are the adults.  I’m the kid.  And yet it’s my job to understand you. But it’s not your job to understand me.”

 

IMG_1437

 

 

Why I Am Showing the Inauguration.

On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump won the election for the highest office in our country.

On November 9, 2016, my students had a lot of questions about the outcome of this election.  I allowed them to express their feelings, questions, fears, and hopes on a blank map of the United States.

Below are some examples of what my students felt that day.

 

2017/01/img_0173.jpg

2017/01/img_0171.jpg

2017/01/img_0172.jpg

2017/01/img_0174.jpg

Today, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn into office.  I debated whether or not to show the ceremony in class, wanting to follow in the footsteps of a great leader like Representative John Lewis, who is protesting the election and inauguration by not attending today.

But after thinking about it and reading various commentaries about those refusing to attend, I do think there is a noticeable difference between witnessing an event and condoning an event.

I need my students to know it is important to witness history, but it does not mean that I or they condone what we are witnessing.  Many of my kids remember where they were for President Obama’s second inauguration, and I think it’s important that they at least receive the chance to watch this event today.

For my students that voiced concerns following the election, I need them to know that their voice matters.  I need them to know that in four years, in 2020, that they will be able to use their voice to help decide who the next president will be.

So yes, I witnessed the inauguration and swearing in of Donald Trump with my students today.  But I do not condone what I witnessed, and have provided them the choice to decide if they do or not.

Flexible Classroom: Updated, Courtesy of #DonorsChoose

For this fall semester project, we asked for additional portable tables, heavy duty folding chairs, video game chairs and a standing desk. Just like last year’s flexible seating project, these donated materials have significantly increased student engagement and our sense of community.

The durable folding chairs allow students to easily move from table to table, group to group. Because of the number of tables I now have in my room, I was able to get rid of the bulkier, heavier traditional student desks. The portable folding tables allow us to quickly rearrange the room as needed. Sometimes we clear the floor space for whole class circle discussions, sometimes we move it to make room for smaller groups, and of course, we can push them together for projects that require more table space.

From my experience last year and the past few months, I am convinced that having a flexible classroom is greatly beneficial to my students. They truly enjoy walking in the door knowing that they have a choice of where to sit and that at any given time they will either be working independently or collaboratively with their classmates.

Having a standing desk in class has been nice because I can see my students easier when I have to use my computer, I am not constantly getting up and down from a chair, and I have even noticed less neck and back pain. A couple of students have even used the area to draft papers and they really like the option of standing as well.

My largest class has 31 students, and having flexible space allows everyone to find their own space without being crammed into rows or sections of desks.  We are even able to have “gallery walks” where students walk around to view projects, and Socratic Seminars, which involves moving everyone into large circles.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to have a traditional classroom again.  I do know that my students and I are incredibly grateful for the donations we have received!