We recently attended the Omega Mindfulness & Education Conference in New York City where we were inspired by connecting with our community of flawless activists.
The conference began on a bittersweet note as we immediately bumped into an educator we have known for years who shared tragic news of a student who lived with serious behavioral challenges and had died from over-prescription of psychiatric medications. Even though this was devastating news to hear, we had a healing moment together, and felt an even fiercer commitment to our work at the Flawless Foundation.
Our colleague Daniel Rechtschaffen founder of the Mindful Education Institute gave the opening remarks. Writing about the conference later, he said, "The research is piling up showing that a consistent mindfulness practice can help us to be more happy, focused, compassionate, emotionally regulated, and less impacted by stress. What school would pass up on a new curriculum touting raised test scores, less playground fights, and a calmer, happier student population?...This is the quiet revolution under way."
We were pleased to also run into our friend Rachel Goldstein, who we have worked with in the Yoga Service World. Rachel brought her beautiful baby to the conference and said, "I brought my 6-month-old son to soak up the right kind of wisdom." She was most inspired by Atman Smith, Ali Smith, and Andres Gonzalez of the Holistic Life Foundation, adding, "even though they were brought up on the streets of Baltimore, they became the Buddhas teaching thousands of kids learn to be present via yoga and meditation. It's people like them that give me hope for the future of our generations to come."
This is why we do the work we do! And why we chose to take this conversation to a deeper level in an interview with long time educator, Claire Wurtzel.
Flawless Foundation: Claire, you have been involved with progressive education for decades, now. Has mindfulness always been part of your educational philosophy?
Claire Wurtzel: Well, it wasn't called mindfulness at the time. Thirty years ago, I worked with Linda Lantieri, helping to develop a curriculum for creative problem resolution -- working with teachers and kids on how to resolve conflict peacefully. I was also interested for a long time in the work of Dr. Daniel Goleman so you can see how there was a natural evolution of these interests. The main point of mindfulness in education is that you have to acknowledge that there's an emotional life inside every child and every adult you work with.
More recently I wrote a book with my husband called Funny Food and together we do workshops making it fun to learn about nutrition. Even though we don't use the word mindfulness, we talk about being in the moment. We'll say, 'Forget that it's a cantaloupe.' We tell them to just be with it, consider its appearance, its texture and weight, how it smells and tastes --that's a mindfulness practice.
FF: Does "mindfulness in education" mean different things to different people?
CW: Mindfulness is fantastic for any group anywhere, that is without question! One presenter discussed how in affluent families, the pressure is often to fit in and to satisfy the parent's ego, which means the parent isn't connecting with who their child authentically is. For these families, the mindfulness practice is for the parent to find ways to let the child be.
For families living in poverty,the issue is how to exist in a very challenging world, how to create a calm, focused space inside yourself that helps you handle questions of survival.
I was really impressed with the young men from the Holistic Life Foundation who work exclusively with underserved kids. One of them told a story about a yoga class where it seemed many the students were not paying attention. Then at the end, they were so disappointed it was over. He said something like, 'but you didn't seem like you were paying any attention at all,' and they showed him every one of the yoga positions he had taught during the class.
In another story they shared that a grandmother came to thank them. She had been sick and her granddaughter -- who'd been through the program -- sat with her and coached her with mindfulness and yoga practices. The granddaughter helped her take deep breaths and find a comfortable position, so she wasn't feeling pain. This is the real impact they're having.
Several people spoke about the need to set aside a room or a space in the school that people can just go to for reflective time -- mostly it's the students but, you know, sometimes the principal needs to go there, too! It's a sanctuary.
Both Linda and Dr. Patricia Jennings talked about how they spend time with teachers, long before they do mindfulness work with the students directly. Patricia teaches a course on this at UVA, because she found that teachers can learn all about classroom management in theory but then emotions get in the way in real life. I can remember being a new teacher, myself, using what were good techniques but feeling angry with the student who was acting out -- which kids sense immediately and they shut down.
So the emphasis is on the teachers' understanding their own emotions first, before dealing with the kids. Linda talked about observing a teacher who modeled self regulation by saying out loud 'I'm feeling very frustrated at this moment, so I'm going to take some time for a few deep breaths and lower my shoulders". These are wonderful tools because every one of us deals with stress of some kind.
FF: After attending a conference like this, what development makes you feel the most optimistic?
CW: A number of teachers spoke who work in poor schools, and they are really trying to bring this sense of calm to their kids and offer these tools to everyone. I thought that was fantastic.It was also interesting to get up to date with what's happening in the field in general with packaged mindfulness curricula and mindfulness apps where we never had them before.
I'm also very interested in the upcoming research. Patricia Jennings and Dr. Sara Lazar talked about new research on how mindfulness practices affect the neurons in the brain. There is a real need to quantitatively and qualitatively prove the value of these efforts and tools. These new results should be impressive and that will allow us to go further.
Claire Wurtzel teaches in a masters degree program at the American Museum of Natural History and mentors educators in NYC public and independent schools. Funny Food, a book filled with healthy, creative breakfasts written with her husband, Bill, was selected as a best children's book of 2012. Claire has been a member of the Flawless board and advisory board for five years.