Tech Addiction and Digital Well-being

The other day we finally had a glimpse of beautiful, spring weather.  I literally pried the Xbox remotes from my sons’ hands and shoved my boys through the front door to go play with their neighborhood friends outside.  In addition to recognizing their dire need for a dose of vitamin D, my concern about their overall well-being, particularly a need to unplug from electronics, moved my hand to lock the door behind them!  After changing into shorts and sneakers, I headed out myself for a jog. Twenty minutes later, a few doors down, I jogged past my sons and their friends sitting on the grass in the shade of a tree… STARING AT THEIR PHONES!

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For a while now, a big topic of conversation has been the pros and cons of technology as it has come to shape the lives of kids today.  As a school librarian, experiencing the shift from “book lady” to “digital turnkey,” I have experienced how my newer role in the lives of my students has shifted as well.  I have witnessed firsthand the profound benefits of access to diverse and reliable information in an instant, the breaking of boundaries through long-distance communication and seamless digital collaboration, and the realization of visions and dreams through access to cutting-edge technologies.  Sadly though (devastating, actually), is the subsequent “brain hijacking” that can result from over-reliance and escapism through tech. I must confess that I, myself have been among the afflicted. Many a night I have found myself scrolling through nonsense while a half-read novel sat unopened on my nightstand.

At Google’s Annual Developer Conference, Google I/O, this past month, an interesting thing happened revealing an interesting shift in perspective on the part of those responsible for hijacking our brains.  

Sameer Samat, Google’s VP for Android and Google Play, gave a firsthand account of the surprising relief he experienced when compelled to surrender his phone on a vacation.  His story was a prelude to the unveiling of a collection of new features falling under the category, “digital well-being.” Placing your phone face-down will activate “Shush” mode so you will not hear alerts. You can also track your usage and even place limits on time-sucking applications.   

In addition to special features such as the ones Android has introduced, there has been a surge in new apps targeted toward users seeking a little zen.  During the Google Play Award Ceremony, one of the winning apps was Simple Habit Meditation app, founded by Yunha-Kim. The app contains guided meditations for a host of life situations ranging from “Calm Nerves” to “Breaking Up.”  The app also has meditation timers, reminders and a calendar to track progress. It is just one of a number of apps offering similar features.

As exciting as these new considerations for the tech user are, I firmly believe that the only real way to foster well being is to teach kids to do just that… to “be,” WITHOUT the distraction of any device. The first solution to ANY problem, however, is awareness. Tech companies earnestly acknowledging “digital wellness” is a step in the right direction.

Alas… when I think of brain hijacking and digital wellness, I think back to Hurricane Sandy which decimated much of Long Island.  Although my home did not endure major damage, there was the upheaval of two solid weeks without power in my development. My sons did not yet have cell phones.  It wasn’t fun all the time for certain, but there was something magical about watching my kids fill the place with origami cranes and boats and tripping over board game pieces that got away.  Lego projects resurfaced. We had longer conversations with the neighbors than we had had in all the years I had lived there as people came outside in search of human contact because they lost the digital distraction that was TV.  In short, I loved observing my children and neighbors being mindful and PRESENT.

Golden Sparkles: An Introduction to Mindfulness, by Catarina R. Peterson. Illustrations by Mateya Arkova

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Golden Sparkles: An Introduction to Mindfulness

What ARE “golden sparkles?”  As the beautiful text by Catarina R. Peterson unfolds, accompanied by the whimsical illustrations of Mateya Arkova, the reader begins to understand that “golden sparkles” describes the sensation that fills our hearts during mindful interaction with the world around us. Golden Sparkles taps into the awe and wonder of a child’s experience and gently conveys the methods for maintaining this inherently mindful outlook throughout trials and tribulations of later life. It is a simple analogy used to describe a most profound experience.

Peterson’s book charmed me right from the start as it is dedicated to each member of her preschool class, (each addressed individually), who she thanks for being both teachers and fellow learners, NOT mere students.  In my experience the most mindful and reflective educators perceive their students in this way.

The language of Golden Sparkles is poetic with a gentle rhyme which flows quite like the breath, gently “in… and out…” making it a delight to read aloud.  Highlighted words throughout the text conjure peace and relaxation.  They are defined sequentially in a glossary at the end of the book and can serve as talking points between reader and child. Timeless universality is an important theme, as children are reminded that through mindfulness practice, golden sparkles are literally just “a breath away” no matter where, or who you are.

There is depth in the simplicity of the illustrations.  Arkova skillfully uses a soul-soothing, pastel palette to immerse the reader in Peterson’s story.  A delightfully depicted trio of friends, each with their unique charm, effectively capture the calm, serenity, and gratitude that can be achieved by applying mindful attention to everyday activities (a picnic, a bike ride, a meditation).  Golden sparkles literally emanate from their hearts!  

The foreword by Vicki Zakrrzewski, Ph.D., Education Director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, invites readers to ponder the long-term effects of mindfulness practice on children.  I think of the ways mindfulness has improved my life and it warms my heart to know that authors like Peterson may succeed in introducing mindful living practices to the children, as they will shape our future world.  During these turbulent times marked by devastating current events, this gem-of-a book is a “golden sparkle” in itself.

Order: Golden Sparkles: An Introduction to Mindfulness

Mindfulness: Actualized In My Library

After a long, restful, mindful holiday with my family, I am finally back to my blog! It just feels like the perfect time to reflect on my progress so far this past year implementing mindfulness in my library. As readers may know from my previous posts, my interest in mindfulness began as a personal quest for stress reduction and the Buddha-like serenity I saw so cleverly depicted on the faces of models in yoga and meditation magazines. Through personal practice I have slowly begun to achieve these and more… better sleep, better health, more compassion, and a deep, grateful appreciation for all that surrounds me. Although life isn’t perfect, and I still experience negative emotions from time to time (I am human after all), through regular meditation and mindful living practices, I bounce back quicker and feel a significant “shift” overall.

In my quest to spread the benefits of formal mindful practice and mindful living to the students in my school, I have taken a number of avenues. As part of my long-term plan to make mindfulness an inherent part of the learning and growing experience at my middle school, I have begun to implement “phase one” which is to familiarize all students, faculty, and administrators with the concept, and to provide opportunities for both organized and informal practice. Thankfully, I have been lucky to gain the support of both parents and administrators in this endeavor.

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Mindful Spaces:
First, came the creation of “meditation stations.” At each windowsill in my library, there is a bench. For years I have toyed with the idea of getting them upholstered, but it was difficult to justify the cost. This year, I applied for, and received, a mini-grant from our PTA for meditation cushions that can move from the window areas to the floor for guided meditation sessions as needed. Very cozy and so very hygge!

On the walls of these window nooks, I posted colorful QR codes leading to soothing meditation music. Our students have been issued their own Chromebooks this year which they can use to scan them. Pop in earbuds, and welcome serenity! In baskets, I have also placed coloring sheets, colored pencils, and scrap paper on which they can doodle or journal.

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Picture books, which we have often used as a fun way to teach complex ideas (think The Day the Crayons Quit to teach about unions) can be found here as well. Books such as Meditation Is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids, and Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress are two of my personal favorites. In addition to inducing calm and mindfulness through the sheer beauty and simplicity of the the drawings, they provide clear, tangible definitions of mindfulness, and in some cases, simple strategies for practice.

Students are free to use these “mediation stations” during recess at lunch, after school, and during class with a teacher’s permission. Administrators have begun to use the spaces as a “time out” for students. A comfortable, soothing, place where students can take a moment to just breathe and be present with themselves affords them the opportunity to identify and accept their thoughts and emotions and recognize how they may be affected physically by them. They can then pause to think through their next actions. This has proven very effective at calming an angry or distressed student. The teachers have been made aware of these spaces and increasingly take advantage for their students who need it.

Collection Development:
When I was getting my masters degree in Library and Information Science I clearly remember the unit dedicated to bibliotherapy; reading text to promote mental wellness and foster an understanding of self.  Books containing characters who break poor patterns of thinking and behavior through reflection and mindfulness, along with the latest nonfiction devoted to mindful living, yoga, and meditation, provide a treasure trove for stressed children and teens who may feel they are suffering alone. I have devoted a special section of our library to texts on these topics, along with some eye-catching signage, to promote circulation. It’s working!

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Monday Morning Mindful Message:
It’s Monday morning and the homeroom bell rings. Students settle into their seats and brace for the upcoming week. Most are ready, but some… not so much. Anxiety plagues many, and what better time for inspirational words of encouragement and the promotion of a mindful attitude than the Monday morning announcements? Each Monday I read such a quote over the PA system. On a few occasions, I have followed this up by posting a QR code in the library leading to a Padlet (https://padlet.com) on which students and faculty can post a comment, reflection, graphic, or website related to the quote of the week.  I also email teachers a graphic like the one below so they can post it on their smartboards.

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Feel free to email me with questions or comments regarding mindfulness in school. The main purpose of my blog is to connect with like-minded people out there! And stay tuned for an articles on Mindfulness in the Makerspace, MINDcraft Club, and Mindfulness Professional Development.

Meditation Is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids, by Whitney Stewart with pictures by Sally Rippin

This book is a complete gem.  Even though the intended audience is K through 3, I can see using this in my collection as an instruction manual for mindfulness for my middle schoolers (as well as their teachers!).  The strength of this book is the fact that it provides a variety of actual mindfulness practices for kids.  It can work as a daily guide.  Students can choose their methods based on their emotional needs at any given time.  The book describes activities such as, “Mind Drawing for Focus,” “Protection Circle for Security,” and “Friendship Meditation for Kindness.”  They are mostly visualization and breathing exercises.

Intrusive thoughts that “pop up” during meditation are likened to bubbles.  This instruction is to “pop” them when the mind wanders.  As a Reiki practitioner, energy work is a big part of my mindfulness practice and I love how this book alludes to chakras (energy centers in the body) and the importance of, and simple strategies for, sending and receiving energy.  For example, the “Wise Friend for Decision Making” exercise encourages one to envision a wise friend sending, “white light into your forehead to strengthen your body.”  The center of the eyes is the location of the Ajna Chakra, or “third eye chakra,” and it is the point for insight and intuition.  One instructed to then imagine receiving light over the throat for clear speech.  (This is the Vishuddha Chakra.)

The illustrations that accompany the text are simplistic and delightful.  The main subject is a cute elephant and his little friend (representative of the “wise friend” within) is a monkey.  The book concludes with “Questions about Meditation.”  Worded simply for a child, they are the same questions adults often have regarding the practice.  (“What do I do when I feel wriggly?” or “sore legs?”)  In short, this is a delightful little book, and a great addition to my mindful library.

For Mindful Parents/Teachers: The First Days of School

The faint chill in the air, the hints of yellows and reds in the trees, the first flights of flocks of fully-grown geese… AND the push and shove of antsy parents scrambling for that last orange, plastic, three-hole binder at Target can mean only one thing…

TIME FOR SCHOOL!!!!   

Now add the letter from central administration inviting you to Superintendent’s Conference Day, along with a roster of new student names.  When you are a teacher as well as a parent, this time of year rouses a host of emotions that run the gamut from psyched, to terrified, to relieved, to depressed.  How to manage???  Mindfulness, of course.  To be mindful is to pay focused attention to yourself in your surroundings in the present moment, while non-judgmentally observing your mental, physical, and emotional states.  By doing this, we can significantly improve our attitudes and reactions (both internal, and external) and in turn, positively impact those around us.  And the people around us who matter the most during back-to-school time are very important people indeed: our children and our students.  

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It Starts With Us

Improving our world begins as an ‘inside job’.  In order to provide the much needed love, care, and support to kids in a time of such flux, we first need to take stock of our own well-being.  Only then can we can effectively apply mindful communication techniques in our interactions with these fragile, little beings.

The challenge for me, as a parent and teacher at the end of a summer vacation is that for the past two months, mindfulness practice was easier.  My responsibilities were limited.  I was able to unplug from my devices without fear of missing something important (see Beating Tech Overload).  I was able to sleep until my body was ready to wake (most mornings, anyway).  This didn’t mean I stayed in bed awake and too lazy to move, but having the discipline to climb out of bed just as my eyes were naturally opening (NOT at the blare of an alarm). For me, this is the BEST time for mindfulness practice, as it truly sets the tone for the day.  We were particularly blessed this year to have really mild weather, so there were plenty of mindful walks.  It isn’t too difficult to be truly in the moment when your moment is watching the sun set over the water at the beach.

Strategies for Keeping the Mindful Momentum

Start mornings with a to-do list, then put it to the side.  This will eliminate the worry and fear of forgetting something important, enabling you to focus fully on the task at hand.  In order to live and work mindfully you need to shed notions about the supposed benefits of multitasking.  I attended a workshop with Cory Muscara (The Long Island Center for Mindfulness) during which he said that we only ever have one email in our inbox; the one we are currently reading.  If you are short on sleep and didn’t have the morning time to meditate, take just three minutes at your desk to focus on nothing but your breathing.  Take frequent breaks to walk.  Keep sneakers in your car and weather permitting, walk during lunch.  When times are stressful, I know I tend to overeat and reach for carbs.  Avoid this by planning ahead.  Keep healthy snacks in your desk (nuts, seeds, and protein bars).  Most of all, have faith that everything will get done!  Worrying and stressing will not slow time: it will only impede your ability to effectively function.

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Most Importantly…

As stressed and anxious as YOU might feel, think about the kids with such limited life experience, and the literal and figurative smallness many will feel upon crossing the threshold of the classroom.  For many it is a joyful, optimistic time filled with new sneakers, fresh pencils, curiosity, and new adventures with friends.  Sadly though, and often invisibly, for some it is a reprieve from loneliness and hurt, or a source of extreme anxiety.  Being mindful of our own well-being will better equip us for the the challenge of helping these students.  And don’t neglect the emotional needs of your own kids.  Project an aura of calm, maintain a relaxing and reassuring bedtime routine, and LISTEN to any fears or concerns they might express.

Be mindful and truly enjoy this transformative and wonderful time of year!

Space Camp (Part II of II):  Mindful Teachers Become Students… Communication and Collaboration

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Our Team-Designed Patch!

(Read Part 1, “Mindfully Embracing an Opportunity”)

After arriving at NASA’s Space Camp, parting from our accompanying students, getting the grand tour, and settling into our rooms, we were ready to begin the Space Camp for Educators experience.  On multiple occasions, our counselors told us to “prepare to embrace our inner 12 year olds,” or “be ready to be kids again.”  This appealed to me right away, because children are inherently mindful.  I hoped for a good experience, but was pleasantly delighted to discover that the camp would exceed all expectations!  I can’t wait to apply what I have learned with my students!

The collaborative learning experiences that followed over the next few days provided me with many powerful takeaways.  In addition to being engaged in unique and awesome simulations that would draw mindful attention from anyone, I experienced firsthand the power of consciously applying mindfulness techniques when collaborating with groups, as the ability to successfully work with others to solve complex problems has become an increasingly necessary skill in a rapidly evolving workplace.  

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My Rocket Launched!

Launching Solar Shields

One problem-based learning activity stands out.  After a lesson on solar shields, we broke into groups and were given access to an array of maker materials- from paper towel tubes, to rubber bands, to foil, to glue guns.  Our “mission”: After assigning formal roles to each member of the team, launch an object attached to a “shield” of a particular surface area which would open and land flat (sort of like a parachute).  In our group there were the usuals: the ones whose inclination is to take the lead, and the “hang-backers.”  The natural leaders emerged. Early on, I was not one of them. A little insecure in my engineering ability to effectively accomplish this task, I initially kept quiet. One member of the group had what seemed like a very innovative and elaborate idea, however, it did seem way too intricate for our time constraints. I also didn’t think the materials we had could make it work. With the activity outside of my comfort zone, I realized how difficult it would be to convey my thoughts in a sensitive, confident manner. My instinct was to raise the volume of my voice slightly in order to force my vision on the others.  I’ve seen this a million times working with impulsive middle schoolers; that intense belief that your way is THE way.  I thought about the mindful communication techniques I apply with students before offering my input.  

We ended up using a combination of different ideas and alas, our project did not work. But we laughed and had lots of fun and it was interesting to bounce ideas off of one another. I realized through mindful introspection that I know more than I think I do, and the same goes for my class members. As group members, we must truly listen to others, have confidence in our ideas, and communicate with our fellows in a compassionate, non-judgemental manner.  All students need to understand this, and we must teach them this skill.

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The 1/16th Gravity Simulator

Discovering A New Solar System

This group project was designed to teach students how differently we perceive space through our own two eyes, through telescopes, and ultimately through spacecraft that go beyond our view-obstructing atmosphere.  A mock solar system which consisted of a variety of objects in different shapes and colors (mostly balls which represented planets), was hidden under a blanket. First, a member of each group would have a brief glimpse at it with his or her eyes from across the room, and would then have to draw what they saw. The other members of the group would alternately be allowed to steal glances from a variety of angles, speeds, and through various obstructions.  Only the group member responsible for observing could look at it at any given time. Everyone else had to look away. The final objective was to draw and describe the solar system in detail by combining our various views.  During THIS scenario, I felt incredibly confident.  I am a highly visual learner with a very strong sense of spacial relationships (I love to sketch). Again, mindful introspection and mindful communication impacted our work as a group.  It turns out that certain aspects of the “solar system” that I was so certain about based on my own observations alone were, in fact, inaccurate.  It truly required input from all group members to complete this task.  Suprise!

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Spacewalking to Replace Shuttle Heat Shield Tiles

Landing Orion On Mars

Having conquered the gyroscope, the 3G simulator, the 1/16 gravity simulator, the zipline, and the escape from a water crash, the next set of group activities were a blast (no pun intended) and completed my physical ‘astronaut training’.  They were the launch and landing simulations. This is what we were excited about most of all! We played roles as members of ground control, or astronauts on the shuttle or on spacewalks. Everyone had a task to complete which was graded individually resulting in a final total for our team. I am psyched to say that our team, Destiny, beat all of the other educator groups for this session of camp! We could not have been more proud!  Participating in this challenge reinforced the importance of doing my best to complete my own task when the grade of the group is at stake. Knowing that an individual’s effort will directly impact others can be a great motivator for students.

 

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My Circuitry Project Worked!

Circuit Uncertainty

The final activity I will mention was a soIo activity.  We had an opportunity to attend one of a  number of breakout workshops. Now more confident in my abilities outside of my comfort zone, I chose the activity that I had the least amount of interest in, and the most fear of learning, as I’ve had trouble wrapping my brain around it in the past: Circuitry… Eww…  (I am deeply ashamed to admit this fact, as a popular part of our library makerspace is dedicated to this.)  Using a soldering iron for the first time and successfully getting my little flashlight to blink, I was giddy as a child accomplishing a task for the first time!  This experience kindled an excitement in me about something I never thought I could get excited about.

I learned how important it is to NOT be afraid of failure when learning something new.  This is something we say in regard to our innovative teaching practices in my home district, but something that proved WAY more difficult to actually practice.  The second takeaway was knowing when and how to ask for assistance.  When you pay mindful attention to the task at hand and can clearly and honestly assess your ability to complete the task, you must then communicate mindfully with your group members to effectively seek the assistance you need.

I am truly grateful to have had this immersive experience.  For starters, I learned amazing facts about the history of space travel, the mind-blowing technology that exists on the horizon, and incredible facts about our precious planet, the solar system, and the infinite space beyond.  Getting to experience project and problem-based learning experiences AS A STUDENT reinforced my belief in the importance of mindfulness in schools, and will inform my teaching of mindfulness practices to students and teachers alike (in terms of assessing situations, self reflection, and communication).  Last, but certainly not least, I am grateful for the friendships and FUN.  We shared lots of laughs and maintained communication throughout the rest of the summer via social media.  There has already been talk of collaborating this upcoming school year!  Yay, Team Destiny!

Space Camp (Part I of II): Mindfully Embracing an Opportunity

The 9th of July had arrived.  My sons and I had just returned to New York from a trip to Florida, and here I was, back at the airport with two jittery students on the beginning of our journey to Huntsville, Alabama for a week of Space Camp.  The first thought that ran through my mind was, “What was I thinking?!”  I could have have spent that week plopped on a beach blanket, dozing to the sound of the ocean waves rolling in and out.  Little did I know that the adventure ahead would shift the way I perceive the oceans, the land, the planet, the cosmos, myself, and all of humankind.  

Believing that there are no coincidences in this life, I knew as we boarded the plane that, fears aside, I should embrace this experience with complete, mindful attention.  After the mindful flight into the deep South, we disembarked our plane and were greeted by a swarm of other teachers and students in matching blue, Northrop-Grumman t-shirts (a sponsoring company for the camp) along with cheerful Space Camp counselors donning the coveted blue space suits and flight jackets with mission patches galore.  Mindfully observing all of these people, their expressions, gestures, conversations, I couldn’t help but absorb their excited energy.  I knew I was in for something interesting, and I was ready.  I winked at my two students, and onto the Space Camp bus we went.

The NASA Space Camp (the genius of Wernher von Braun and Edward O. Buckbee), from just a mere aesthetic perspective, is a breathtaking celebration of human achievement and an awe-inspiring glimpse of our solar system and beyond.  Exiting the bus, the Alabama heat and humidity struck me like a blow.  My students were giddy, but clearly petrified as well.  This is where I was to leave them for the week, as the students attend a camp that is separate from the educator program.  The mommy in me knew what to do.  I pointed to the sci-fi inspired-looking “habitats” in which they would be staying and told them I was insanely jealous, as I’d be staying in a University of Alabama at Huntsville dorm a mile away.  I added that their friends would be envious too, especially when they heard about all of the other cool girls (and potentially cute) boys they would be meeting from around the globe.  They giggled and went on their way, as did I.

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The following morning began with a tour of the campus, which I mindfully took in with all senses.  It was infinitely more impressive than images I remembered from the 1985 Space Camp movie which was my only frame of reference.  The Space Shuttle, Pathfinder, and a number of impressive jets, jut like spires into the sky.  Simulators such as G-Force and Space Shot promised the thrill of experiencing free-falls and 3G of force as the astronauts did.  The A-12 Oxcart stealth jet, so secretive at the time it was not even named, was thrilling to behold.  A scale model of the lunar module in a living diorama of the lunar surface provided a 3 dimensional perspective of the landing as the astronauts perceived it themselves.  A bronze astronaut statue, and even a memorial for Miss Baker, the space monkey (with bananas lovingly placed on top by young fans) roused an amazement in me at the bravery and sacrifice all who made these feats of flight and space exploration possible.

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This experience would have impressed anyone, but bringing mindful attention to the experience provided a different perspective than one I may have had before my shift in awareness.  My device was silenced and used only for the occasional photo.  I wasn’t rude or aloof, but I tried to limit the idle chit chat so I could really focus on my sensory experience.  I focused the bulk of my auditory attention on the counselors who provided the background info for what I beheld with my eyes.  I focused my visual attention on both the grandiose structures like the shuttle and the rockets, as well as the minutia, like the smaller bits that held structures together, the play of sunlight on metallic surfaces, strange plants, birds, and bugs dotting the landscape, and the diversity of the faces around me.  In such surroundings, there was clearly no turning off of thoughts, but I consciously identified and acknowledged how different thoughts made me feel.  I realized that mindfulness during experiences like these not only makes for a more enriching experience, but plants experiences in our long-term memory more completely than any photograph.

*STAY TUNED FOR – Space Camp (Part II of II):  Mindful Communication and Collaboration at Space Camp for Educators

 

The Lemonade Hurricane: A Story About Mindfulness and Meditation, by Licia Morelli

This adorable gem-of-a -picture-book is the perfect introduction to mindfulness and meditation for the littlest learners.  Beautiful, engaging artwork accompanies simple text in this book, providing for the perfect read aloud.  The book invites opportunities for valuable discussion through the experience of Emma and her little brother, Henry.  

Emma, a mindful little girl herself, often likes to stop and pause when the business of life becomes too much.  Her brother Henry, however, is what she describes as a “lemonade hurricane.”  Pictures in the book can be used to invite little listeners to discuss Henry’s positive, and sometimes negative behaviors (like knocking over Emma’s block castle).  She expresses her desire to be rid of the “hurricane” so she can enjoy her brother more.  By modeling simple mindfulness meditation techniques, Emma teaches Henry to be still.  In this state, he imagines himself seated peacefully on an elephant.  Here students could be asked where they would envision themselves to be peaceful.

A delightful author’s note at the end of the book provides a further discussion of the “lemonade hurricane” analogy. Thicht Naht Hahn, a Buddhist monk, had in his youth likened a clear glass of apple juice in which the pulp had settled, to the clarity of the mind when settling into meditation.  The glass of lemonade, when the pulp is stirred by a “hurricane,” would become clear when still.  The final page of the book introduces mindful meditation exercises that can easily be practiced with a class of little ones, followed by questions for reflection such as, “How did sitting feel?”

Any young one with a little “lemonade hurricane” sibling is sure to relate, as will the child who him or herself struggles with sitting down to “just be.”

Fika: A Most Mindful Coffee Break

I’ve read and written about the Danish concept of Hugge, a term for which there is no, direct English equivalent, but which translates loosely to coziness, the joy of time with friends, and gratitude for the simple things.  Tapping into my inner Scandinavian, (I’m not really Scandanavian, at least not to my knowledge!) I have discovered a second term; fika, coined by the “happiest people on earth.”

Fika translates literally to “coffee” but the term encompasses more of an idea aligned with hygge.  The word can be used as a noun, but also as a verb, “to drink coffee.”  To the Nordic countries, which consume more coffee than any other area in the world, fika is as integral to daily culture as sitting down to any other meal.  But as hygge is more than just “cozy,” fika is more than just time for a caffeine buzz.   To my understanding, it has very much more to do with mindfulness and mindful communication.  It is about consciously taking a break from the hustle and bustle and stress of everyday life to be completely present over a steaming cup of warmth, and if possible, in the company of others. VERY hyggelie…

In my own life, I have made a conscious point of experiencing fika every morning (I give the experience an energetic kick by pulling in some Reiki.)  The brain processes content in chunks, and the same way a body builder needs to pause between reps in order to maximize the effect of a workout, we need to stop and pause throughout the day.  The true experience of fika in the Scandinavian sense takes place during work day and has been a most powerful bonding experience for me and my colleagues.  

Luckily, one of our most frequent library regulars is a Family and Consumer Science teacher, who contrary to our protests, brings in homemade confectionery delights that knock each one of our diets out of the water.  So be it.  A steaming cup of vanilla Joe, a heavenly slice of banana nut bread, and a hearty laugh with fellow teachers is just yet another reason the Danish have got this whole living life thing right.  

Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress, by Laury Grossman, Angelina Alvarez, and the students of Mr. Musumeci’s 5th Grade Class

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Buy on Amazon:

Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress

Hats off to Mr. Musumeci’s 5th grade class of 2013 – 2014 (Reach Academy, Oakland, CA)!  I wish I could give a copy of this book to everyone I know, both children and adults.  This book, with a foreword by MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) founder, Jon Kabat-Zin, is written and illustrated by kids, for kids, and it is the most accessible and complete description of mindfulness for children I have read yet.  

The most powerful parts of the book are the students’ own illustrated accounts of instances when mindfulness could be helpful in dealing with difficult emotions and situations.  This could be infinitely helpful to students and teachers alike in defending the why of mindfulness in schools.  The students cover topics ranging from dealing with anger when hit in the face with a soccer ball or cut on the lunch line, to loneliness when family members go away, to nervousness when their ride is late to pick up from school, and how to effectively “shield” from bullying.

These kids have done their research too.  There are pages relating to the science behind mindfulness, specifically how it changes brain function.  Illustrations accompany information about brain chemistry, the brain on stress, the release of hormones cortisol and adrenaline when we enter fight or flight or flight, and how mindfulness practices can set things right.

The last portion of the book contains techniques for practicing mindfulness such as mindful breathing, body scan, mindful walking, mindful noticing of feelings, and mindful communication.  My favorite is a technique called “shark fin” which I intend to use with my own students.  There is even a bit on mindful eating.  The scripts are designed to be recorded by the reader and listened to for practice.

They close by reminding the reader to practice mindfulness every day and wishing the reader a happy life.  They liken mindfulness to a seed growing inside your body, and mindfulness practice being what helps it grow.  Such a powerful experience for the students involved in creating this, and a such a gift for all who read it!