Guiding children to a place of calm focus, we can dive deeply with them into joyful academic learning and experiences that develop maturity, build character, and prepare them for their own set of unique challenges which they will meet in the years to come.
“Spiritual education is training people for life. By teaching children kindness, concentration, will power, strength of character, truthfulness, and other higher qualities, their lives are made richer. The ultimate purpose of life is not simply to get a job. If you don’ t know how to find happiness, money won’t buy if for you…. Education rightly understood, is preparation for that process of real learning, which takes place after we leave school. By giving children the tools and understanding to make right choices in life, we can lead them to lasting happiness and true success throughout all the many experiences that will come later in life.” – Swami Kriayanada, Education for Life
In this sense, the academic arena becomes the teacher’s central stage for guiding the practice of communication, humility, self-control, and all other qualities that lead one to true success, healthy relationships, and inner happiness.
The goal of the first month of school, for me, has been to create as many experiences as possible for the children to feel centered-calmness while learning. Individually, this harnesses their enthusiasm for learning, and cooperatively, it directs the energy of the class upward, toward a sense of shared joy and friendship.
Secondly, I also felt the need to create an open, inviting classroom for parents and volunteers. I hope our parents feel attunement with the goal of education at our school and feel they are part of our classroom community.
I would like to share with you 10 areas in which we are learning to direct our energy toward calm, focus, both in the non-traditional academic and traditional academic areas:
1. “Jedi Training” or Superconscious Living Exercises
In the morning, as we are waiting for all the children to arrive, we work on a craft or practice musical instruments. When everyone has arrived, the student leader for the day begins with what the kids have named “Jedi training.” These are the Superconscious Living Exercises, which help to awaken and focus the energy. Of course, the energy will change during the day, but can we bring it back to center at a moment’s notice? We learn techniques that help us be masters of ourselves. That’s self-control.
Allowing students to lead activities, such as the lunch blessing, morning exercises, yoga, etc., gives us practice in letting other shine. It also offers practice in developing leadership skills.
2. Harmonium Orchestra
What has become the harmonium orchestra began as a lesson in one of our classroom rules: we use our will to create good energy. We began with about 3 harmoniums for the class and no drums. We began the month of September learning the chant “Listen, Listen, Listen to my Heart’s Song.” The kids really took to it right away and wanted more harmoniums and wanted to include drums. So we made signs asking people with any old or extra instruments to please donate them. But we could not stop there – in order to keep the energy flowing toward our goal, we had to keep practicing, and practice we did, and the instruments flowed in. We now have 7 harmoniums and 3 drums. The first time we added the drums, we did not have enough instruments for everyone. We put all the instruments in a circle and I led the chant on guitar. When I called out “Switch!” the children would stand up, move to the next instrument and join back in almost seamlessly. We were able to play for about 15 minutes non-stop, with deep concentration, and attention to the feeling of the music. Now the children are eager for an opportunity to share what they can do with this chant and are working on another. They have had an experience in harmony on multiple levels.
3. Awakening Enthusiasm for Writing
We have writers of all abilities in our classroom. Some children are able to write pages, while others are still mastering the skill of handwriting and phonemic awareness. Some of the obstacles to writing are fear, comparison with others’ abilities, physical difficulty, and mental blocks. So, the first thing we must accomplish is relaxation. The way to relaxation is to awaken enthusiasm, get directed on a path of inspiration and anything is possible. Several of my last years’ students came in with great eagerness for writing, since we built this skill last year, which helps to direct the energy. Early on, I began reading a comic book to the kids about one of the legendary figures we will be studying this year, John Muir. The kids all huddle next to me and behind me on the sofa. I spread it out over a couple of weeks to build suspense. Finally we get to the chapter when John Muir arrives in Yosemite and becomes so enraptured by the beauty he experiences that he feels he must share it. The only way he could share, since the majority of Americans lived in the east at that time, was to write! Right away, I gave the kids an assignment to write – it was varied, depending on what each child really loves. One child is writing a book. Another is doing research on meteors and writing down his findings in something he wants to share with other kids. One of my non-writers of last year, has gotten writing-fever, by making a cartoon a day. He writes however he can, without the stress of right or wrong. Then we sit together and correct it and rewrite it. A child who has difficulty coming up with ideas, works with a new English speaker. One of my new writers worked for a week with an older student. She dictated and the older student wrote it down. This built up her confidence and, for the first time last week, she began writing her very own sentence. All of this was without frustration or the feeling of heaviness. Allowing the children to experience the joy of seeing their own inner inspiration through to completion cannot be repeated enough.
4. Learning Cooperation in Math
The students who I had last year have developed a very close knit and supportive environment for learning during math class, wherein competition and getting the answer are not the goals. We focus on developing clearer, deeper thinking and communication, and helpfulness and supporting each other in this process. For example, early on in the year, as we were reviewing place value, I had the kids play place value battleship. First off, the kids tried to make their opponent’s number as little as possible, so that they could win. Tamara Wells, my math helper, suggested that the goal be to make their opponent have the highest number possible. In this way, there was no pressure of being a “loser,” and the focus was around generosity and helpfulness. A challenge for my newer students is to bring them into the comfort zone. To do this, we need to go back to a place with numbers where their is no fear and start from there. In this case, it is starting back with the relationship between the numbers 1 – 10. We have a fun game in which every time we recognize the relationship of numbers to 10, we bow down ceremoniously. We make it fun, game centered, and practice math skills in many, many different ways so as to engage each child’s specific needs, gifts through the tools of maturity: intellect, feeling, body, and will.
5. Sharing in Victories
Victories vary for different people. Sharing may be easy for one person, but for another, very difficult. Communicating what we need from others, allowing others to shine, including others’ happiness in one’s own, are a few more examples. We practice recognizing each others’ victories and celebrating them. Sometimes with spontaneous popcorn or just a moment of recognition. Currently, the issue of helping keep each other be safe on the playground has come up quite a few times. Telling stories that imitate things that have or might happen at recess and allowing the kids to discuss them, role play them, and come to their own conclusions helps them grow together. We recently made a trip to Synergia Ropes Course. The purpose of the trip was to practice cooperation, awareness of others, and have fun in nature. Allowing kids to feel joy in others’ successes is something we will do hundreds of different ways this year. I also wanted to observe the children and discover the areas needing growth. One of the most beautiful moments came at the end of the day. We had just finished our closing circle which we do every day at school. We go around the circle and everyone has a chance to say thank you or I’m sorry to someone else. After all had been said, we were all just so still and quiet underneath the towering pine trees. There was a feeling of friendship and trust flowing through the silence, not one of “what’s next,” or impatience. Who knows what tiny moment could be life altering for a child.
6. Experiences of Energy & Power in Ourselves and in Nature
Aside from daily sprinklings of yoga, breathing activities, and still meditation, we have also been learning Tai Chi with Nayaswami Gopal. Gopal has given the kids yet another way to experience feeling centered. Tai Chi offers the kids yet another way to experience being in control of their energy and the vastness of it. After a session with Gopal, the kids express how great they feel. I was able to draw their attention, to observe how they feel when a child who is not coming from the same centered place runs up to them at recess. On a trip to the Meditation Retreat, we heard stories about the garden and the oak forest there. The kids sat with their spines up against the tree, feeling the sensation of energy, just like they felt during Tai Chi. Getting them to experience their own power is something we will repeat in hundreds of different ways this school year.
7. Awareness of Harmony through Science
We try to tie in experiences that build character in every subject. For example, in science class, we have been learning the steps of the Scientific Method. Helping kids understand the meaning of inference ended up being a lesson in communication. We asked kids to describe what was happening in certain standard scientific experiments and also in ways more personal to their own experience. For example, common cause of upset: one person bumps another and the other student reacts loudly, “Hey! Why’d you do that!?” The other person, reacting to their reaction, yells back, “I didn’t do anything!!”… and upset ensues. Iswari and I role played the whole scene and let the kids first give us their observations without making judgements. Next we let them tell us what each of us inferred from being bumped based on our reactions. We let them discuss times when this happened to them. Several times after this, I was able to draw attention to individuals who have habits of reacting with anger to question if they may have inferred incorrectly. We were able to bring awareness to changing mental and verbal habits that create disharmony to those that create harmony.
8. Bigger than Me
I have never seen kids as dedicated to cleaning the classroom as they are in our class. Recently, in fact, one comment was, “Do we have to come in? Sweeping is so much fun!” One child asked me why it was more fun to clean at school than at home. I registered this immediately, being a mom myself: combined will power, or, doing it together and keeping it light-hearted. Allowing kids the opportunity to expand their awareness to their greater environment in a joyful way teaches them the joy of service to others.
Taking care of pigeons is something new to our class this year. You can see in the faces of the kids, their natural feelings of love and care awakening when we spend time with the pigeons. We have one pigeon who has deformed feet. The kids are learning to take special care of him. One child named him Winter after the dolphin with a prosthetic tail. We also just found 4 eggs in the nests! We are eagerly awaiting the babies!
9. Developing Emotional Maturity
Becoming aware of others and whether our interactions with others are uplifting or down-pulling is part of our world, no matter what academic subject we are studying, we also get to practice emotional awareness games with Tamara Wells once a week. This helps kids develop an awareness that not everyone shows emotions the same way and that in order to share how we feel we need to communicate with words. We can refer back to situations that happen during lessons and play and learn the language to express ourselves and our needs clearly.
10. Building Character through Learning History
Although they aren’t aware of it, the children in our class are inwardly developing who they will be in highschool. This is based on the interactions they have with others, how they perceive themselves, and who their role models are. We spend a lot of time listening to and reading stories about heroes and legendary people. Currently we are learning about Westward Expansion of the United States. We pick up this study from the point of view of the great people who were there and the choices they made. We use theatre, dress up, field trips, stories and books, hands on activities to let the kids learn through experience. Here is a photo from another class visiting Malakoff Diggins State Park. Toward the end of the year, we will have an overnight visit in which we will dress in costume and experience life as the pioneers did: