Sunday, October 23, 2016

Day 25- Friday MTS Professional Development Day- Meditating with Teachers

MTS Professional Development Day is the only professional development day of the year when teachers get to choose an area of interest to explore for their own professional development, learning and growth. I am grateful to have found a home with Manitoba Middle Years Association (MMYA- where I can present and share my research and experience with other teachers, as I have for the last four years since I completed my Masters.

My session, which I expanded last year to the whole day format, has continued to be a popular choice, and like last year sold out with 40 participants, at least for the morning. As I began the morning session, and I expressed my gratitude to my participants for their presence and the choice they had made to be there, I also emphasized how I believed this is a day for teachers to take care of themselves and learn in the way they feel they need to learn, so I wouldn't be taking attendance, or offense, if people didn't come back in the afternoon, with a reminder to fill out their feedback form and note their presence. This is a hard pill to swallow, because I really want everybody to come back in the afternoon. and I want to mean it when I say I won't be offended, which means I have to work with my ego and remind myself it is not always, or rarely ever, about me. I also appreciate the 25 or so teachers who did come back for the afternoon all the more, because I know that they really want to be there.

My morning session pretty much outlines the points of my comprehensive project with stories to illustrate my experience, and in the hour and fifteen minutes I spent with the 40 or so teachers, we opened with the 4 minute and 38 second, inhale, 2, 3, 4 meditation I use through the month of September and ended with a 5 minute and 44 second daily, finding what we need, meditation just before lunch. In between those meditations, I just talked, answering the few questions that came up along the way. I am not sure where it came up recently, but there was a discussion about preparedness leading to spontaneity and freedom that has resonated with me, and that I felt as I was getting ready for yesterday, and throughout the day as I was presenting.

In the early years of my presentations, I felt internal pressure to use a PowerPoint presentation, not because I needed it, but because I felt I needed to prove something to my audience and make a statement about my credibility. But when I was presenting with slides, I felt limited by them, always worrying if I was in tune with my slides and covering what they said. It was not natural to the rhythm and flow of any particular group, and felt counterintuitive to the nature of the themes of holistic education, and spirituality and meditation in the classroom.

Yesterday, when I got to the classroom, I loaded a few links and pieces I thought I might need, put my contact information, chapter information (I had to search on the ESWB- Education for Sustainable Well-Being press to find the link, because the google scholar link didn't work), and blog site on the board, and had my portable speaker and Ipad for my music. It has now been about 3 years that I have been presenting this way, at holistic conferences, in university and middle school classrooms, for a middle school staff, and again today at MTS day- basically whenever I can. It has become second nature, an extension of my teaching practice, and is an absolute pleasure. It has become what I consider a large part of my educational purpose, to support other teachers in their classroom practices by destigmatizing holistic education, and spirituality and meditation in the classroom.

Among the pieces I loaded was a slide illustrating mindfulness as the presence to be in the moment when receiving stimuli, and the ability to discern between a reaction, often automatic and not mindful, and a response, which is thoughtful and facilitated through mindfulness, or a mindful pause. As I opened, I told them this was the only time I planned to use the projector, which didn't mean we wouldn't use it, but that they didn't have to worry about it, or rely on it, and that they should find a place where they were comfortable in the room. It was a very large classroom, but with 40 adults it was still very cramped. I began with an explanation of the illustration, which sums up the essence of mindfulness.  It is not a program, many of which are on the market and being touted in schools today, but a practice, which has been around for a long time, in the act of living mindfully in the present moment, whatever the present moment is.

I am always wary of educational programs, which are often brought in with huge ceremony, or an authoritative voice, and hailed as "the" program with "the" answers to learning, whether it is in Math, classroom management or mindfulness. I have seen it happen to many times that teachers are handed a package, or put through, or even sometimes choose to go through PD, which is said to be "the way," at the expense of other methods, experience or successful practice that may already be in place. While most of these programs have some value, and there are usually one or two nuggets teachers can identify and use, there is no one way for every student to learn any given concept or skill, and packages are usually more about cushioning someone's bottom line, or advancing someone's career than serving students, As I began, I made it very clear that I don't have any opinions about any packages on mindfulness, though I know of several being used in schools. I believe that teachers are experts in their classrooms, and can use the resources with which they are comfortable and serve their students in the areas of mindfulness and meditation, as they do with all other choices they make around curriculum and supporting resources, and that if they were hoping for a package or handout, they hand come to the wrong session. Having said that, I also emphasized that I am very happy to share my experiences, research and resources, and invited everyone to ask questions as I spoke, talk to me during the breaks, or contact me after and I would send them any information they need.

Even though I reassured my participants of this several times during the session, and insisted I did have slides I could send them that included everything we were doing, there were many who took notes throughout the session.  This never ceases to amaze me, because anyone who has ever been in any class, meeting or PD session with me knows I rarely take notes, but come prepared with a huge selection of markers and paper for doodling. I have a lovely art wall in my living room that is the best byproduct of my university studies.

As I begin my presentations and introduce myself, like on Friday, I try to be very transparent about who I am, why I do what I do, and my core values and beliefs. One of the big differences I have noticed when working with adults is my own acute awareness of cultural differences and the knowledge and experience that others in the room may have. This also holds true with my students, of course, but their knowledge and experience is limited to 12 years, and as I discovered in class again recently, they are not even aware of most of the cultural stereotypes. As the age and experience of the audience grows so does my sensitivity to each person's experience, and a little more so when meditation is obviously inherent to that person's culture.

When I started meditating in the spring of 1994, I was 24 in Tel Aviv and had been told by a tarot card reader that learning to breathe better would be essential to avoiding suffering in my life. Though I thought it was ridiculous, it stuck with me and I bought a book on breathing and started practicing meditation and working with my breath. Shortly after that I learned I was breathing backwards, sucking my belly in when I inhaled, instead of letting it expand to use my full lung capacity. I couldn't believe it. I didn't know it was possible to breathe backwards. But I had never played an instrument, and my grade 5 choir teacher had told me to mouth the words, so I had never been taught to breath properly. These revelations changed my life and I have been working with my breath, learning, and practicing meditation ever since.

I try to make it clear that though experienced, I am no expert. I have learned from many teachers in many places over the years and put it together to develop one way of meditating that works for me and my students. It is not the right way, or the best way, just the way that works for me that I am grateful to share. I am very straightforward in sharing my own personal struggles with discipline, starting and stopping, being slow to change- one of my challenges, for over 20 years I have been consistently inconsistent or inconsistently consistent, depending on the day, which I think is part of what makes me such a good teacher. I can be consistent for and with my students in my classroom, to help them bring discipline to their lives, because I want better for them. I am open with my participants about the good days and the bad days both in life and the classroom, and my continuing gratitude that the good days continue to outnumber the bad.

I also welcome feedback from the start. I acknowledge my experience and a certain level of expertise in my classroom, and with the research in education and meditation, I also recognize that there are others in the room who may have a lot more knowledge and experience than I, and invite participants to feel free to share. In 1994, cultural appropriation was not part of our social consciousness, and while I believe I am, and have always been, working within the realm of cultural appreciation, and have been learning and sharing something of a universal practice, with commonalities in many cultures and some religions, with sincerity and respect for the benefit of myself and my students. Yet, when I present and work with teachers today, I am very aware of the time, place, and the social constructs of 2016. It is never my intention to offend anyone, or to make assumptions, and I bring that awareness to my presentations in the introduction.

Then we began, Moving into the meditations with adult learners is not challenging, especially in a session where teachers have chosen, sometimes even paid out-of-pocket, to be there, as there is no need to manage behaviour. Like kids, teachers are reluctant to answer questions, whether it is before, about meditation and its purpose, or after, to share their experiences. I let them know that pretty much everything I was saying to them I say to my students, including that it is okay to wait out the awkward silences and give people, young or old, the chance to process their ideas and respond. With this group it worked, and a couple answered my questions about the purpose of meditation, to stop our thoughts by bringing our focus and attention to our breath, and a couple shared their experiences after, noticing the strange passage of time and other sensations and feelings.

The morning session went by very quickly. The first 4 minute and 38 second meditation was done before I knew it, which is also what one of the participants stated, noting her surprise. The room was too crowded to circle around the entire space, which was strange for me- I really like to walk around because it helps me keep the count even. Everyone participated, sitting up straight, breathing with the count, not surprising or remarkable for a group of adults who chose this session. Also one of the reasons I love these sessions. The meditations are peaceful, and there is power in our coming together to breathe.

I talked pretty naturally, sharing a lot of what I wrote in my comprehensive project, my chapter, and in this blog. My Masters Comprehensive Project explored educational research in holistic education, spirituality, and meditation in the classroom and its benefits, from the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual perspectives, and then in connection to the whole child, which I illustrate for my participants, reminding them, they can chose not to believe, or also tell any naysayers or objectors, that even if they don't believe any of it, sitting quietly for 5 minutes will not hurt them or their students. There is never enough time to cover everything in an hour, so I alway hope I am not forgetting the most important parts and appreciate when people ask questions, because I know I am telling them things they want to know.

We started the second meditation just 10 minutes before the lunch break. A couple of people were scribbling their notes as we were getting started, and I reminded them I could send them the material and they were more important than their writing. Everyone moved into the meditation easily and peacefully. I moved through the prompts, breath count and took my time with the description of full, deep inhales, the hold, and the slow, steady exhales and the different qualities. I figured this is the only experience we have together, so I tried to be thorough, even though it did not leave a lot of time for silence at the end. I did sit down and join in the stillness for 5 or 6 breaths, in which I noted my excitement and enjoyment in the presentation and my gratitude for the opportunity and the experience of the morning.

Lunch was supplied, which was a bonus for presenting, and lovely to hang out with some colleagues and people I don't get to see too often. After lunch, there was a keynote address by Thomas Falkenberg, of the University of Manitoba, who beyond being very interesting and speaking on the important topic of sustainable well-being, is hugely important to me, as he sat on my Masters committee and gave me the opportunity to publish my work through the ESWB, chapter 11 in his (et al) book.

His talk on Education for Sustainable Well-Being spoke of the school's growing role in actively teaching well-being, through skills and practice, and the responsibility to do so to meet the needs of children as they grown. He connected Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to research in sustainability, well-being and positive psychology, to illustrate the urgency in addressing the needs of our students on all levels, using a holistic approach.

As I walked away from his address what resonated with me most was the responsibility to help our students build a positive identity and a sense of self, which fosters belonging, because if we don't take steps to actively move in this direction, then a negative sense of self grows in its place by default. When we don't speak to our students, they often hear the words we don't say even more clearly.

As I started the afternoon session, noting my deep gratitude to the 25 or so people who had returned, and the one gentleman who joined, I shared my thoughts and the timeliness of implementing practices like meditation as a tool, to support the ideas Thomas had been promoting. I also shared the work of Catherine O'Brien from Cape Breton University on Sustainable Happiness ( She had been one of the keynote speakers at the Holistic Convention this past May and Thomas' talk had reminded me of her work.

It struck me to share her website with my participants as she promotes actively growing and sustaining happiness by exploring what it means to be happy, moving beyond the material, and ways we can bring happiness to our life. In her talk in May, she spoke of varieties of affluence that go beyond the material or financial, including "time affluence," and a awareness of how we spend our time, or sometimes even having leisure time to spare, and "nature affluence," in which we grow an appreciation of, and find happiness in, nature. It seemed important, and timely, to share this information with the group, as well as stress the urgency to bring this kind of learning to our classrooms and not discount the steps they could take and their impact.

After that introduction we went into a short moving meditation, half sun salutations, to energize us for the rest of the afternoon. I explained I like to use these when we are outside and can connect with nature and our surroundings, but as long as they have an arm's length of room around them this meditation, like most, can been done anywhere. With only 25 people in the room in the afternoon there was enough room for everyone to spread out.

Before they did, as I was introducing the meditation, I gave a little information and then said I would demonstrate one round first and they could either watch or feel free to join in. Most often when I do this with kids we are outside and they are already standing, but wherever we are, they rarely watch a round. They just jump in, half listening, sort of watching as they go. It was very strange to demonstrate the half sun salutation, and move through the 3 breaths, having everyone sitting in their seats around me. I didn't feel self-conscious or awkward, it was just weird, because it was the first time that everyone was actually watching and listening to me. When I was done, everyone got up and joined in. We moved through a series of 5 rounds, 3 with me giving direction and 2 in silence. It felt good to move and lovely to stand in silence, in a moment of gratitude as I felt my heartbeat. Maybe I should do that with my students more in the afternoons.

Before I spoke about METTA meditations to close the afternoon, I addressed one of the most common pieces of feedback I hear from teachers, together with their desire to do something like a meditation practice in their classroom, is the worry that they are not experts, that they are not good enough or will somehow do it wrong. I understand the fear and have wrestled with it myself in many ways. In my experience it is a common fear of teachers, when teaching in all sorts of subject areas.

As a Jewish educator, I teach Holocaust with a certain intimacy and expertise, but if only Jewish educators taught Holocaust, there would not be a lot of learning on a very important part of history, or the opportunity to grow compassion and understanding, I am grateful to gentile educators who take on this responsibility even if they do not consider themselves experts or have the same level of learning I do in the area.

This is how I came to understand reconciliation and my role in it as an educator as well. It doesn't matter that I am not indigenous and most of my students are not either. I have a responsibility to teach what we have to come understand as Canada's true dark history- the racial disposition upon which Canada was founded, which led to a cultural genocide that lasted 7 generations, and its lasting impact, including the systemic discrimination and marginalization of indigenous people, and the resulting issues, like the intergenerational trauma, poverty and addiction- in order to take active steps to help my students gain a deeper understanding, and be a part of reconciliation today for a better future. It is my responsibility as an educator. If we don't, who will?

It may have seemed like a tangent to my participants, but to me it is all connected. Holocaust and Indigenous educations are issues of Social Justice, and advocating for student, and teacher, well-being is also an issue of Social Justice. If we don't teach well-being, and practices like meditation, then who will?

So I encourage teachers to find the resources they need, the ones they are comfortable with, just as they do with all of the other important learning they do in their classrooms. To that end, I showed a little five minute video, which contains a one minute meditation, to illustrate everything I tried to demonstrate in our practice- because kids believe it when it is on youtube- and because it highlights how simple it is to find different resources that can be fun for kids and teachers can be comfortable with. (

The video is fun and simple, and a good place for teachers with less experience, or teacher candidates jumping into their practicums, to start. It is also a good place to emphasize one point of caution. While meditation is a powerful tool, holding a variety of benefits to help one cope in life, it is not a magic cure to anything.

It is important to remind oneself, and when working with kids to remember, when we take a few breaths we might feel a little bit better, but it doesn't make everything different or alright. It doesn't change reality or make uncomfortable emotions disappear. It is a tool to help us manage our emotions and life's events, but it won't solve everything or change one's circumstances, though it might support us in finding the ideas and strength to do what we need to do to ultimately change our circumstances. It is that calm in the storm, rather than wishing the storm away, type of feeling that we can gain from meditation, or spiritual practice, by consciously fostering our well-being and happiness in all areas of our lives and the lives of our students. It is important to me that I stress what meditation is and is not at some point during the session.

With about 40 minutes left in the day, and wanting to end a bit early, because we are all teachers and theses PD days are the only days we can do this, I went into METTA meditations, the explanation, and a couple of stories. One, when we extended our caring and compassion to the people of Japan after the earthquake in 2011 and then learned my VP's son and family were there, and  the second, dealing with the death of the student's parent, both our which are told in detail in my chapter. I also talked about September 11th and Orange Shirt Day (September 30th) this year as shared in the blog.

We went into the meditation and the room was so quiet that within a minute or two of walking around my squeaky shoes were driving me crazy. I didn't know if anyone else noticed, but I figured if I did  someone else must. After trying to stand still failed within a few breaths I just slipped off my shoes and went on guiding the meditation barefoot.

As we moved through the steps, extending our caring and compassion, first to ourselves, then with loved ones, then an acquaintance, and finally out into the world, wherever they felt a need, near or far, and there was a peace and quiet in the room. I think everyone was very happy for the opportunity to relax and there was a palpable feeling of clam in the stillness of the room. There was no shuffling or fidgeting, just peace.

I joined in the minute or two of silent gratitude, and for the umpteenth time that day felt a supreme sense of appreciation for the people in the room, the day, and the opportunity to do what I really love to do, work with teachers who really want to be there and share my experience and learning. I wished I could go into their classrooms and work with them and their students, and noted that I will keep working towards that I am writing towards it.

After the meditation ended, I opened the final moments to any last questions, comments or ideas, and once again waited some time through the awkward silence, before I reminded everyone that their feedback was valued and to fill in the forms before they had a wonderful weekend, and I once again thanked them for their presence.

Their thank-yous as they left and the positive feedback on the forms was really amazing. I sifted through the comments, happily noting that by and large people had appreciated the meditations and the time and guidance to meditate, as well as me and my passion. It was really gratifying. It was an amazing day, and I am grateful to the people who attended my session, MMYA, and MTS PD Day.


  1. Cari, your PD day sounds amazing! I am grateful that you are sharing since I can't be there in person. I especially like the way you linked teaching the suffering of the Holocaust with the teaching of Canada's dark history. You are one of the messengers of stories that need to be learned and remembered. Thank you for doing that important work.

  2. Cari, just catching up on your blog and read this one (probably in the wrong order). Very much enjoyed reading about your PD day and your work with teachers. A most interesting entry!