Forcing forsythia and smiles.

I’m training myself to be mindfully optimistic about spring instead of wishing away the present; but it’s not easy.  Embracing three days of cold rain and grey fog in late March challenges my best intentions. So I cheat a bit. Without threatening mother earth to quicken the pace of her slowly timed season change, I force forsythia. Forsythia is a wonderful, hardy shrub that explodes into tons of bright yellow flowers in early spring. When the buds finally burst nature proclaims that winter has passed, but that’s in April.
The cheating begins in the dark of March. Before the blooms have begun to open, I sneak into the garden to cut stems and carry them into my house. Putting the sprigs into vases of warm water, I can practically hear the sticks sigh with relief from the harsh cold. Then I wait and watch. I consider it a meditation to spend mornings with my coffee willing the buds to unfold. Eventually bright yellow petals greet me in my kitchen and my impersonation of Mother Nature is complete.  And that makes me smile; which is another way to endure March.

 

My current favorite guided meditation includes the instruction to create the “suggestion of a smile” at the eyes, and the mouth, and inside the mouth. Just hearing the teacher giving this direction makes me smile, so I comply. And I’ve started applying this forced smile concept to my March life. In the early morning, when I go out to feed my horse, if the rain runs down my back I practice smiling with the inside of my mouth.  Or if a passing car splashes me with cold slush as I approach my mail box, I attempt smiling at the corner of my eyes. I’ve read that dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are all released when a person smiles. So maybe even pretending to smile makes a person happier. And if it doesn’t I’m still cheating winter by forcing the bright, sunny forsythia in my kitchen. It’ll do.

Time To Take My Own Advice: Stop Worrying!

Time to Take My Own Advice
“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
– Winston Churchill
As I sit waiting for my husband to get out of surgery, I thought, this might be a great time to write about worrying. So I think I’ll stop now, that is worrying about him. He’s in great hands.
Worrying stresses our bodies. Drips cortisol and adrenalin throughout our systems wreaking havoc on our organs, muscles and tissues. Not such a good idea to do to ourselves.
Preparation and taking care of what we need to do is about all we can do. There is a certain amount of luck and chance in our lives. We’re all going to experience great ups and not so great downs. Getting used to that notion may help us accept what arrives, riding the waves of this wonderful human experience. When we worry, we miss the great stuff.

When we face a challenge, let’s face it. The pillows are in the car. The matzo ball soup is waiting for Davey when he gets home. So are croissants for tomorrow. I’ve cleared my schedule to be available for him all week. Even got him a friend sitter to be there so I could go to a Graham Nash concert we’d be scheduled to go to for seven months. He will heal and I’ll do the best I can to help him do that.

As a third grader said a few years ago, “I was walking home from school and worrying. Then I realized I was worrying and I remembered about mindfulness. I stopped, took a few deep breaths, and then had a great walk home.”

Worrying is a choice. The kids are smarter than we are. That is certain. I’m going to take this third grader’s advice. Take a few breaths, enjoy the quiet of working in a hospital and then meet my hubby in the recovery room with a smile on my face.

My Morning Routine

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. ~ Marcus Aurelius
 
As a new teacher I struggled with mornings in my classroom. From the outside you might have never known. I relied on mornings that were highly organized and structured. I knew my second graders thrived on routine and predicability. Each morning I met them at the door and greeted them with a smile and a warm hello. Morning work was always neatly placed on their desk alongside a sharpened pencil. Everything appeared neat and tidy and “ready to go.” Except it wasn’t. Each morning my students would rush into the classroom, race through their morning work and begin to unravel my tidy, neat, highly organized morning routine.  It had this, “off to the races” vibe that often felt chaotic and rushed to me. I hadn’t even begun teaching yet and often by 8:45 I was exhausted. My students seemed to do well with the routine, but I felt no joy in beginning my mornings like this. I craved something different, and I wondered if my students did too.
 
I decided to ask them. How did they like to approach mornings? Did they like to talk to their friends right away, or read a book quietly first? Did they want to start their day drawing, or writing stories, or doing math? I told them how I needed to walk slowly into morning instead of jumping right in. How starting the day out with loud noises and bright lights and lots of conversation made me feel overwhelmed. We talked about how interesting it was that each of us had unique way to greet mornings. We celebrated our differences and brainstormed ways we could create a classroom environment in the morning that honored each of us. 
This talk changed our mornings forever.
 
Collectively we decided it was best for everyone if we set a calm tone in the morning. Most of us preferred to start our mornings out this way. Students knew that when they entered the classroom each morning they would do so quietly. I played nature sounds or classical music  from my iPhone. Students had a choice of what kind of work they wanted to start the day with. Some students drew, some students read, some students worked on math, some students worked together playing a math or literacy game. I had time to listen if students needed to talk or had a problem they needed help working out. 
 
I no longer began my mornings racing around sharpening pencils, copying “morning work” or asking students to lower their voices. I began to look forward to the mornings and the quiet buzz of my classroom. I noticed I felt more positive and energized to begin my first lesson and, in turn, my students were more engaged. 
 
By connecting and listening to each other, our classroom community was stronger. It was during this time in my teaching that I had begun to practice mindfulness. I decided to introduce some of the techniques to my students. We incorporated mindful breathing into our morning meetings, and mindful listening into our walks in the hallway. We noticed how our bodies felt after practicing mindful awareness and shared how we could use these skills throughout our day. 

What started as a simple inquiry about mornings led to a transformation in how I approached challenges in my teaching. One of the most important practices in mindfulness is your willingness to try to be open to each experience. When you apply this mindset to your teaching the possibilities for new discovery are endless. 

The Social Emotional Learning Team

I had an amazing call with a Principal who firmly believes in using Social Emotional Learning at her school.  She is so committed that she is inspiring her teachers to form a “Social Emotional Learning Team” to not only implement programs but to make them sustainable.    Why is this important?  Because teachers are so unmotivated by having to implement another initiative!  How many new initiatives can we add to a teacher’s day?  Yet, it’s so important to add an SEL program in schools and it’s critical for student’s ability to learn.  A daily mindfulness practice is foundational to social emotional learning and academic learning.  It promotes using higher order cognitive resources (the prefrontal cortex) over lower order functions (fight, flight, or freeze) which allows students to be ready to learn.  
Mindfulness is not a new age thing or related to a particular religion, it’s training our brains to have the ability to pay attention at the present moment non-judgmentally.  When it comes to education, the aspect of paying attention alone could be the game changer for many students.  Try it out, bring mindfulness into your classroom and see what a difference it can make for you, your students, your classroom and ultimately for your community.  You can try the daily practice at InnerExplorer.org to get started.  I’m in love with the idea of having a Social Emotional Team and I hope that it’s a concept that all schools will try to incorporate.

The gratitude of a snow day

I’ve lived in either Massachusetts or Vermont for my entire life, so I make a conscious effort not to complain about weather.  Watching a foot of snow fall yesterday I let go of my discouragement and instead chose to embrace the snow day.
For many of my colleagues, a cancelled school day is a special kind of torture. The kids are underfoot and bored or they want mom to spend hours outside watching, standing and freezing while they play in the snow. But for me and other parents of teenagers, snow cancellations can mean hours of peacefulness. 
All day yesterday my family was happy and safe. My husband took a rare snow day, working from home–which meant I didn’t worry about him driving on icy roads. College was cancelled, so my daughter stayed in her dorm. My teenage son slept into mid-afternoon.  And instead of rushing out to a volunteer commitment, I enjoyed a leisurely cup of coffee then put a few logs in the fireplace and a pot of chili on the stove.   
When the electricity went out (along with our internet access) attempts at work were forgotten. My husband and I sat by the fire, quietly reading; occasionally lifting our heads in response to an enormous gust of wind or sleet pelting the windows. My son sat in his room using his phone’s remaining power to listen to music and face-time his friends. We could hear soft strains of both his music and his laughter. My daughter called to ask for advice (and for my credit card number) proving she was both safe and happily shopping on-line. 
A few hours into the afternoon our electricity returned, and the snow slowed. My son and husband ventured outside to begin the snow cleanup before dark; while I sat peacefully watching the snow and listing my blessings.  A warm home.  Running water.  Food in the refrigerator. Chili on the stove. A working snowblower. A strong son with a shovel.  And a new gratitude for an unusually cold spell of weather and a March snow day.