by Elisabeth Liptak, Executive Director, Minds Incorporated
Twenty-one second graders at Maury Elementary School on Capitol Hill sit cross-legged on brightly colored mats. The lights are dimmed as Jennifer Jordan walks in.
“How is everyone feeling today? Can I get a thumbs up or down?” On this Monday morning in early February, most of the students are having a good day. They are happy to see Jen, their mindfulness instructor, for their weekly mindfulness lesson.
The class begins with some mindful movement: Mountain Pose, a Qi Gong exercise called Painting the Fence, Lemonade Squeeze, and Tree Pose for balance. “Put your hands out and support your neighbor,” Jen calls out. “Sometimes we need help.”
With their bodies now settled, they sit for their “mindful moment” exercise, which turns out to be three minutes. Since the lessons began in the fall, the students have gradually worked up to longer periods of sitting in stillness.
During the mindful sitting, Jen guides them to use different anchors, such as hands on their belly as they breathe or sounds in the room. “If your puppy dog mind wanders, just bring it back to your breath” she tells them.
Afterwards, students share how the practice felt. One boy said it made him feel calm, while one of the girls shared how she put her hands over her ears and heard sounds like a stream. There is not enough time for all the students to share their experience, so Jen reminds them to leave any notes for her in the mindfulness bag in the back of the classroom. She makes sure to answer each of their notes.
Throughout the 16-week mindfulness class series, a different theme is covered each week, including mindful breathing, sounds, movement, or eating. Today’s lesson is on heartfulness. Jen explains that heartfulness is about being kind to ourselves and others. The students watch “Friends Furever,” a heartwarming video showing animals that seem like unlikely friends playing together. The video elicits lots of giggles and empathetic “aahs.”
Jen leads the students in a heartfulness activity, asking them to close their eyes, place their hand on their heart, and picture a place where they really like to be, doing something they love. She asks them to imagine the colors and the feelings that arise, offering the following wishes: “I wish to be happy; I wish to take good care of myself; I wish to be kind to myself and others.”
As the mindfulness lesson winds down, the class receives their challenge for the week to offer kindness to themselves. Jen also asks them to teach the heartfulness practice to someone else in their family, noting that “Parents need mindful moments, too.”
Minds has been teaching mindfulness classes at Maury Elementary School since 2014 when it was just getting off the ground. Since then, they have taught students throughout the school, trained educators on self-care and bringing mindfulness into their classrooms, and offered sessions for parents and families.
For the past three years, Minds has been working with the three second grade classrooms. Katie Linn is one of the teachers who has seen the benefits with her students.
“Mindfulness helps my students in so many ways,” she says. “When they “flip their lid” or get really upset they are able to recognize they are mad or sad. Some ways they have learned to calm down is to breathe, shake a glitter jar, find their anchor, or use their “fox ears” to listen to sounds in the classroom. They teach their families ways to use mindfulness and help the whole family.”
“My favorite lessons are the ones on heartfulness,” she adds. “The students tell themselves they are enough and should be kind to themselves.”
In addition to Maury, a more recent partnership is with C.W. Harris Elementary School, located across the Anacostia River in DC’s Ward Seven.
On this same day, 18 fourth grade students gather in the gym while Ofosu Jones-Quartey leads them in a series of breathing exercises. Students raise and lower their arms as they inhale and exhale in Elevator Breath, open and close their fists as they practice Flower Breath, and trace the inside and outside of their fingers as they breathe using Five Finger Breath. The room, previously filled with boisterous talking and movement, suddenly gets quiet.
Ofosu, or Mr. O as the students call him, asks what they have noticed in practicing mindfulness since he last saw them. One boy says it helps him relax and not get angry. Another says it helps clear his mind when he feels depressed and stressed out.
Before turning to the day’s lesson, Ofosu leads them through a chant he likes to use:
“What time is it?” he asks. “Right now,” they respond.
“Where are you?” “Right here.”
“Who is enough?” “I am enough.”
“I used to sit for long periods of time,” he explains, “thinking that was the best way to practice mindfulness. Now, I’ve come to realize it’s also important to practice mindful moments throughout the day.”
Today’s lesson focuses on mindful sounds and listening. Ofosu tells the students that sound is another way to help them come into the present moment. Then he instructs them to get comfortable by either sitting or lying down with their eyes closed or gazing downward, and listen to the sounds of the music he has brought. Once again, the room grows still.
The session comes to a close with a practice on gratitude. Students share that they are grateful for family, friends and teachers. One boy mentions gratitude for his mom for “putting a roof over our heads.” Ofosu tells them to bring these things to mind any time they are having a bad day.
Minds is in the second year of working with the third and fourth grade students at C.W. Harris. Janay Stallworth, the dean of students at C.W. Harris, has noticed a difference. “Soon after we started the mindfulness classes, behavioral disruptions went down significantly.”
The next day, 10 educators from D.C. public and charter schools gather in a meeting room at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. They are part of a professional learning community that Minds is leading through October. The educators will learn to practice mindfulness for their own self-care and also ways to bring mindfulness into their classrooms, counseling sessions, or other school activities. Each month focuses on a different theme, including compassion, neuroscience, mindful movement and mindful communication. Following the in-person session each month, Caroline Pettit, a Minds trainer, facilitates an online session, guides them through practices, and gives them a challenge activity between meetings.
“Our goal with the learning community is to empower these educators to become mindfulness ambassadors, working with school leaders and mentoring educators to incorporate mindfulness throughout their schools,” says Jennifer Fechter, Minds Program Director. “We are excited about creating a cohort of professionals who will continue to support and inspire each other long after the conclusion of the Minds program.”