Mindfulness in Teaching

A friend who is gathering data for his doctoral research asked me to do a project for him related to mindfulness. When I agreed to log my reflections for a week, and chose the first week of 2021, little did I know exactly how important mindfulness would prove to be.

Monday, 4 January 2021
A Welcome Space

As I thought through the process of this project, I decided I wanted to let the images and reflections happen without a lot of prior planning–a somewhat in-the-moment mindfulness. I was in my silent classroom in the morning, teaching short lessons via Zoom, with longer spaces between the periods. My classroom has a sort of joyfully cluttered visual aesthetic, and my bulletin board is an example. I tack up my own doodles and collages as well as student artwork, notes about books they tell me I need to read, quotes to remind us of our work in the world, along with the schedules and the lists of the business of school. I am hoping the message my students take away from this is the importance of celebrating each moment, no matter how mundane (and life in school gets draggingly mundane). I hope they see my own artwork not as pieces to be admired but as reminders to express their own inner worlds in art and poetry. I hope they are reminded by the quotes and posters to seek justice and to work against the -isms that break our social contracts.

I include here the little close-up of the collage with the woman and the phrase: “Look how many of us there are now” because I think it’s a reminder to connect to others who seek peace and justice and goodness and kindness, and also because–minimal as it is–it’s one of my favorite word-poem collages.

Tuesday, 5 January, 2021
Mending and Making

In the riot of images and posters on my walls and the books and objects on my shelves, I want to make my classroom a place I want to be, and where my students want to be. Even when the work is overwhelming or I am experiencing challenges that make me dread the day, I want my classroom space to be inspiring and engaging and restful.

I’m caught up these days in the concept of making and mending, both in the physical world and in the inner work. Then of course there’s the layer in which the physical act is itself a symbol of the inner work that becomes a ritual or prayer for the work of social justice and of teaching. One of my social media pleasures has been following makers and artists and crafters on Instagram. I find images of mending and handwork and art to be soothing and settling; they help me to shift my inner space into focus a little better when things in my work-life or the state of the nation cause me anxiety or sadness.

I love my striped scarf. I wear it several days a week, even though it was torn. In the fall, I made a couple dresses out of old men’s dress shirts, and I noticed that the one striped fabric was similar to my scarf. At first I zigzag-stitched pieces into the holes, but as that began to fray, I embroidered a blanket stitch over top to make it more secure, creating what my Instagram maker heroes call a “visible mend.” The other piece in the photo with my scarf is random embroidery on a piece of denim, which I made up as I went along.

Sort of like teaching, that: Even after a couple decades of teaching, I am still making it up as I go along, beginning with an idea of what I want to see, but shifting and adapting in the moment depending on the alchemical mixture of students in my class, current events, and the mood of the moment. And sometimes the thing I try to do frays, like my initial mend in my scarf, and I need to add another layer, letting the “mend” itself become part of the pedagogical design in the moment, making the process conscious. Perhaps a visible mend is like our metacognitive processes, where we analyze how we think.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021
How the Light Caught Our Shadows

When I took this photo, I was feeling a vague anxiety about the upcoming events of the day in Washington, DC, chatting briefly with students at the beginning of classes about the significance of the ceremony of counting the votes.. I teach in a Christian school of the Mennonite denomination, and so having religious images like the Madonna of the Streets in the classroom is acceptable. I had also brought along my mala beads, a more Buddhist or universalist tradition. I made them this summer as a way to ritually and prayerfully ground and center my attention when busy-ness or anxiety threaten my peace. Every morning when I enter the classroom, I spray the sage-based Clear Space Mist–its scent reminds me to let go and teach from my center. 

Little did I know how I would need the calming of prayer and image and scent by the end of the day. Just before the final period, I had been watching the Senate discussion of Arizona’s votes, when people began to rush around in the chamber, the VP tried and failed to call the room to order, and the screen went blank. I thought it was a glitch, and went on to begin Act 5, scene 3 of Lear in my AP Literature class, listening to a student read Edgar naming Edmund a traitor to his family and the state, standing up to his brother’s treachery. I still have not sorted out the timely irony of this. When class was over, a colleague came down to my room with the news that the chambers were overrun by violent insurrectionists, and that she was feeling more anxious than she did on 9/11.

Despite all my mindful intentions of the morning, I gave in to the anxiety. My calm frayed.

Thursday, January 7 2021
REVOLUTION / ReLoveUtion

This is January’s calendar page in my Amnesty International Calendar. It’s an image of a people’s march in LA, women marching for missing and murdered indigenous women at the 2016 Women’s March. After a protest that became a bloody insurrection on Epiphany yesterday, I focused on the images on my calendar for grounding. I attended that worldwide march in 2016 in Washington, DC on the day these women called for a ReLoveUtion, called for recognition and action to investigate brutality toward indigenous women. For that March, when we felt our vote was disenfranchised, we knitted pink hats, we danced and sang with strangers in the streets, and we admired each other’s signs. We cleaned up after ourselves. We helped each other find good perches from which to better hear and see the speakers.

Yesterday was different. The morning’s anxiety became the afternoon’s reality.

Today I grounded myself in one of my art/spirit practices. Last year, I began doing found poetry and image collages on my calendar pages at school, so today, I sat still, took a deep breath, and pulled strips of words from a can I keep in my classroom. My friend Mara gave it to me, full of strips of words cut from magazines, as a wish for good fortune when I took this teaching job. I need to replenish it, I see. Mara and I call ourselves strippers because we make poetry from strips.

This one reads:

The dark night begins when we realize that all our spirit-heritage did not get along
outside our house, for the maps inside
a chamber whose wall seethed with a spaceless carpet of creatures,
assigned to us in the doldrums like parts in a movie

you can relax and calm the waters a bit
Writing has been my cell

As I put it all together, I could feel myself moving out from the weight of the seething spaceless creatures and into the calming waters of my monk’s cell. Writing. Relaxing.

It’s a difficult week for mindfulness, an essential week for mindfulness, when all my practices are being tested. I am thrown off-balance, grateful that I don’t have to be in the pressure-cooker of in-person classes, but wishing I could generate more discussion in the Zoom-rooms. At least my 8th period AP Lit class was eager to talk, even on Zoom, sharing a range of honest reflections about yesterday’s events, clearly repudiating the violence and openly complimenting the midnight speeches from both sides of the aisle.

Friday, 8 January 2021
Feather of the Day

In the summer after I got this job, as I was preparing to teach, I realized one day that I had found a feather every day for a week. I began to keep my eyes peeled. The streak continued. For about eight weeks, with only a couple exceptions, I found a feather every single day. Of course, we lived beneath two giant trees, a poplar and a sycamore, with wonderful places for owls to sit and eat their midnight meals, so there’s that. And I was out in the fields every day, harvesting vegetables, so I was out in nature more than I was in the house. Still, as I tell my students when I relate this story: It’s my life, and I get to choose the meaning I wish. So, I chose to honor the gift of feathers as a reminder, in a time when I was making a major job shift in my life from farmer back to educator, that I would have the resources I needed to fly. I began posting photos of my daily feathers on my social media, along with short poems I wrote.

This morning, as I am lost in the fog of the week’s terror, I happened upon a crow feather on the sidewalk on the way in to the school building. I choose to take it as a sign, a message that I can still rise through the fog, and like the crows, beat my wings in the winds, still find joy.

I opened my computer, in the hour before the day’s Zooms, to find a letter from a parent of a student in my 8th period class, worried that I had wasted precious class time yesterday in discussing politics, which has nothing to do with the subject at hand, and which made her daughter anxious. She and her daughter decided to close the Zoom before we got to reading the last few pages of Lear. Sigh. I believe it is urgent that teachers offer their students an opportunity to respond to the events and crises in their real lives with the same analytical and critical lenses and skills they use for their literary analyses. I’m not sure how I will work with this in that class in the final week of the semester. The mother did ask that I dismiss her daughter from class if the talk turns to politics. I DO want my class to feel like a safe place for everyone, but I think we need to talk about unsettling things that happen. 

There’s a tension today between the almost glib tone of Monday’s reflections about creating safe space in the classroom, and the knowledge that my careful and intentional teaching created a space that felt unsafe for a student. Part of me wants to shrug and say, “Can’t win ‘em all,” but isn’t that sort of the whole point? We’re trying to win ‘em all–not let any fall through the cracks. I’ll start by reflecting on the differences between unsafe and unsettled.

Saturday, 9 January 2021
The Rhetoric of Insurrection

Here is a poem I wrote about the insurrection. I needed to find a way to put some of the rage and confusion into words. I will not read this one to my students. I don’t even know anymore how to sort out what is acceptable to say in the classroom. In a school connected to a peace church, I want to help my students analyze the events of the week in terms of how to be peace-builders in this most harrowing of situations. And here I am, sitting in my own puddle of rage at the peace-breakers. I have been so careful not to speak ill of this president who galls me to my core. But now, when his lies have brought us to this point, when I want my students to look with clear eyes and hearts toward the building of an equal and just society, how can I talk about this event without drawing the lines?
Here’s the poem:

The Rhetoric of Insurrection
by Beth Weaver-Kreider

The landscape is littered with lies,
seeded with falsehoods like landmines,
like bombs hidden in the halls of justice.
The fabric of reality is stained,
torn and twisted, threads cut and tangled.

It’s nothing new, this rhetoric of insurrection.
For years now, they’ve been spreading it on,
lie by lie, suggestion by suggestion,
layer by seditious layer, whipping the masses
into a frenzy of rage and disenfranchisement.

Now is the time for clear-headed cleaning,
gathering threads of Truth where we find them,
patching and weaving, healing the fabric,
stitching and mending, finding our way
to the source of the lies and destruction.

Long before terror and chaos pillaged the building,
the lies were laid to pillage the truth, to bend
the will of the gullible and power-hungry masses
to do the silent bidding of the suited pirates
who have laid the groundwork of sedition.

Calling for calm and understanding only veils the carnage,
drawing another layer of lies to cover the wreck.
Now is the time for the stark strands of truth
to stand out and carry the narrative
back from the brink of destruction.

My peace has been broken, my balance shaken, my mindfulness marred. And yet, if there’s ever a time when spiritual practices must be meant for, it’s now. Gratitude. Mindfulness. Grounding and centering. Visualizing and affirming peace. Why practice the disciplines only for the pleasant and easy times? The whole point is to create inner spaces that cannot be destroyed by outer earthquakes. I’m not in shambles, only shaken. And that itself is a spiritual discipline, a mindfulness practice, to–as they say–feel all the feels. Like Rumi’s “Guesthouse,” I want to welcome them in, meet them eye to eye, know them as part of me. Only then can I start to clean up the shattered pieces that the earthquake knocked to the floor.

Sunday, 10 January 2021
Three Strands to Braid

Strand 1: My teaching actually brings me to mindfulness today. In Themes in Literature class, we’ve been studying The Zookeeper’s Wife, a story of a Warsaw woman who, with her husband and her community and a widely-effective Underground Resistance, saved hundreds of lives of Jewish people and resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of Poland. We’ve been considering the characteristics of people who, instead of getting caught up in fear, turn toward the terror, and do the work that comes to them to do, to save and protect and rescue.

Strand 2: My husband’s father died on Epiphany, twelve years ago. Last night, my husband was going through some of his papers and came upon some letters and writings his father had tucked away from his days as a Seafaring Cowboy, one of the hundreds of young American men who, in the wake of WWII, tended cattle and other livestock on ships bound for Europe, to aid in rebuilding after the devastation of the war. This photo is of a series of postcards he brought home, images of Gdinya, a town near Gdansk, where they docked. In his letters, we learned that he took his first ever plane ride to visit the destroyed city of Warsaw. He wrote of the devastation of the city and the farmlands, noting that the retreating Nazis had blown up dikes, which flooded the arable farmland.
Here, in this trove of papers, my own life intersects with that of Antonina Zabinski, the zookeeper’s wife, in a very small way.

Strand 3: And then, just before I went to bed last night, I happened upon a Facebook post about Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish Hasidic rabbi who escaped Warsaw mere months before the Nazis began bombing the city. Hasidism, according to Diane Ackerman, the author of The Zookeeper’s Wife, is a strand of Judaism that emphasizes living in radical celebration–not a partier’s absorption, but a life of wonder and amazement. She mentions Heschel only briefly, in the context of Rabbi Shapira, another Hasidic rabbi, who stayed in the Ghetto and ended up dying in a concentration camp, who had to hold for his flock the tension between the horror they were living, and the call to be deeply engaged in the life of the spirit, deeply, mindfully celebrative. He developed meditations and mindfulness techniques to offer his people a way to bridge that space without denying the everyday terror, but also maintaining a heartful connection to everyday beauty and wonder. Here in the US, Rabbi Heschel, a scholar and professor and anti-war activist, became a supporter of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and joined the Civil Rights Movement.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . . Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” ―Abraham Joshua Heschel

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