Sunday, January 18, 2015

Teaching For-Credit Mindfulness Classes (interview)

image courtesy Caverly Morgan
Caverly Morgan is the Founder, Director, and Lead Teacher for Peace in Schools,, which brings mindfulness to young people in schools, shelters, and social service agencies in Portland, Oregon. This semester, Peace in Schools began the first yearlong for-credit mindfulness classes in two Oregon high  schools. They are currently seeking financial support to expand this program in order to meet the requests for similar classes from all over the country.

In an article for Portland Family, you mention the increase in isolation and alienation among teens, leading to a rise in bullying, self-harm and violence. How does mindfulness help counteract these trends?

Mindfulness isn’t a Band-aid. What we focus on at Peace in Schools is getting to the root of the issue. We address the process by which issues such as alienation and self-hatred have been established.

Incidents don’t come out of nowhere. Something is going on for a teen that leads to an incident. Usually it’s connected to extremely negative self-talk, along with a host of other negative internal processes.

Looking into the source of the problem can assist us in bringing love, compassion, and healing. Mindful awareness practice tools can help teens disidentify with their negative self-talk. As a first step, we have to know how to hear and recognize that self-talk in order to direct our attention towards compassion and equanimity.

Did you face any special challenges when you started your for-credit mindfulness classes?

We started out giving 6-week curriculums and workshops on mindful movement and awareness practices, outside of school hours. The principal at Wilson High School realized it would be more effective to teach these skills during school hours, in order to reach kids who played sports, kids with after-school jobs, and teen moms.

Also, we could have more of an impact by seeing the students three days a week for the full school year. That isn’t possible in an “in-and-out program” where the teachers come from offsite for a few weeks.

We were excited by the possibility of becoming an integrated part of the school day, so we offered two days of demo classes to see how much interest there would be. The principal said, “We’ve created a monster! 300 students want to sign up!”

We now teach three full classes at Wilson High School and four classes at Rosemary Anderson High School, both located in the Portland area.

Since the program launched, we’ve received hundreds of inquiries from high schools all over the country. We’re working to expand our staff and train facilitators so we can offer for-credit mindfulness classes in more locations.

In other words, our biggest challenge has been meeting demand! It’s a wonderful problem to have. There’s a great call in the world for this work of healing right now and youth are awake to it.

In a recent interview, Bart van Melik advised teachers working with traumatized youth: “if something doesn’t feel good to the kids, you don’t push them too far.” How do you find the right balance between challenging teens and respecting their physical or emotional limits?

It’s important to give kids a heads-up about what to expect in class and what they’re about to do.

When teachers know the background of their students, they can recognize the reason a kid might say “I can’t do this.” Is it just resistance to a challenging pose? The student might just need some encouragement to give it a try.

On the other hand, the student might be reacting, consciously or unconsciously, to trauma. For example, one of our students found guided visualizations scary. After talking with the school counselor, we decided to let her opt out of them if she didn’t feel ready. Having that option gave her a feeling of safety, so she actually did feel comfortable trying the visualizations along with the rest of the group.

We offer our classes at Wilson, a public high school, and at Rosemary Anderson, a community- based alternative high school for at-risk students. At the end of December, there was a suicide at Wilson and a school shooting at Rosemary Anderson.

That made us realize it’s not accurate to say one school has “at-risk youth” and another doesn’t. There may be more socio-economic deprivation at one school, but all teens are exposed to risk, sometimes extreme risk. The potential for internal isolation is universal. Economic security is no safeguard.

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

For me it means that as we teach, we’re keeping the clear vision of who a student authentically is. As we’re able to recognize a student’s authenticity, we’re able to teach in a way that allows that authenticity to shine because we have an unwavering commitment to who that student is, rather than being distracted by who that student is conditioned to be.

As teachers, it’s important not to take our sights off our own authenticity. Then we can provide tools to the students to allow them to learn to let their own authenticity come forth and shine.

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

I don’t feel that I bring my awareness practice into my life, but that I bring my life into my awareness practice. I focus on being as present as possible, having my attention aligned with what is true, with compassion and awareness. Everything that I do on the level of content stems from that commitment.

On the days that I’m not teaching in high schools, I lead retreats for adults and work with individuals through private consultation. I also go on retreats as a participant, in order to deepen my practice and gain a different perspective.

related posts:

Teaching Mindfulness to At-Risk Youth (interview)

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