It’s February. It’s cold. The joy and wonder of Christmas has worn away with the scraping of the driveway for the thirtieth time this winter. February can be a tough month for some in general and our spirits can begin to sag. We may need something to shake us from the ‘winter doldrums’. There are sinful, negative parts of my life that I want to cast off, to die, to allow a new habit or way of being a disciple in the world. This portion of a Lenten prayer from Henry Nouwen speaks to this desire.
“How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death? Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess…. I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.”
Having a fresh start, officially on both the calendar and in our faith lives can be just what we need to move our hearts and minds to a new focus; not on our own fluctuating feelings, but on the internal life that we need to foster with Jesus. Whether we think I have the will to move past these winter blues, Christ and the Holy Church supports us in this continuous journey forward on our road to the glorious resurrection, ultimately.
I was scrolling through Facebook last week and I saw a beautiful fall picture with leaves collected in open hands. The quote read, “The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let things go.” Somehow, that spoke to me, right at that time, at this season, right in this place in my life. Letting go is usually held in a negative light: having to let go of a loved one as they pass away, let go of a dream that may not come to fruition, letting go of a job or position you had hoped to get. This message was saying the opposite. It was in fact, ’lovely’, to let things go.
That got me contemplating the divine and the example of Jesus in our world. Jesus let go all the time. He had few worldly goods of which to speak, let go of all worldly comforts during his forty days in the desert, and ultimately, letting go, obediently as he called out to God on the cross in desperation. Sometimes, God may be calling you to let things go in your own life, within a positive context. Is God possibly calling you to let go of resentments, past hurts or anger, an unhealthy attachment to material goods, a habitual sin? Isaiah 43:18-19 tells us, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
I encourage you, in this season of fall, as you may catch the glimpse of a falling leaf, to remember that “the trees are showing us how lovely it is to let things go”. Ask Jesus to help you and rest in the act of letting go.
I recently attended a funeral for a person that died very suddenly and unexpectedly. We attended the funeral service: a wonderful service and there were many people there to celebrate his life. What struck me this, was that in the end, there was one collage of pictures, one table of artifacts that were important to that person (a guitar, a hat, a water bottle, a hockey stick, etc.), and one hour of recalling the key points of their life with a few stories thrown in. After that, most people who attended move forward for the most part (with those closest still grieving of course).
We sometimes live our lives, worrying, fretting, complaining, catastrophizing situations, getting overly upset over situations, what someone said (or didn’t say), our plans, our influence (or lack thereof), our short term and long term plans that happen (or don’t). After all of our lives, our toil, our concerns, our efforts, we all end up with one collage, one table of artifacts, one hour of formal memories. This really bothered me and my spouse wisely said, all of the good we do, the prayers carried out through us, the evangelizing we do to bring others closer to Jesus, is what lives past that table, that collage, that one hour. That is how we live on with eternal ripples in the world for Christ. It has reshaped how I look at things (at least for now). I challenge you to live each day to create positive ripples that will live past you and your earthly time. Mother Teresa wisely said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
We are very excited to embark on a new initiative at our school with all of our grade five teachers and their students. This initiative was in response to the rise in students’ rate of generalized tension/anxiety and an inability to quickly get back to work during and after transitions. In other words, we wanted to try to support students to focus, calm down, and get meaningfully engaged in the classwork more quickly and easily.
Our school, like many, has embraced the “Zones of Regulation” and has a school wide language embedded in our discussions and understandings. Part of the use of “Zones” is to support and guide students into the ‘green zone’ to be able to learn and participate optimally in classwork and interactions. This ‘green zone’ is said to be optimal as it describes students who are calm, alert, engaged, focused and ready to be on task, both internally and externally. As a school, we decided that this new initiative on ‘mindful breathing’ fit perfectly with our school’s ‘Zones work’ as one more strategy to help students get to this green zone.
As a grade level, the learning time lost during and after transitions was identified as a concern. This ‘mindful breathing’ strategy was brainstormed and we had a meeting to get it started. We met with grade level partners, administration, the school psychologist and the inclusive education coach. It was decided that three times a day, when needed, each teacher would lead a two- minute guided breathing exercise with a pre-set script (from you tube or from the script directed by the teacher). Students would then follow the short prescribed breathing and theoretically, be ready to engage more productively. We are hopeful and eager to gather the post data to compare the differences. This two- minute investment, we expect, will pay off in dividends with more on task work time and higher quality interactions.
Before beginning the actual practice of mindful breathing, times were recorded of transition time and engagement time were recorded to attain a baseline. After the baseline information was collected, the staff addressed the students about the new initiative and its intent. A class survey was given based on the students’ own perception of the issue, their own perceived levels of engagement and their awareness of strategies to help them exist in the ‘green zone’ at school. This same survey will be given to the students again after the initial weeks of the program.
The hypothesis is that by highlighting, discussing, and teaching a relaxing, focusing breathing strategy and using it with the students consistently throughout the day for five weeks (trial time), we will see the time lost in transition decreased and the engagement time increase. Five weeks was the time period that we chose to check to see if the strategy was having a positive effect for students. A positive by-product of the use of this relaxation/focusing strategy would be that students may see this as a tool that they can apply in other areas of their lives (home, community, extracurricular events, etc.). Students would begin to see the inherent value of having this specific breathing technique to self-regulate and focus their bodies and minds.
This initiative was shared at the onset with parents of all grade five students to help explain the idea behind it and serve to answer any initial questions or concerns that parents may have. A common message went out to all grade five parents and was well received. This is another way to build a positive home/school connection by sharing information and strategies that may be helpful for families as well. Our motto is that ‘you cannot over-communicate’.
Another related action that the school is undertaking to creatively engage our PCS team members is to have one of our psychologists host an evening presentation for parents (all parents welcome) to highlight and define anxiety for students and families. We have had great interest in attending and parents are keen to learn more about this issue and how they can better support their children in this area and related areas. This PCS member gave a similar presentation at a staff meeting this past year as staff are not immune from stress or anxiety themselves. Taking a mindful breathing break was welcomed, honestly, as opposed to ‘one more thing added to a full plate’.
We see this targeted, attainable initiative as one more way to build the tool box for students in order to help them engage and relax more quickly and effectively after a short transition. Although we are only beginning with the grade five classes, if successful, we hope to grow the strategy to other classrooms in the school. By collecting ‘hard data’ on its effectiveness, we hope to share this ‘mindful breathing’ with others. Having the entire class take a collective ‘breather’ will only serve to enhance the overall regulation of the students. This is just one intentional way to build the staff and students’ ‘tool box’ of self- regulatory strategies but we hope to build this naturally into the school day long term if successful.
We made an inevitable trip to the dump after our spring-cleaning blitz at home this spring. At the time, I had no idea that it would have some spiritual relevance a few days later, but that is how creatively that God can work in our hearts and minds. The most mundane experiences can be transformative into deeper and meaningful insights. That is the joy of being a human being and open to the gifts that God can bring into the humdrum life that is the majority of our day-to-day living. In this case, God was blessing me with an insight through my own child who is seemingly much more prone to finding the sacred in the ordinary than me.
Our son had come to the dump with us that day and had not mentioned any reaction in particular at the time. That same Saturday evening, we participated in the sacrament of reconciliation and then went to mass. Upon returning to our seat after receiving Jesus in Holy Communion, my son looked up at me and said, “Jesus must be so happy going into our body and soul tonight because we just went to confession and there is no dirt or junk in us tonight. It’s like we don’t want to deliver Jesus to the dump if we still have all that sin inside of us. We cleaned our soul out and its ready for him now!”
Wow – what a powerful visual that I had never quite considered like that before. How many times have I received Jesus in the Eucharist and had less than a clean place for him? Are we working to create a space worthy for Jesus to enter? This was an excellent reminder about the importance of regularly participating in the sacrament of reconciliation as we also regularly receive communion.
Do you think there is any spring-cleaning you feel called to do internally? Can you use the sacrament of reconciliation as a way to help you do this?
Oh the first weeks of January…such a unique opportunity for renewal in any way that I choose after careful contemplation and reflection upon the last 365 days of my life! I try to examine my life in categories: physical health/choices, emotional & mental status, and of course, my spiritual life. Admittedly, my first inclination was to consider mostly my physical health with ideas on how the next 365 days will be decidedly better. I saw a quote recently while scrolling through many ‘Happy 2019’ messages on social media that said, “Our hope is not in the new year, but in the One who makes all things new”.
I repeated it slowly and deliberately to myself a few times; it moved me in a special way. It is not by our own volition that we re-invent ourselves but in the recognition that Jesus alone can make us ‘new’. How did I decide to live this out? I went to the sacrament of reconciliation and was ‘made new’ by the Lord the first week of January. This affirmed my resolve to put my hope in Jesus and not in my own waning willpower (that will most likely waver in a relatively short amount of time). The mercy of the Lord will never waver. What a beautiful gift we have in Him.
What is one way that you can truly put your hope in the One who makes all things new?
After the unexpected death of a parent in a small rural community school, a teacher found herself searching for ideas on how to manage the wave of grief that had just hit everyone in her tightly knit school community, including herself and all 13 of her students. Finding out there was no plan in place or resources ready to help, the teacher began to develop her own for her school, collecting ideas and items and reading until the middle of the night, how to help support those around her. She then made contact with one of the district inclusive learning coaches who provided a supply of children’s books and resources, and shared the teacher’s concerns about supporting the school community. With the thought “This should be everywhere, all of our teachers should have this within their reach and not have to wonder what to do next.” The teacher collected books, suggestions, practical information, art/writing opportunities, phone numbers, support ideas for the family, the students, as well as for herself for immediate use and for continued family support. This need was the impetus for the forming of the grief box, started in Peace Wapiti School Division 76, which has now spread throughout the entire division. Using the Box the first teacher and coach made as a model, the Inclusive Education Coaches gathered as a team to assemble and finalize the contents for the boxes that would be distributed through the district. Currently, there are two grief boxes in most PWSD 76 schools for staff to access at a moments’ notice.
Sadly, this initial incident was not the last tragedy to strike a classroom, school, or broader district community. As many of the district schools are located in smaller towns, hamlets, or colonies, the larger portion of the broader community often experiences the pain of grief. Large schools can feel the effects as well and needed the supports. Schools were sometimes dealing directly and indirectly with death/suicides, house fires, illness, divorce, incarcerations or other life situations that cause grief. All of these things can greatly affect the social/emotional fragility of all involved, especially if you are a child or teenager, making academics seem secondary. Our schools needed something concrete to begin to bridge that gap for our grieving school members/students.
Since grief knowledge, resources and materials was a growing area of concern, based on the first teachers’ experience, different partners in the district began to look at creating a thoughtful resource box to provide a teacher some immediate and on-going support for the student(s) as needed. The inclusive education coaches dedicated much time and effort into the creation of the resource. The district school board was behind the effort completely. The boxes were jointly funded by the Comprehensive School Health and Wellness grant, local ATA, and discounts by local Michaels and STAPLES stores. This work was broad and intense but culminated in a beautiful resource, both aesthetically and functionally, for staff to use immediately as a need may arise, for pre-teaching and for on-going grief support.
Each box (purposely described as a box as opposed to a ‘kit’) is in a uniquely attractive box with an attractive but muted design. Inside is an assortment of items specifically chosen to help soothe and comfort students from a variety of chosen resources.
The grief boxes are comprehensively designed, including resources for:
Each box includes:
Although officially launched in December of 2017, during this school year, seven schools previously requested them (even partially finished) as student loss arose within the district. Teachers (and families) were grateful to have such a resource available to them in their own classroom. They could easily sign them out from the library and keep as long as necessary. Local school councils were grateful for this type of support for the students in the school as well.
How has this resource been utilized by teachers in our district this year?
In December before the Christmas break, a grade 2 classroom teacher guided her students through making a memory box to honor someone they grieved or someone who has been important to them. They took them home as part of their Christmas celebration.
Students at another school created a display board based on the Grief Box book “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” in memory of a Grade 3 classmate who died.
One father at Parent Teacher Interviews thanked his son’s teacher for creating a “Memory Book” about his wife. He reported they sat on the couch together, read it and wept together.
The grief boxes are a part of an overall focus on the social and emotional health of children in our schools. We continually strive to find ways to meet the needs of the whole child in order to bring them to a better place in order to succeed in the other facets of student life. As we look to support a child academically, we know that we may need to meet other needs before doing that effectively. By working in partnerships with others, sharing our stories and needs, we all grow both as professionals but also as people sharing life’s joys and struggles. It is in that journey, although sometimes hard and painful, we move together to help develop our students and school communities with understanding and compassion.
*This article appeared in the ATA Council for Inclusive Education journal in 2018.
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Carmen has been published in a variety of online and print articles. Writing is a passion and she strives to grow and share her message.