By Tina Nilsen-Hodges, Founder and Principal, New Roots Charter School (Ithaca, New York)
“Take 30!” Instantly our entire student body fell silent and closed their eyes. I peeked to see the reactions of city officials who were guests at our ribbon-cutting ceremony. Their incredulous expressions said it all – wow, that was extraordinary!
New Roots Charter School is a small public charter high school in Ithaca, New York, designed as a fully integrated model of education for sustainability at the secondary level. Authorized by the State University of New York, we first opened our doors in 2009. “Take 30” was integrated as a school-wide mindfulness practice in Fall 2015.
While initially challenging to implement, this simple thirty-second pause to breathe, focus, and be present in the moment that we practice at the start of every class and meeting is now welcomed as a benefit that improves our personal and collective well-being, learning, and relationships. As a staff member once spontaneously exclaimed after the practice, “Take 30 is the best part of my week!”
The surprising, multi-faceted benefits of this simple practice inspired us to design a Wellness course for students in our lower school (grades 9 and 10) that integrates yoga and mindfulness practices with elements of a traditional physical education and health curriculum. Together with our Farm to School meal program featuring 75% locally sourced foods and produce from local farms, these practices have become an integral part of a culture of wellness at New Roots that links personal well-being to that of our social relationships and environment.
Mindfulness practices, meditation, and yoga as elements of a wellness program at New Roots have been present since our first year, but are only now beginning to fully take root. The foundation was laid by several years of periodic professional development offered by our Academic Dean, Kris Haines-Sharp; a meditation as an elective class taught by our Dean of Student Life, Jhakeem Haltom; and yoga classes taught by our current Wellness teacher, Tanya Kingsley. Take 30 grew out of this work as a targeted strategy for helping all members of our community access mindfulness practices regularly and experience the positive benefits personally and as a group.
Despite early exposure and successes, it is only now in our third full academic year of implementation that mindfulness practices like Take 30 have become fully embraced as part of our culture. Administrative team members who were leading the way came to appreciate the importance of starting with small steps to allow the necessary time for a culture shift to happen naturally.
Our first and most important step was cultivating teacher support for Take 30 as a practice to start every class period. In the first year we did not achieve a consistent practice with students, but we did establish a routine practice in staff meetings, and provided teachers with access to the considerable body of research documenting the value of mindfulness in educational settings.
Teacher Audrey Southern describes her initial resistance, and why she was soon won over. “At first, it was difficult to consider giving up even 30 seconds of instructional time. What I have found is that by taking 30 seconds and pausing before diving in, class time is actually more productive, students are more focused, and I am more focused.” Audrey also reports that another positive outcome is that her students in grades 11 and 12 report using the practice prior to big tests and college interviews.
Staff also reported experiencing positive professional impacts once they moved past their initial resistance. Skeptical at first, academic adviser Matt O’Brien says that learning about mindfulness supported his ability to navigate difficult moments with students. “Using mindfulness techniques, I have seen noticeable differences in interactions with students that in the past would have had me fired up and at risk of showing my raw emotions and frustrations. Taking a deep breath and having a calm demeanor, not matching a student’s level of emotional intensity, I am in a better place to help the student and build a stronger relationship.”
Matt continues, “This has been HUGE for my professional development, way more than I ever could have believed. I’ve only given it a legitimate shot this school year and I know that I would have had a more successful last three years if I had done it sooner.”
Reflecting on the process of implementing Take 30 at New Roots, senior Noah Brown concurs, saying, “When Take 30 was new, many people had a negative reaction. I wasn’t into meditation so it felt weird at first, but then it was great to see everyone settling down more after a Take 30 compared to when they don’t have it, particularly the younger students. It’s a great way to start our community meeting – it makes it a better experience for everyone.”
Building on our success with Take 30 and drawing on lessons learned, we developed a new Wellness course, which is taught by Tanya Kingsley, a certified yoga instructor who started her teaching career at New Roots as a Spanish teacher. In her first year, Tanya’s work with students has been based on the Mindful Schools Curriculum. Regular practices in her course include reflection on mindful vs. mindless actions, body scans, awareness of breath, and kindness meditations, in addition to basic yoga practices. Practices such as mindful nutrition, in conjunction with studies of nutrition featuring community experts, help expand students’ concept of how mindfulness can be applied to enhance all aspects of their health and wellness.
Entering our Wellness studio, students experience an immediate shift in consciousness along with the removal of their shoes. There are no desks or chairs in the classroom; students are invited to take a yoga block or blanket to sit on and to create a space on the floor where they will be comfortable. When all are present, Tanya introduces the theme of the class, and invites students to assume a mindful posture and begin working with their breath.
Tanya describes mindful posture as sitting with back tall; shoulders over their pelvis; knees level with their hips or lower (with props to support their sitting posture as needed); arms light; hands placed on their knees, thighs, or lap (wherever they feel most comfortable); eyes closed or in a soft gaze at the floor. Once seated, students are invited to bring awareness to their breath, any sensations in the body, and the activity of their mind.
The theme of the class provides a focus for reflection and discussion. For instance, in a class on the theme of loving-kindness, after a short discussion students were invited to assume a mindful posture and to think or remember something that evokes a feeling of friendliness or tenderness. They were asked to notice the feelings experienced as a way to recognize that these positive feelings are always present and we can access them with awareness if we choose to do so. “This is part of the learning experience of mindfulness,” Tanya says, “to recognize that we always have the ability to choose our actions in the present moment.”
Developing her wellness curriculum, Tanya has drawn on resources such as Learning to Breathe: A Mindfulness Curriculum by Patricia Broderick; The Way of Mindful Education and The Mindful Education Workbook by Daniel Rechtschaffen; The Mindful Teen by Dzung X. Vo, MD, FAAP; Mindfulness for Teen Anger by Mark C. Purcell and Jason R. Murphy; The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens by Gina M. Biegel; and other books.
Tanya says, “I hope to offer students tools that can help them work with stress and the turmoil of life that is often experienced during adolescence in a more positive way. Mindfulness not just teaches students how to handle stress and difficult situations and relationships, but it also teaches them to be more compassionate with themselves and others. Yoga teaches them to integrate different parts of themselves such as their body, breath, and state of mind, developing the stamina needed to face the challenges that life may bring.”
As expected based on our experience with Take 30, Tanya encountered early resistance from students. She says, “We do not live in a culture that values and teaches silence, self-reflection, open and non-judgmental observation. So the idea of sitting quietly for even a couple of minutes was awkward!”
Sophomore Julia Sumner concurs, saying, “I had never experienced something like this program before. It was so difficult for students to sit still at first, so Tanya challenged us to take this practice of being mindful into our lives, like when we were brushing our teeth. I thought this was really cool. At fifteen our lives are chaotic, moving so quickly, and we are not ever able to stop and pause. Before this program, I hadn’t really understood that during Take 30 I was putting myself in the moment to take a rest, to be here and now, to forget the past. I use this in my life now. My mind wants to race, move, bounce from past to future, but I can take a few moments to stop, breath, reflect. When I am able to pause and put my focus on now, I can gather my best efforts to put them into what’s happening in the moment – to stop being scattered and instead be in one place and able to give it everything I have.”
Music teacher David Ferreira sees the tangible benefits of our Wellness program in the performance of his music students. “What students learn in their Wellness classes translate into better music performance in two specific ways. Vocalists have greater mindfulness of breath and breath control, which are essential to their ability to project their voices, support sound, be in tune, and stay focused. Being mindful and focused over long periods of time is also essential for all instrumentalists but in particular those with highly repetitive parts, like percussionists. One percussionist says he forgets to breath sometimes when he is playing – and when he breathes, relaxes, and stays mindful he goes from being shaky to being right on time and holding the group together. He says he feels and notices the difference.”
Improving the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff is one of the three pillars of a healthy, green school. By implementing mindfulness practices at New Roots, we have discovered that practices that we originally hoped would help students achieve greater focus in the classroom have had far greater impacts on the well-being of staff, students, and ultimately our school community.
About the Author
Tina Nilsen-Hodges led the founding team of New Roots Charter School and has served as head of school since the school opened in 2009. Certified as a NYS K-12 teacher, school building, and district leader, Tina taught in independent, progressive, and Montessori schools and programs for nearly two decades before moving to EcoVillage at Ithaca in 2002 seeking a community interested in starting a school focused on education for sustainability. A lifelong resident of upstate New York, Tina is passionate about the opportunities that education for sustainability offers to unlock the powerful and unique human potential of every student.