~ The following was published in The Floyd Press on November 4, 2010 and at the paper’s online site HERE.
It’s been more than a year since Floyd’s Blue Mountain School (BMS) announced their new educational philosophy. In the summer of 2009, after 25 years of being identified as a “parent-run cooperative,” the independent elementary school off Christiansburg Pike hired a director and began the practice of “Contemplative Progressive Education.”
With a mission of promoting critical thinking through project based learning, and fostering social-emotional wellbeing through the use of inquiry, silence, movement, storytelling, poetry, and service work, the school is well into their second year working with the new model.
One of the ways the school maintains and invigorates its progressive contemplative focus is through an annual Fall Family Field Trip, an all day event attended by teachers, parents, and students for the purpose of “building a sense of community and compassion among students, staff, and BMS families by experiencing some Social Emotional Learning activities first-hand,” stated Shelly Emmett, the school’s director.
Amid a fall canopy of color and seasonal sunny weather, the second annual Family Field Trip was recently held at Apple Ridge Farm, a 96 acre Summer Camp and Environmental Education Center in Copper Hill that hosts retreats, leads challenge groups, and provides under-served urban youth with outdoor adventure experience. The BMS Family Field Trip involved environmental education, workshops on mindfulness, an African drumming performance, and a picnic lunch and potluck dinner.
“That’s a habitat. Someone lives there,” Behrens said as she pointed out a mound of decomposing humus to the children. The children learned that lichen is part fungus and part algae and that we have a special responsibility in the mountains to keep our water clean because the water starts here.
Behrens stressed to the children that they not disturb anything as they walked, and she directed them to walk quietly like Native American trackers before passing a falcon’s nest high in a tree. “Maybe we’ll see her,” she whispered. Pausing at an area where tree roots were exposed, she asked if anyone knew what erosion meant. “You guys are smart,” Beherns responded when one of the students answered her question correctly.
While the children were learning about water and woods, parents and teachers were engaged in a workshop on Social Emotional Learning (SEL), a concept that was first coined in 1990 by psychologists and professors Peter Salovey and John Mayer and was popularized by the 1995 publication of Daniel Goleman’s best selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Proponents of SEL maintain that assisting students to understand and regulate their emotions promotes personal growth, responsible decision making, a caring attitude towards others, and improved academic performance. Research supports that premise.
“The first way to help children self-regulate their emotions is for parents and teachers to learn the skills that allow them to regulate their own,” said Joe Klein, a counselor who facilitated the workshop. Klein heads up Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme), leads mindful retreats for youth and the professionals who serve them, and provides SEL programs to school systems and businesses.
“Parents and teachers set the pace. We need to give kids a language for their emotions. We have to model it and sometimes do it for them until they can learn to say ‘I feel left out’ instead of acting out. Acting out usually leads to punishments like “time-out” when often what kids need is “time-in” with integrated parents,” Klein said. He explained that the part of the brain used for paying attention and accessing memory – both crucial for learning – is the same part of the brain responsible for regulating emotion, which is why helping children develop SEL competency is beneficial for academic learning.
Adequate sleep, aerobic exercise, a healthy diet, quality time with people we’re in close relationship with, engaging in new experiences, and mindful activities for focusing attention all contribute to healthy brain development and function. Klein stated that these activities enhance the formation of specific neural circuits and firing patterns in the brain so that it becomes more integrated. “When we are integrated we have more flexibility, adaptability, creativity, energy, and stability,” he noted.
The room fell silent when Klein struck a bell and asked parents and teachers to raise their hands when they could no longer hear it ringing, a practice designed for promoting self-awareness and focusing skills in adults and children. Alternating loud noise-making with periods of “making silence” as a way to engage children and build their capacity for self-regulation was also playfully practiced by the group.
“Gratitude is healthy. It enhances relationships and fosters an “approach to life” state of mind rather than an avoidance one,” Klein told the group before passing a ball to a workshop-goer and asking him to name 3 things he is grateful for before passing the ball to someone else.
“I noticed that practically everyone in the workshop said they were grateful for their families and spending time with them,” BMS parent Elisha Reygle later said. Reygle’s comment spoke to the success of the school’s family field trip, a day set apart for bringing the BMS community together for mutual enrichment and self-awareness. ~ Colleen Redman
Note: To learn more about Social Emotional Learning visit www.casel.org. For more information about Blue Mountain School and Inward Bound Mindfulness Education visit bluemountainschool.net and inwardboundmindfulnesseducation.org. Watch a video of the kid’s educational trail hike HERE.