Black Children Are Not Historical Figures: The Importance of Representation in Children’s Books.

I am a public school teacher in Washington, DC. A few years ago I wanted to teach a lesson about brain science for my young students.  To my surprise, I couldn’t find a single children’s storybook that told the story I wanted to tell, and there were certainly no books on the topic that reflected the diversity of the children in my classroom.

So I wrote, illustrated and published the book I needed myself.   When it came to creating the characters in the story all I had to do was look out at my students.  My students are a diverse mix representing cultures from all over the world from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan to Ethiopia to Denmark from Guatemala to Iceland, as well as many kids both black and white born right here in DC. 

I decided to choose students that I don’t normally see in children’s books.  Students like Yoab whose family is from Ethiopia, or Tyaja whose family is from DC, or Sergio whose family is from El Salvador and Guatemala.  In DC our schools are filled with young black and brown children – in fact 78% of children in DC are children of color. But our school bookshelves don’t reflect that reality.

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Armed with Love

All of the talk lately about school shootings and arming teachers reminded me of one of my heroes.  Antoinette Tuff was the school bookkeeper in DeKalb County Georgia who in 2013 single-handedly prevented a school shooting by disarming the potential gunman.  Did she have a weapon? No.  But she was armed with calm, kindness, and compassion.  These crucial social and emotional skills helped her to save the lives of countless children and their teachers.  

As the full-time Peace Teacher at my school teaching more than five hundred kids every week I see a big part of my role as triage. I do my best to look out for the lonely, angry ones, the ones who always seem to be alone, the ones who aren’t connecting with the other kids. I don’t know anything about their reading or math skills. There are other wonderful teachers to take care of that. All I’m concerned with is their hearts and happiness. I’m lucky to work with an amazing SEL team who can take it from there and dig in and help. Why are schools spending more and more money on guards and staff whose sole purpose is to break up fights and discipline kids? Why doesn’t every school have a Peace teacher? Why isn’t this the most urgent need? Continue reading

Mindfulness, inclusion and umbrellas in the rain

This morning as I was walking our dog, I came upon a group of middle schoolers waiting on the corner for their bus. Or I should say, corners. On the right were two groups of talking, jostling kids, huddling close together under shared umbrellas in the rain. On the opposite corner was one boy, without umbrella or hood, weighed down by a soaking backpack. He was looking away from the group, unsheltered and disconnected.

This scenario hit close to home. For the last three years, my partners Linda and Jillian and I have devoted ourselves to developing, writing and publishing our Peace of Mind Curriculum. We believe that teaching mindfulness skills to elementary school students as the foundation for social and emotional learning lessons leads to kinder, more empathetic, happier children, and more inclusive schools. I wondered how much emphasis the school the corner kids were heading to placed on social and emotional learning, and whether the group of kids had considered the lone kid.

As I was approaching the corner, contemplating what I could do to brighten the boy’s day, I saw the kids on the opposite corner begin to look his way and talk a bit louder. My heart sank, my breath constricted, my stomach hurt, and my body’s emotional memories of middle school were triggered, expecting the old story of exclusion and teasing to play out.  And then, unexpectedly my whole body relaxed as I watched what unfolded:

The two groups of kids on corner merged into one, called out friendly greetings to the boy, and crossed the street, covering him with their umbrellas – not to make him uncomfortable, but to include him.  As I passed I saw a slow smile forming on the boy’s face, and felt an easiness in the group.

Beautiful. Hopeful. Profound. A new story. Continue reading

Football and Mindfulness?

Football and mindfulness? 

Most people wouldn’t think that football and mindfulness would really go together, but in Peace Class, you never know what will happen.  Last Monday morning my students came in even groggier than usual.  It was the morning after the Superbowl and most of the kids had stayed up much too late.  Iwas trying to think of a way to wake them up so that we could do our mindfulness practice. 

We were getting ready to do a practice adults call “noting” that we call “Popcorn” in our Peace of Mind Curriculum.  In this practice we try to count our breaths and whenever we notice that our minds have wandered away we “pop” our finger and then start counting again. It’s a fun practice that the kids enjoy, especially when I call it a mindfulness game.  We always talk about how this practice helps us to strengthen our focusing muscles so that it is easier for us to concentrate.  

“How do you think the ability to focus might have helped Nick Foles (the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback) win the game?” I asked.  Suddenly everybody was awake.  The kids had a lot of opinions but most were about the Patriots.  So I decided we needed a reenactment. Continue reading

Neuroscience and Mindfulness in Early Childhood

What can 4 and 5 year olds learn about neuroscience and their brains? As it turns out, plenty! This week we finished up our Peace of Mind Pre-K and K unit on the brain, and it never fails to amaze me how much these little brains are soaking up. When we first started out five weeks ago, the words “hippocampus” and “amygdala” were so foreign and strange on their tongues (pickle-campus and hippo-camper were two of my favorite bungles) and truthfully, felt strange to me as an educator to be teaching, too.

“Maybe this is too much for them,” I thought. “Maybe I need to slow it down a little more, or come up with cutesy phrases like “wise owl” instead of “Pre-frontal cortex.” But by the second class, I was impressed that several kids were already using their hippocampi to recall all these terms and facts after just one lesson! By the third and fourth weeks, more kids joined in with recalling the three parts of the brain we had been learning and what each part does. As the material became less novel and more familiar, our enjoyment of the content increased too.

At Peace of Mind,  we believe that this knowledge helps children better understand their emotions, behaviors, and reactions, which leads to increased self-control and self-management. Continue reading