Integrated thematic units are considered best practice at Rainbow. Thematic lessons are layered in both discipline and in learning domain. Layering in this way encourages theme engagement from many angles and through many lenses. This allows a student to connect with the material through their preferred learning domain while nurturing a lasting relationship with the material. For example, what is taught in science may be incorporated into the social studies topic, written about in language arts, or read through literature. This method nurtures learning that is both circular and interconnected.
First grade is currently studying Africa. A recent centering lesson was layered in mindfulness and contemplative ritual, kinesthetic learning, teamwork and critical thinking. It was also rooted in the geography, natural history and culture of Africa.
The centering begins, like all RCS centerings, with a prompt to, “still your minds, bodies and voices and at the sound of each chime, take three audible deep breaths.” Josie, the teacher, then asked the class Mindful Mediation Leader to offer a word or intention that we can hold in our hearts. “African animals” was offered and Josie struck a match and said, “may we honor African animals as our teachers.”
These rituals served to shift the class energy inward resulting in a moment of silence and stillness. Josie then showed a picture of the Efé children of the Zaire, Ituri Forest and asked contemplative questions.
“What do you see, think and wonder about this picture?”
The Osani Circle Game
Josie explained that these children were playing a game called The Osani Circle Game. This prompted a conversation about circles. She stated that circles and cycles are seen everywhere. They are symbols of connection and wholeness. They are considered incredibly strong. Josie asked, “Can we name some circles or cycles?”
She went on to describe that the players of the game harness the strength of the circle by physically creating a circle with their feet and bodies. Each person then takes a turn naming a circular object, concepts or cycles such as apples, belly buttons, pies, time, the water cycle, butterfly cycle, the seasons. The goal being to hold the circle throughout the game while, without hesitation, naming circular objects.
In an effort to anchor the kids in teamwork, set the tone for the game and harness the power of the circle, Josie started by sending a “squeeze around the circle.” She then led them to create a human mandala. Finally, she guided them through a closed-eyed medication that allowed them to picture the circles all around us.
The kids named things like the butterfly cycle, the Sun, the belly of a bear, our noses, etc… More importantly they had fun while learning in a rich and integrated way- from learning about Efé children, to physically and collaboratively recreating the circle, to thinking fast and maintaining concentration throughout the game.
However, it was the unwritten curriculum that spoke volumes- the wisdom of the circle. The circle as a powerful symbol has been referred to since the beginning of time. It is celebrated in many religions and cultures as divine. It holds archetypal influence in story and myth and is represented by so many natural phenomena. Consider the Tibetan mandala, the Native American medicine wheel, the wedding ring, the Hero’s Journey, the Sun or Moon cycle. This centering ended with a closing verse that integrated some important circular objects found in our lives.
Informing your practice
If children are deeply and comprehensively connecting to the Circle, then they are more likely to return to it later in life as a teacher or guide, a tool, a strategy, an anchor or a healing source. I ask you to consider how circles show up in your life, to pay attention to their influence, and to invite them in as teachers.
The week back to school after a long winter break is often buzzing with excitement and anticipation. During these days, children will share stories of their time apart, celebrate coming back together and show enthusiasm for what is to come. Time is also set aside for deep reflection, individual and collaborative goal setting and for the renewal of commitments to oneself and to others.
This last week yielded particularly frigid temperatures and harsh weather conditions, embedded within the season of darkness. These winter circumstances provided a perfect context for a centering led by 4th-grade teachers, Susie and Molly.
As the centering began, Susie picked one of several snake skins that were decorating the classroom altar. She explained that the snake skin was a symbol of renewal and that by being able to let go of or shed that which no longer serves us, we make room for a renewal of those things that do.
She then invited all her students to collect a meditation mat and cushion, to remove their shoes, and to lie down and stretch out their bodies. She asked them to begin to settle in by allowing their bodies to become still, to notice their breath and to quiet their minds. She played some soothing music while she and Molly applied warm compresses to the eyes of those students who had requested them. She explained that the compresses served as a tool that helps you to relax, tune out the things around you and help you to send your focus inward.
Susie then led the students in a meditation that began with a body scan; a mindfulness technique that allows you to focus your attention on your physical being in an effort to achieve deep relaxation.
Susie proceeded with a guided meditation. She stated, “now that the work of your body is settled, lets gently enter the mind. Even in the state of easy rest, your thoughts have great power.”
“You have the power to build light inside of yourself each day. So as we settle into winter, a time of darkness and rest, take these next few breaths to speak kind thoughts to yourself. Allow yourself to imagine that with each thought, your body fills with light.”
“Now that you have built your fire, keep it burning. Remember that this time of renewal does not only come once a year, but every day, and with every moment. Continue to stoke your fire”
“You also have the power to share your light with others.”
“Imagine that your light streams out through your ears, use this to listen for opportunities to compliment a friend.”
“Imagine that your light streams out through your hands, use this to create beauty and offer a gentle touch to friends or family.”
“Imagine that your light streams out through your eyes, use this to observe others from a place of integrity and empathy so that you do not judge just based on what you see.”
“Imagine that your light streams out through your mouth, use this to speak with intention and compassion because words are so deeply powerful.”
“Imagine that your light streams out of the top of your head, use this to share your brilliance and uplifting thoughts with others.”
Susie closed centering by inviting an awareness back to the room, the present moment and one another.
I am sure many of you have already engaged in your own reflective practice for the new year. I am sure many of you have worked to let go of the things that don’t serve you. I am sure many of you are already rich with goals and intentions for a new year filled with joy and happiness.
In order to better achieve those goals or live those intentions, I invite you, during this time of darkness, to claim your personal power and to embrace the tools and techniques that help you to turn your light and share it with others.
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.” ~ Dumbledore
Centering practices aim to strengthen our learning community by inviting spirit and sacredness into each space and each day. At RCS, we see this daily practice as a meaningful ritual that is integral to a child’s healthy spiritual development.
We also host school-wide, annual celebrations and ceremonies that are also rooted in the sacred and serve to deepen the connections we have to ourselves, our community and a higher power. These shared celebrations, ceremonies and rites of passage empower all involved to turn both inward and outward so as to realize their part in an integral community and their connection to something greater than themselves.
The annual winter program is one of those sacred ceremonies. During this time, the staff and students celebrate the true meaning of the holidays by sharing original songs that embrace the human values that unite us. Each year the theme of the program is inspired by one of the universally held virtues and serves as a guide for the students as they collaborate with Sue Ford, our music director, to draft lyrics for each performance.
For example, a few years ago the theme was LOVE. The students were asked to ponder the power of love and the many ways to give and receive love. This reflection yielded various interpretations and heart-felt lyrics rooted in “Love.” Follow the link below to hear one of the many songs from the love feast.
The following year, the theme “Unity through Music” invited the students to create songs in cultural styles from around the world as a way of honoring our connection to local and global communities. Follow the link below to experience the 2nd grade song, “One Human Family.”
This year, Sue Ford has invited students on a sacred circle journey. The circle is a symbol of wholeness. Sacred Circles, Medicine Wheels, Mandalas, Hoops and Rings are found all over the world in history, art, architecture and ceremony. Carl Jung says, “I saw that everything, all paths I had been following, all steps I had taken, were leading back to a single point — namely, to the mid-point. It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the center. It is the exponent of all paths. … I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had attained what was for me the ultimate.”
This year the theme “Journey Through the Sacred Circle” is an exploration of how we as individuals and as communities relate to the seven directions and elements within the circle. We begin with our Roots (Below), ascending into Fire and Air, grounding with the Earth, flowing with the Water, floating into the infinity of Space (Above) and finally back home in the center, Spirit. The songs in this journey are original collaborations between students, Sue Ford our music teacher and many of the RCS teachers.
I am sure many of you have experienced the joy and celebration that comes with holiday programs. At each RCS winter program, these feelings are echoed and then bolstered by the invitation of spirit, the emphasis on the sacred and the purposeful connection present at these programs.
As you enter into each holiday season and embark on learning adventures with your students, memory making with your family, and connections with your friends and acquaintances… I ask you to consider the ways that you can invite the true spirit of the holidays along on your journey?
Rainbow’s centering curriculum aims to support the spiritual identity development of each learner through various contemplative, mindfulness and meditative practices. It also serves to cultivate a strong class coherence and foster a collective wisdom through team-building initiatives and collaborative learning opportunities.
Omega Middle School students often take on the incredible responsibility of leading a centering for their peers. The student chooses a quote that resonates with them, shares it, asks for reflections, and then facilitates an extension activity. In a recent Omega Middle School centering, class coherence was nurtured through a team-building initiative rooted in the wise words of the poet Rumi. Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, was a Sufi mystic and an Islamic dervish, and is often regarded as a spiritual master and one of the world’s most popular poets. Interestingly, Rainbow founders, in addition to being innovative educators, were also spiritual Sufis with strong beliefs in universal peace and acceptance of all spiritual traditions. To that end, Rainbow’s 40-year lineage of spiritual curriculum is founded in Sufi mysticism, an arm of the Muslim faith in which the practitioners believe that a personal experience with a higher power can be achieved through mindfulness and meditation.
The Rumi quote below served as inspiration for this particular centering:
We can all acknowledge that judgments of right or wrong permeate our society and that societal pressures often yield citizens motivated by competition, achievement, success, winning and losing. Even the mission statement of the U.S. Department of Education emphasizes these. It states, “Our mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”
All of us, I am sure, acknowledge the importance of setting and achieving goals. But do we always ask ourselves who or what loses if we win, or does my success come at the expense of who or what? As parents, educators and mentors, we absolutely want our children to experience goal setting, success and personal growth; but do we do everything we can to teach them to consider the bigger picture by reflecting in this way? Team building, if scaffolded properly has the power to do just that.
Rainbow recognizes the positive impacts that team building experiences have on classroom culture and morale and also on the development of the whole child. Team building is about working together to achieve a shared goal– one in which everyone succeeds. Team-building initiatives encourage perspective taking, empathy and trust. Team building is about connection.
Team building anchored in spirituality or inspired by contemplation asks each person to turn inward first so that they can show up outwardly in a positive way. What if, before we launched a team-building initiative or worked towards any common goal, we were reminded of the things that bind us? What if we were reminded of the greater good?
The Omegans spent some time reflecting on the quote. Then the group was tasked to cross a field, arms joined and with their feet touching their neighbors (a symbolic bond). The collective goal was to stay connected throughout the entire journey.
Ultimately, they were asked to enter Rumi’s field of consciousness and to move beyond right and wrong, success and failure, and to focus on what is truly important– the things that bind each of them.
The centering rituals, although all rooted in mindfulness and in sacred spirit, vary from Rainbow classroom to Rainbow classroom. For example, the middle school, known as Omega, opens each centering with a reflection on a quote, a lyric, or a blessing. As centering opens, the students turn inward by recording the quote, which is displayed on a whiteboard, in their centering journals and connect with it through silent reflection.
This daily “food for thought,” sets a reverent tone, encourages contemplative thinking, nourishes class coherence while reminding us that learning is scared. A volunteer is asked to recite the quote and then the facilitator fishes for any reflections, questions, insight or comments. Students are encouraged to offer their own wisdom, tweeze out meaning, make connections, share personal stories, and/or give an emotional reaction to the quote.
On one particular morning, Freddie, an eighth grade student lead a centering inspired by the words of spiritual teacher, Eckhardt Tolle,
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.”
Freddie paused after the quote and waited for responses. One student offered, “that we are often caught up in our past memories and mistakes or are thinking about what will happen next, that we dont realize the important things that are happening right in front of us.” Another student responded with “the past is full of memories, the future of hopes or dreams and the present- the present is where the two collide. It is important to savor that.”
Interacting with students in this way, keeps me in constant awe of the wisdom that is alive within them. What if every child had the opportunity to be contemplative, like this, each day? How would their inner potential and their inner wisdom reveal itself?
After a round of sharing, Freddie attempted to put the quote’s wisdom into practice. He asked that we each find a comfortable position somewhere in the classroom, close our eyes, and begin to focus on our breath. He began to ring a bell and noted that the bell would serve to anchor the breath. He said that if our thoughts wandered or drifted, each time he rang it, it would remind us to come back to our breath and to the present moment.The students seemed to relax into the meditation with ease and Freddie held space for this practice for about five minutes. Each individual student emerged from the practice relaxed, calm and focused and the group’s energy seemed more bonded or in a higher state of flow.
Overall, I feel that the mediation succeeded in supporting the transition from home to school, supporting class coherence and in opening up additional pathways to learning.
Meditation is one crucial tool that our children access…it allows them to focus on their breath, their bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase. In today’s fast paced society, it has become increasingly challenging to direct attention or efforts to a single point of reference or action. Alarms, meetings, deadlines, chores, commitments and to do lists can make it hard to embrace a mindfulness practice, a mediation or any deep relfection. A mediative practice, like the one described above has the power to turn attention away from distracting thoughts, past memories, mistakes or regrets, or future obligations and into the present moment. It is not only empowering but powerful.
What if alarms were used to remind us to be present, to pause, to notice- instead of to wake us up or get us somewhere on time? What if our to do lists became to be lists? What if every child was equipped with these tools and resources? What if…
The words of American spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass encourage us to live FULLY, in the present moment, without judgement. How do you achieve this? What practices do you embrace?
“Be Here Now” for example, calls on mindfulness practice. “The quieter you become, the more you can hear” invites stillness. “The heart surrenders everything to the moment. The mind judges and holds back” summons your love.
As individuals on our own unique spiritual journeys, we are always looking for inspiration that may guide our inner work. Ram Dass’s wisdom offers insight and intention that may aid in cultivating a heightened self-awareness. We know that an elevated self-awareness has the capacity to lead to meaningful and enduring relationships.
RCS is founded on meaningful relationships.
The relationship between the teacher and the learner is the heart of education and a parent is a child’s first teacher. Rainbow honors that and strives to communicate with parents compassionately and empathetically, learn from the parent, see the child from through many lenses, support the child holistically and bridge home life and school life. One of the many ways these relationships are nurtured is through meaningful and intentional conferencing. Rainbow sets aside a conference time in early September called Listening Conference. During this conference the faculty calls upon self awareness by practicing the skills of deep listening.
Deep Listening is a way of hearing in which we are fully present in the moment without judgement or control. Deep listening asks us to let go of our inner dialogue, pre-formed opinions and assumptions, challenges us to abstain from crafting a response and simply listen in a mindful and respectful way to what is be shared. This is a time to be attentive not reactive, to listening actively not passively, to embrace compassion and empathy, AND to bring a great self-awareness to the act of listening.
To do this effectively requires that our mind takes a backseat to our heart.
Each conference embraces these powerful questions: Can we develop a practice of listening that allows another person to find their next step? Can we become the birthplace of understanding for someone else? Can we learn to carry in our hearts the destinies of others?
Each conference opens with a sacred ritual. Teachers may light a candle, read a reflective quote, hold space for silence, lead a guided mediation and/or offer a prompt with the purpose of inviting the child’s spirit to the conversation.
How can what we do at RCS inspire your own personal or professional work? What if we practiced deep and mindful listening in our everyday lives, what if we always invited spirit in to the conversation?