Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ninety-Something Grade 7 Kids in the Gym on Treaty 1 Territory Land

I am working on several pieces to catch up on the last weeks before the break and since, but in the meantime, I need to capture today and the five minutes of meditation I experienced in the gym, with about 100 other people, including the four grade 7 classes in our pod (what we call the different sections of our school), their teachers, the 5 volunteers from the big-vision high school housed at our neighbourhood high school, and their teacher-advisor, who was a former colleague of ours, as part of our experience this morning.

We gathered first thing in the morning to share in the experience of The Blanket Exercise Workshop, (http://www.kairoscanada.org/what-we-do/indigenous-rights/blanket-exercise), which is a simulation designed to help participants understand Canada's history from an Indigenous perspective, including the impact of the Canadian government on Indigenous communities past and present.

Using the shorter version, designed for grades 4-8, in about an hour and a half, The Blanket Exercise covered about 500 years of history, from early contact with the settlers through modern history, as a step towards reconciliation, as our participants experienced the devastating events of Indigenous history, including the extermination of half the population by smallpox and other diseases, the loss of land and ways of life, loss of family, culture and language to 150 years of Residential Schools, and loss of rights and freedoms in modern day Canada. They also gained insight into some recent steps towards Reconciliation, like The Apology and other initiatives, as well as the work yet to be done. The experience  is a small part of our greater classroom learning, and will connect to our Treaty Days celebrations at the beginning of May.

When we finished the simulation, we came back together briefly in the big circle, before we split into our classes for smaller sharing circles, as the group was too large to accommodate everyone. Grade 7 students only have so much patience, and we can only ask so much of them, and their teachers. The group, who had been prepped before we began, but could not know what the experience would be like, was amazing in every way. They were willing, cooperative, and exceptionally respectful to each other, and to the process, which had some sitting on the sides for a long period of time, and others standing for the duration. Though there were a few moments of sshing, or redirecting focus and minor behaviour, overall our students gave themselves to the experience.

While many passed as we went around the sharing circle after, several spoke of gaining a deeper understanding the events of history, as rather than just being told, they were led to feel. The reflected on the feelings they had experienced, including shock, fear and anger. I am looking forward to learning more about their experiences when I read their written reflections.

It was a very powerful experience and it began with a very powerful, though not easy, meditation. I chose one of the shorter tracks, but at just under 5 minutes, it was one of those days when the minutes passed slowly, and the time seemed long, probably because in the unfamiliar setting, with so many people, there was more behaviour to manage.

There were four classes of grade 7's, about 95 kids, sitting on chairs in a big circle around the blankets, which had been set up to resemble Turtle Island, or North America prior to European contact. My two classes might meditate regularly, but usually in the comfort of the classroom, with desks on which to lay their heads. I have never meditated with the other two classes, and so it was certainly a new experience for them, one to which I gave little explanation. I just reminded everyone that the only way to meditate wrong was to bother someone else, and with that we began.

We dimmed the gym lights, but it was not as dark as my classroom, and kids felt noticeably awkward as they shifted in their seats and I encouraged them to relax in their chairs, and into their breath, as they allowed themselves to forget about everyone else in the room. The speakers I have been using for the last 5 years broke, and so with just the IPad the music was very quiet in the background, adding to the awkward silence. But at the same time it was quiet and peaceful enough. I continued as usual, with extra attention to the introduction and the prompts.

As we started, I encouraged everyone to plant their feet flat on Treaty 1 Territory Land, the traditional home of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the M├ętis Nation, noting that it was in the spirit of acknowledging and honouring these connections that we were all there today. It was our purpose in meeting, and as we make these connections with the land, the treaties, and the people who came before us, we make steps towards reconciliation. 

I moved through the posturing, encouraging them to sit up straight, and still relax all parts of their bodies, and ultimately close their eyes. I reminded them that it is natural to feel awkward or a little uncomfortable, and to be wondering if everyone else was also closing their eyes or looking at them instead, and challenged them to let those feelings go, trust themselves and close their eyes. Quite a few did.

I led them through the breath count, but kept it shorter than usual taking only four or five breaths, in part due to the short time we had, but also because so many of them were unfamiliar with the count and I didn't want them to get too hung up or distracted by it. I then encouraged them to bring their focus and attention to each inhale and each exhale as they breathed naturally.

As I brought their attention to their breath, I encouraged them to find what they need, inhaling the focus and patience to listen and participate, while exhaling the impatience and distraction that gets in the way. As some fidgeted, as there are students like Students A and Students 1 and 2 in every class, and we had 4 classes, I reminded them to inhale the respect they bring to the experience, for themselves and the people around them, and then exhale the fear that causes them to make the choices that bring them negative attention. I challenged them to look within and give their respect and best selves to the experience. At the same time I applied the old rule of proximity and moved where I was needed, spending the bulk of the minutes near Student 2 and his buddies from the other classes.

We moved into the silence and they managed to keep it together, and though there were a few smirks and glances passed between them, they were quiet, as was everyone else. As I looked around the circle, there was a certain amount of stillness, though some, like Student A, were still a little fidgety, everyone was quiet and no one disturbed the peace.

I closed my eyes where I stood and took a few deep breaths, giving thanks for the quiet and the positive start to the morning. Then I said a little prayer for the rest of the morning, asking for a positive and meaningful experience for my students and colleagues and that the intention and purpose be understood. 

I was standing near the boys and so it was hard to hear the music, but after a few breaths I sensed that it was time to close. I walked over to the IPad as I ended the meditation, and thought that it didn't really matter if the track was actually over, as it felt long enough, only to see the next track had just started. The five minutes was well timed, and like the rest of the morning, it was not easy, but it was certainly worthwhile. It was the beginning of a powerful learning experience and I am grateful for it.

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