Meditation In Schools: An Educational Transformation of the Inner Kind

Image

A couple of days ago, The Guardian asked for input from readers about what they think needs to change in Education, given that it’s likely to be a key battleground for the 2015 election. The first response from Camila Batmanghelidjh, a psychotherapist and founder of Kids Company, struck me. She noted that some children are so disadvantaged that it affects their brain functioning to such a degree that they struggle to sit still and stay calm in school, never mind pass exams.

This really got me thinking. There are many aspects of education that are clearly in need of serious reform, and as such the discourse surrounding schools tends to focus on these issues; the nature of assessment, teaching methods, the curriculum, and so on. But as a result, we often neglect a more fundamental issue and one that is surely of equal importance. That’s the emotional wellbeing of the children who the system is there to serve.

This jogged my memory back to an article I read earlier in the year about rough schools in San Francisco implementing a project called ‘Quiet Time’, in which the kids would meditate twice a day. The impact that this had had was quite astounding.Now before you make an assumption about those Frisco hipsters and what might appear to be some sort of nostalgic throwback to the halcyon days of flower power and the counterculture, just hear me out.

Visitacion Valley Middle School was one of the first to adopt the practice back in 2007. It is located in a poor neighbourhood suffering from a host of socio-economic problems. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “gunfire is as common as birdsong” in the area. Unsurprisingly the school suffered greatly from disciplinary problems; fighting, shouting, vandalism, low attendance and so on, all of which contributed to its poor academic performance while creating an environment counterproductive to learning.

The school tried a number of remedies without success, until meditation came along. In Quiet Time’s first year, suspension rates dropped by 45%, and within four years it was one of the lowest in the city. Perhaps most significantly, in the annual California Healthy Kids Survey, these middle school youngsters were the happiest in all of San Francisco. It wasn’t just this particular school that showed encouraging results either. On the California Achievement Test, twice as many pupils in Quiet Time schools became proficient in English, compared with similar schools without the program, and the gap in maths abilities was even greater. A few years back David Lynch made an excellent documentary about his project to introduce transcendental meditation into an elementary school in Iowa, the results of which were also pretty transformative.

The benefits that regular meditation practice can bring are well documented. Thankfully, as knowledge of this is spreading, we’re gradually coming around to the idea that meditation can be a worthwhile exercise that doesn’t have to have anything to do with hippies, drugs, or even the broader ideas of religion and spirituality.

No, it can be and often is a completely secular practice, and one that can improve confidence and self-esteem, as well as reduce anxiety and stress. Moreover, it can lead to increased focus and concentration, doing wonders for kids’ ability to learn as well as the teacher’s ability to teach. A theme throughout Guardian responses was the need to attract and keep hold of the best teachers and head teachers. De-stressing the school environment would make it a lot easier for teachers to do their jobs, and develop professionally. Studies in the states have also demonstrated that training teachers in mindfulness meditation can reduce their levels of stress and increase organisation and compassion.

It’s not just in California that these ideas are beginning to gain some momentum; 13 states across the country are implementing similar projects. Moreover, The Guardian featured ‘Mindfulness and the Art of Chocolate Eating’, a popular technique introduced to schools by an organization called ‘Mind Space’, on their top teaching resources list for 2013. Mind Space’s ‘Meditation in Schools Program’ has been introducing meditation for teachers and students across the UK.

Obviously this is no panacea. There are wider systemic problems that need to be addressed irrespective of how many kids or teachers are meditating. This is not a call to side step these very important issues however, rather it’s a reminder that by getting caught up in arguments that are so often tied up with ideology and political one-upmanship, we can forget the more fundamental stuff. Kids and teachers are human beings – their ability to learn, share and engage  is dependent on their emotional wellbeing, and so it’s something that should form a more serious part of the debate.

Check out this cool infographic, made by the people at Edutopia, illustrating the benefits meditation has brought to US schools.

Originally published on Institute of Opinion.

Food for thought: the sausage salad

So I love food and I love cooking. A hell of a lot actually. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to view cooking as a meditation of sorts – it’s a peaceful time in which I can let go of any worries, concerns or thoughts about the day and just get into the groove of making some delicious, nutritious meals which, to top it all of, I then get to eat myself!

With this in mind, I think I’m going to write a little bit about food on this blog, probably in the form of sharing some basic, decently healthy and deliciously tasty dishes that I’ve come to love and depend on, me being a bit of an uncultured foodie and all.

When you’ve done a full day’s work, there’s really nothing better than getting home, putting on some tunes and deciding what’s going to be on the menu that evening. The most difficult and infuriating part of this process can often be deciding what to have following the completion of a full week’s shop. Will it be something from the arsenal of classic, straightforward dishes such as pork chops & mashed potatoes perhaps, or my personal favourite, Chilli. Or do you step out of your comfort zone a little and choose something from that wagamama cook book everyone loves so much?

For a man who left for University struggling to not fuck up a full english, entirely dependent on the kind assistance of a few flatmates to show him the basics (“see, this is how you cook pasta”), ‘adventure’ for me rarely goes beyond a fish pie or a risotto. Nonetheless, as with everything in life practice makes perfect, and slowly but surely I’ve become a lot more confident in the kitchen.

Just last year me and my brother, to the amazement of many of our friends, cooked a full Christmas dinner for the family. We weren’t particularly adventurous (turkey, roasties, veg, gravy and all that jazz), but as anybody who has tried to cook for 9 people will surely appreciate, timing everything correctly is pretty darn difficult. When everything worked pretty much to perfection, our family stuffing themselves silly and declaring how good of a job we had done, we both felt pretty proud.

First off today, I’m going to tell you about one of my favourite lunch-time dishes: the sausage salad. Yes that’s right. I once proposed this for lunch to a housemate, who gave me a look as if I’d just suggested David Moyes ought to be manager of the season. However, it’s dead easy and it really is pretty amazing. Depending on what kind of sausages you have, there’s a couple of different ways I cook like to cook them.

If I’ve got the good stuff in (90%+ pork) then I’ll just slice the sausage up into chunks, and fry it in a pan. If I’ve got just regular ones, i’ll often ‘squeeze’ the meet out this skin, which looks and feels pretty disgusting but it allows for a great distribution of sausage in your salad. While frying, break up the portions of meet into small chunks as they begin to cook, and then add some chopped onion, garlic, and anything else you fancy throwing in (mushroom goes well). You can also add a little bit of smoked bacon, or ham, or chorizo, if you want a particularly meaty salad. While you can grill/George Forminate the sausages and then slice them up, I prefer to cook them in a frying pan so that the flavour from the meat infuses with all the veg.

Once this has all cooked I’ll sometimes add a bit of BBQ sauce (home and bargain do a decent one for 39p) but mostly just a healthy serving of salt, pepper, and sometimes paprika. Chop up a few slices of cheese (extra or vintage mature, of course) into little cubes. Add to a bed of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber et al, drizzle some mayo over the top, and enjoy.

The result is a really fulfilling meal that offers a satisfaction that a regular salad can sometimes fail to deliver. Plus you get a decent amount of veg and greens in you. Protein too, so that in the end there’s very little that isn’t good for you in there. Unless you buy those dubious looking sausages containing god knows what. I suppose cheese and mayo could be left out if you’re trying to eat really healthily, but honestly I wouldn’t ever consider such a step -the tangy flavour and crucial moisture the combination offers is too delicious.

So yeah, it might sound a little unusual, but sausage salads are really quite fantastic. Give them a go and enjoy.