Over Spring break, I “externed” at a private school in Rhode Island where I attended a meeting for all faculty and administration on mindfulness. Mindfulness at this school is regarded as a tool for strengthening the mind by introducing calmness and control, and strengthening the heart by building acceptance and compassion. With these experiences still fresh in my mind, I was struck by the mindfulness embodied by third-grade teacher Alina Bossbaly in “Improbable Scholars.”
Mindfulness is exemplified by awareness, acceptance, and non-judgement; it is often practiced as a type of meditation. Indeed, this was the form that was taught to the students I visited last week, but as far as I know, Alina’s third-graders have not been introduced to this form of mindfulness. Instead, Alina demonstrates mindfulness through her attitudes towards her students, her beliefs about them, and her approach to teaching in general. By working with the individual identities and intelligences of each of her students - English- or Spanish-speaking, “disdainful” like Adriana or “warm-hearted” like Julieta, visual or hands-on learners - and never giving up on them despite “those discouraging moments when Clara pouts and Andres cries, Isabella drifts off, Mauricio plays the clown, and Joaquin falls out of his seat” (p. 35), Alina demonstrates unconditional acceptance of her students. She refrains from sending them to special education; she maintains high expectations for all regardless of their behavior or skill-level; she builds on their existing strengths such as familial bonds and home-language; she strives for productivity rather than silence, thus allowing for noise and movement that energizes the classroom; and she co-creates a “pie” community in which this acceptance is necessary and pervasive among the students. Alina also avoids judgemental language and attitudes that might limit her students. For example, she describes Joaquin as “complex” (p. 30), recognizing both his brilliance and simultaneous instability. She focuses on the beauty of Adriana’s smile after Adriana replies to a loving gesture with “odio” - hate. She even frames moments that others may see as chaotic, such as Clara’s charging towards a globe with a stick, as a “teachable moment.” When Alina’s co-worker negatively compares this year’s class to last year’s, Alina simply says, “es lo que es,” - it is what it is. Much of Alina’s acceptance and non-judgement arises from her awareness, her deep and personal understanding of their community and situations. “We know them - we know where they come from and what they are going through” (p. 17).
Alina’s curriculum also reflects a mindful mentality. She emphasizes control as a necessary foundation of learning, fostered both as self-control - “Discipline comes from within” (p. 23) - and as self-efficacy - “... [get the kids] to think of themselves as having control over their own lives, their own future” (p. 25). She also accepts the realities of the state-prescribed curriculum and ASK exams, working within the constraints while still enabling meaningful and engaging learning.
Alina’s teaching is reflective of a more general mindful idea regarding school-aged children of undocumented immigrants. The understanding that “these kids are here to stay; and, one way or another, they will help to define our future” (p. 16) seems so central to building a community like Alina’s where such students can thrive. I wonder, if classrooms like Alina’s third-grade and districts like Union City could be more common if teachers, administrators, even policy-makers assumed a more mindful approach towards students….