Flower number 21: Is there such a thing as secular spiritualism for the classroom?

After a little bit of reflection, it felt like something was missing-- I've updated some parts, with purple text. 

A last resort?

"What do you do with the child who does not respond to tutoring, counseling support, mentor support, has already been retained, and has been placed in special education? When it's a symptom of their home culture, how do you reach them when he or she seemingly refuses to learn what you have to teach?"

Some educators would argue that, that's just not even possible; every child is open to learning; and of course there are child study teams, social workers on campus, and child protective services to help, but this was the question I posed for one of my professors while working on my teaching credential many years ago.

It had been a very challenging week-- a third grade student in one of my mentor classrooms announced to the class that his birthday wish was to be dead.

In all of my glorious, let-me-save-the-world, naivete, I couldn't handle it. I had never heard a child speak about depression, despair, or suffering. I had never heard a child speak of suicide as an option.

What I did know, was that this-- although new to me at the time--was now going be an additional challenge to overcome while faced with the pressure of the state exam. I immediately felt completely helpless. So I brought it to my professor:

"Prayer" she answered, "Pray for them."

Now, a little bit about me, and my views: I am completely one hundred percent against religion in the classroom; I believe in the separation of church and state. In fact, I am "one of those people" who totally support that little girl who refused to say the pledge because of the "one nation under God" line.

Oh, still reading? OK, so, for me, there's a sense of camaraderie with a side of humor between my fellow educators, when the answer to such extreme situations is "pray"; it just seems so often to be a desperate, last resort:

I once worked down the hall from a teacher who started bringing holy water into her classroom. It goes without saying that I compassionately reached out to this teacher, but while our laughter was hysterical, her motivation was definitely justified and very seriously focused toward a higher power helping her teach such a dreadfully challenging group.

The joke in the small talk of my principal and fourth grade teammates, that the only thing left to do a week before the state writing exam was to "pray" --was actually, most definitely serious.

And when my team teacher comes back on Monday morning, telling me she had our classes in her prayers at church on Sunday, I giggle because it just floors me every time, to know I'm teaching a group of students whose opportunity for success is so dire that it requires prayer as a teaching strategy.

I'm not teaching my students to pray, soooo. . .

So, I'm curious to know how many fellow educators are including their classes, or even, particular students, in their prayers, not just out of a habit of asking for blessings-- but out of pure, nothing-else-has-worked, this-is-the-last-straw, I'm-going-to-have-a-nervous-breakdown, desperation?  Being the proponent for secular education that I am, I looked to science. At the same time, I'm open to spiritual practices. So of course, I'm interested whenever the twain do meet.

Dr. Martin Seligman is the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of positive psychology, a branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. 

He proposes "Two good reasons that well-being should be taught in schools are the current flood of depression and the nominal increase in happiness over the last two generations. A third good reason is that greater well-being enhances learning, the traditional goal of education. Positive mood produces broader attention, more creative thinking, and more holistic thinking."

I'd like to present the idea that practicing positive thinking and believing, or asking the universe, or God-- for specific things, or open-ended things-- may actually benefit the classroom. If one teacher is doing this per 30 kids, couldn't it be more beneficial for everyone involved in the class community to participate?

Some points to consider about (Science in Quotations) and Spirituality

  • A study conducted by scientist and minister Dr. Franklin Loehr experimented with praying for seeds. One pan of seeds received positive prayer; one received no prayer; the third pan received negative prayer. This experiment has been repeated several times with the same results. Seeds that were prayed over produced the most plants; seeds that received negative prayer were stunted in growth. [1][2]
  • Dr. Masaru Emoto has dedicated years of his life to examining water crystallization and the effects of various music, speaking and thoughts on water formation. Positive music and thoughts produce variously shaped, intricate water crystals. Negativity produces deformed water crystals. [1] His experiments suggest that because our human bodies are mostly made up of water, we need to be aware of the positive and negative influences the world and our thoughts have on us. [4]
  • David R. Hodge, an assistant professor of social work in the College of Human Services at Arizona State University, conducted a comprehensive analysis of 17 major studies on the effects of intercessory prayer -- or prayer that is offered for the benefit of another person -- among people with psychological or medical problems. He found a positive effect. "There have been a number of studies on intercessory prayer, or prayer offered for the benefit of another person," said Hodge, a leading expert on spirituality and religion. "Some have found positive results for prayer. Others have found no effect. Conducting a meta-analysis takes into account the entire body of empirical research on intercessory prayer. Using this procedure, we find that prayer offered on behalf of another yields positive results."[5]
  • Dr. Larry Dossey, spoke of the science behind prayer in 1993, on Oprah. Yes, more Oprah on my blog-- always. (BTW, this interview is fabulous, and Oprah is hilarious.)

Dr. Larry Dossey Interviewed by Oprah in 1993

Inviting children's higher powers into the classroom: good idea?

I probably don't have to tell you that for every point listed above, there's a whole bunch that present arguments to debunk the experiments. But for those teachers who do believe in these ideas, what can it hurt?  If it helps to stay centered, and feel positive, and able to send that positivity out to students, then maybe there's something happening that's beyond the science experiment. But how would you go about teaching these ideas to students, when it seems that the "science" behind it is as questionable as creation theory?

In every 12-step program, there is a recognition of a higher power --even for agnostic members; a need to be able to call upon something that is larger than you; something to be able to let go of one's troubles and fears; something as a guide when the going gets really, really rough. With so many children coming from families suffering with addiction, neglect, abuse, and various forms of co-dependency, or even students who don't have a family, I am wondering if it makes sense to actually teach children to find a higher power (of sorts), to call upon when they're trying to be successful within the classroom?

In his blog post "Looking to a 'Higher Power'" Dr. Nicholas Jenner PHYS.D M.A. explains rather simply, I thought:
The following quote says much about why children turn to a “higher power” in their search for inspiration.
 “There is an old saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: In the disease of alcoholism, spirituality is the first thing to go and the last thing to come back. Compared with alcohol, the troubled family may be far more efficient at committing what Alice Miller calls a “soul murder”. Abused children are robbed of their faith in the goodwill of other people and their belief in a safe world”
For an abused child to recover this faith, his or her view of the world must be reconstructed.Violence and abuse change a child’s image of his or her surroundings as just and orderly, along with their view of self. It is not surprising that many survivors turn to spirituality in all its various forms. Spirituality with basics beliefs suggesting that there is a higher power that offers faith, connects people to others and their surroundings is obviously attractive to anyone who has not experienced faith. Survivors often find in spirituality a world they could not find or did not exist as an abused child. [10]

I'm not suggesting a Judeo-Christian focus, and for Pete's sake, I'm not promoting prayer in the classroom, but possibly teaching the children to find something "greater than themselves" or something "other than themselves"--or better, find something powerful within themselves-- to focus on; to turn to, which in turn gives them the confidence to believe in themselves. If their families have taught them about God, or Jesus, or Buddha, fine. But some of the students haven't been introduced to such a thing-- and we are certainly not going to worship in the classroom.

In responding to Oprah's comment, from the 1993 video (above) with Dr. Larry Dossey, when speaking about The Wizard of Oz, I think that's a really simple explanation: Glinda, the good witch, tells Dorothy she had the knowledge and power within herself all along. We realize, just as Dorothy, that the ruby slippers were not her "higher power" but that she found her powerful will  from within. 

Wouldn't that be something, if more of our students had a powerful will within themselves; a higher power to believe that they could succeed, to feel strong and brave enough to take chances in learning, and to enjoy the path along the way.

So what's a teacher left to do?

So we need to be a Good Witch, or some kind of Jedi Knight, knowledgeable of The Force

We're not here to host the weekly CODA for 4th Graders, and we don't even have enough time as it is, to teach core content curriculum.  It'd be swell, as teachers, to wave a magic wand like Glinda, and just instill these things into our kiddos. However, there's that old classroom community theory, that the more time you take teaching and modeling things like community, positive character traits, etc., that the children will feel safer, and will have a better relationship with you, their teacher-- ultimately learning faster, or learning things the first few times you do it. If we're talking about getting the students to believe in a higher power from within themselves, I'd say it would have to be worth every minute.

In researching a solution to this, while maintaining a secular focus, I found some great ideas concerning the teaching of positive thinking in the classroom, and to help guide the student toward self-awareness; the knowledge that they have the strength within themselves to carry-on, and to be successful. In other words, to help them find the higher power, within themselves.

Two exercises from Seligman's website, Authentic Happiness

Three-Good-Things Exercise: We instruct the students to write down daily three good things that happened each day for a week. The three things can be small in importance (“I answered a really hard question right in language arts today”) or big (“The guy I’ve liked for months asked me out!!!”). Next to each positive event, they write about one of the following: “Why did this good thing happen?” “What does this mean to you?” “How can you have more of this good thing in the future?” 

Using Signature Strengths in New Ways: Honesty. Loyalty. Perseverance. Creativity. Kindness. Wisdom. Courage. Fairness. These and sixteen other character strengths are valued in every culture in the world. We believe that you can get more satisfaction out of life if you identify which of these character strengths you have in abundance and then use them as much as possible in school, in hobbies, and with friends and family. Students take the Values in Action Signature Strengths test (www.authentichappiness.org) and use their highest strength in a new way at school in the next week. Several sessions in the curriculum focus on identifying character strengths in themselves, their friends, and the literary figures they read about, and using those strengths to overcome challenges.[6]

Guided meditation for students can be very beneficial, and can be a completely secular, self-driven activity that students can do themselves once practiced enough in the class. One that I really like is the "Rainbow Meditation" from BuddhaNet. I don't think it's necessary to talk about Buddha and spiritual beliefs here, either. I think it's a wonderful way to help students focus on their positive abilities, and their place in the world. [7]

Treating each student as an "Expert" In one case a teacher said to his students, “Everyone in here is an expert. You all know that? You are all experts. What does it take to be an expert? It takes the ability to read, the ability to persevere, and self-discipline.” He went on to explain to his students that he knows they possess these qualities because they’ve proven it to him already. Every day he reminded his students that they were all experts. Whenever a student didn’t turn in his homework or was late he’d say, “No homework? Remember, self-discipline. You’re an expert…” [8]

Have your students create “me” commercials. They can videotape commercials in which they pretend they are selling themselves for job openings. This activity encourages your kids to think and talk about their positive qualities. This activity also helps them develop their creativity. [9]

Happiness or Gratitude Journals I've been doing Gratitude Journals with my students for a few years now, but I haven't found them to be very effective. I'm going to focus in on Happiness Journals and let you know how that works out.

Positive Affirmation After teaching what the term self-esteem means, teachers and parents can educate kids more about it by giving them ways that they can improve their self-esteem. This activity encourages children to understand the importance of a healthy self-esteem and to work toward having a positive attitude. Start the activity by letting the children know what a positive affirmation is. The National Mental Health Information Center reports that an affirmation is a positive statement that you make about yourself. Give them examples such as, "I'm a good person," and "I'm a good friend."Have the children individually write down five affirmations, and then have each child pick one affirmation that he likes the best. Give children a sheet of paper and instruct them to write down their affirmation and decorate the page with stickers, crayons and colored pencils. Have each child staple his affirmation in the front of his planner or notebook, so he will see it on a regular basis. [11]

Decisions, Decisions In every situation, we have a decision to make. How will we react? In this game, four players split into groups of two. One player from each team is given the same script, and must say to the other player something like "I don't think we should be friends anymore" or "Your brother stole your allowance money" or "?our mom just lost her job and you don't get to take that trip to the water park."Players have 60 seconds to think of a response. One team is directed to respond in a negative way, while the other team is instructed to respond in a positive way. Afterward, the entire group can discuss their responses together. Have each player think of a time when responding positively has been easier or difficult, or a time when a positive reaction would have changed the outcome for them. When will a negative response help you get your way? Does a negative response ever lead to positive results? How can a positive response lead to positive results? Are others more likely to help you get what you want when you're positive? [12]

Books for Kids: 
Emoto Peace Project features a book, The Message from Water by Dr. Emoto
The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

These are just a few, and I'm anxious to hear what others are doing.

Has this been successful within families, or classrooms? This definitely feels like just the beginning of something much larger. . . so let's see how this goes!


[1] Positive Thought & Plant Growth By EricB, eHow Contributor
[2]Rev. Franklin Loehr.  The Power of Prayer on Plants, 2006
[3] Mctaggart, Lynn.The Intention Experiment: The Germination Experiment theintentionexperiment.com
[4] Office Masuro Emoto: www.masaru-emoto.net
[5] ScienceDaily (Mar. 15, 2007) — Does God answer prayer? Researcher says "Yes"
[6] Dr. Martin Seligman. Authentic Happiness: Positive Education, an Overview
[7] Buddhist Studies: Buddha Dharma Education Association and BuddhaNet: Guided Meditations: Teaching Meditation in the Classroom
[8] Ignacio Lopez, Ed.D.Teach Hub: 5 Powerfully Positive Teaching Practices
[9] Mike McLaughlin. Livestrong.com Positive Thinking for Children
[10]Dr. Nicholas Jenner PHYS.D M.A. Boundaries of the Soul: "Looking to a 'Higher Power'" 
[11]Livestrong.com: Activites to Learn about Self-Esteem
[12] eHow Mom: Game Ideas for a Positive Attitude

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