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Cambridge School of Weston to partner with Karuna School for peace and equity studies

Posted by boston.com  February 24, 2014 02:22 PM

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Karuna mindfulness.JPG
Lucinda Burk
A Karuna School class in motion.

When Lisa Prajna Hallstrom founded the Karuna School with her husband in 2008, she dreamed of raising funds to build a high school to house the school's unique peace studies curriculum. Then the economy crashed, and raising millions seemed out of reach. The school's board of directors decided Karuna would work to add peace and equity studies, social and emotional learning, and global service learning to the curriculum of already existing schools. This spring, the Karuna School will start a two-year pilot program at the Cambridge School of Weston (CSW). The partnership will create a school within a school: CSW students will be able to take classes from the Karuna curriculum. To learn more, we spoke with Hallstrom; Jane Moulding, head of school at the Cambridge School; and JohÓra Tucker, director of social justice and multicultural programming at CSW.

Through this partnership, students at The Cambridge School of Weston will be able to take classes in social and emotional learning from the Karuna School curriculum. What is social and emotional learning (SEL)?

Hallstrom: The learning that helps children acquire and apply the skills necessary to understand and manage their emotional life; to set positive goals, to feel empathy for others, to make responsible decisions. Mindfulness is only one of the tools we want to offer. [We want to promote a] peaceful inside [and] an outer peace and justice in the world.

Why is it important to teach high school students social and emotional skills like mindfulness meditation, which will be taught in the .b course that starts this spring?

Hallstrom: Children come to school with all sorts of needs. They have a whole life that's bigger than school. When Columbine happened, I was shocked that children could feel so alienated they would consider killing their peers. When the mindfulness movement started about 10 years ago, people started to introduce social and emotional mindfulness to children, and it really had an effect on their resilience and their ability to learn.

Moulding: This might be a powerful way to direct some energy to make sure we always hold on to those ideals of raising kids who understand conflict negotiation, mindfulness, [and other life skills].

How can mindfulness help today?s high school students, who are often under a lot of pressure to succeed?

Hallstrom: Number one, [mindfulness] strengthens empathy. It strengthens synaptic connections. When a student says, "I can't do math," that enforces a negative neural pathway. With mindfulness, students learn to strengthen the positive pathway instead. It increases learning and memory processes. It increases emotional regulation. Self-esteem increases. Teens are more stressed than any other age group. They're firing the alarm part of their brain, the amygdala, all the time. It can't distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat. We're helping them through this training how to turn that off so they can learn.

Moulding: It's an enormous part of our mission to help kids learn skills and ways of doing things rather than be obsessed by [mastering lessons]. We have an emphasis on the arts. They really de-stress kids. [When you're] singing, dancing, or painting, you're using different parts of the body than when you're sitting in an AP class. A huge part of thinking about this mindfulness and healthy bodies-healthy minds is graduating kids who aren't so stressed that they can't enjoy a beautiful piece of music or have a conversation with a friend who's struggling.

karuna class.JPG
Lucinda Burk
A Karuna School class on mindfulness.

This fall, CSW students will also be able to take a Karuna course on the history of nonviolent movements. CSW already offers around 300 unique courses; why add this one?

Tucker: We want more classes that talk about peace and equity. We're trying to make it more holistic while also thinking about where our students' interests lie. We are working on it, especially across disciplines.

Moulding: We already have two days in our curriculum [set aside for] diversity day and social justice day. [This] wasn't us thinking, "Oh, they could make something happen that we're not doing." [Karuna can] help build what we're already doing and make CSW known for those programs.

Beyond the Karuna classes CSW students will be able to take, the partnership might also produce a mindful parenting course. Why bring that to CSW?

Moulding: A huge part of the role for a good, small independent high school is life skills. Families are hungry [for those skills] in our complex, troubled world. In the news recently, [there's] sadly been a number of suicides in the Newton public schools. What happens when you read about that stuff? What do you do as a parent? A mindful parenting class] aligns with what we like to do here.

Hallstrom: I think there's awareness about the need to address the teens' stress levels. At the same time, parents are saying "What about me?" The parents want to have these skills as well. They want continuity at home.

CSW has plans for a new building on campus, and there might be space for the Karuna School there. What are your long-term goals for the partnership?

Moulding: It's a new health and fitness center [with a] meditation space [and] a yoga room. If this program develops the way we hope it will, we could see it housed in that building. The health and wellness piece is the most all-encompassing piece of what Prajna {Hallstrom} or anyone who followed her would offer.

Hallstrom: I think [CSW] is the perfect place for us. Students there have a deep sense for wanting to make a difference in the world. I think it's so wonderful that having their students acquire these SEL [tools] is a priority for them. We're extremely excited because they have the school and the facilities; we have the curriculum.

The interviews used in this article have been condensed and edited.

Maggie Quick can be reached at margaret.quick@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MaggieQuick.

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