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Idea Day "idea" Leads to Urban Zen™ High School Program

The Upper Arlington High School R&D Lab has been up and running for a little over a year now, and we have had a number of proposals make their way to the Steering Committee.

All along, the goal of our group has been to lend an ear, to offer support and to create a space for new ideas to live, to be tested, to succeed or to fail, to evolve, shift course or provoke further conversation.

From Bear Prints, our high school print shop, to the teacher supported, student-run Help Desk, to the introduction of robotics into our curriculum, our committee has had the chance to support ideas from teachers representing a variety of spaces within our school.

We have also supported ideas that affect our school, but have come from community members.

One prime example is the concept of UA Idea Day, a day modeled after Chicago Ideas Week, and brought to the R&D Steering Committee by Alice Finley, who was, at the time, the Programs and Project Specialist for the Upper Arlington Education Foundation (UA+ED), and is now the Executive Director.

Finley proposed the idea last spring and it passed unanimously. Once it did, she and I worked with a group of teachers and students to bring it to fruition, and the dream came alive this past February.

From the outset, one of our chief goals was to provide students and the teachers with the opportunity to revel in new ideas, to listen to experts, to interact with thinkers and to test out curiosities.

But it was also to create a flash point for bigger ideas and larger conversations.

Fortunately, that is exactly what happened, and today, one of those ideas came to life.

Motivated by a desire to lessen stress and anxiety in our high school, UAHS guidance counselor, Liz Hughes, wanted to explore activities related to mindfulness on UA Idea Day. She knew that 98% of students, teachers and parents identified stress and anxiousness as a factor in student lives, so she wanted to start conversations about how to make inroads.

Unfortunately, just like many of the students, Hughes was closed out of the Yoga & Mindfulness session. It filled up the very first day, and due to space constraints, we couldn’t add any more spots. Because the session filled so fast, we knew there was something about it that appealed to both teachers and students, and we made a note to create more opportunities like it in future years.

Fortunately, however, we didn’t have to wait.

Just days before the event, Wickliffe teacher, Sabrina Walters, who has been on sabbatical this year earning an Applied Positive Psychology certificate, showed up at the high school and offered to help. She enthusiastically took on the unglamorous job of copying programs and organizing folders, and she shared her work with positive psychology and Urban Zen™.

The more she talked about her experience, the more Finley and I were moved, and the more we were moved, the more Walters was inspired to act. Within hours, she reached out to her counterparts at Urban Zen™ and managed to coordinate 4 free lunch sessions during UA Idea Day.

That means, even though Hughes couldn’t attend the mindfulness field trip, she, along with 55 other students, had the chance to experience mindfulness onsite. She had the chance to see the body language in the room, discuss the before and after surveys, and recognize what a significant impact those 20 minute sessions had on mental health.

Following that experience, students asked, over and over, if we could continue the sessions, and Hughes took it upon herself to make it happen. She wrote a two-part grant to UA+ED, asking if the sessions could begin immediately--during testing season, the most stressful time of year--and then, if they were successful, she wanted continue them through next school year.

The request was approved, the sessions were arranged, and today was the very first one.

According to Walters, this UAHS experience, a Mind-ED partnership with Urban Zen™ Integrative Therapy, is a broaching new ground. She said a model like it does not exist, so Urban Zen™ is eager to see what kind of impact it can make on student and teacher lives.

I don’t know what the surveys will ultimately show, but I do know it made a difference for me.

From the moment I walked into the freshman gym, everything felt different. The place where I spent countless hours running sprints, completing drills and pitching millions of counts as a high school student was converted into a peaceful space. There were candles and white twinkle lights at center court. The fluorescents were turned off and the sunlight streamed through the windows. A circle of mats huddled around the candles and just seeing that competitive space converted into something different made my blood pressure sink.

We filled out a survey at the outset, indicating our level of anxiousness, exhaustion, insomnia, feelings of being overwhelmed, being upset or needing self care, and then we found our space on the mat, shut our eyes, and followed along as Sharon Collaros and Janine Harris-Degitz drew our attention to breath, to different parts of our body, to sounds and shadows and thoughts, and they, together with Sabrina Walters, wandered the room and made sure everyone was comfortable.

As a Type A person who struggles to sleep, who cannot stop her brain for a moment, I appreciated the excuse to pause, to have someone teach me how to shift my thoughts away from doing, and simply focus for a moment on being. I will admit that my brain circled back to my to-do list every now and then, but to be perfectly honest, for the most part, I was able to disconnect, and it was absolutely exhilarating.

Twenty minutes later, when I filled out the survey, I realized I didn’t feel a sense of anxiousness at all, nor did I feel overwhelmed or like I needed self care. I knew I had a blog post to write and meetings to attend, but I felt good about approaching them.

My neck wasn’t tense and my arms tingled.

I felt genuinely relaxed.

Which is kind of amazing for 20 minutes worth of work.

As I walked out of the gym with Finley, I couldn’t help but smile. I couldn’t help but feel gratitude that conversations were happening and people were trying new ways to approach challenges.

I couldn’t help but hope this experience will provide a respite for all of the people who need it, that it will make inroads, that it will empower people to carve out time for themselves, that it will help people learn how to cope with stress, that it really might make a difference.

Before I got too deep into my hoping though, I got a message that set everything clear.

One of our UA Idea Day planners, a student who has her hand in everything, who strives fervently and whole-heartedly, who is about to embark on the next chapter of her life, a chapter which will undoubtedly include hugely, wonderful things, sent Finley and me a message about her Mind-ED experience.

“My breathing is still pretty controlled,” she said, in the break between her two afternoon tests. “That was really good. Wow.”

And right there, I stopped hoping, took another breath, felt my heart race.

And sat down and started to write.

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