Interview with James Baraz and Michele Lilyanna on Awakening Joy in Kids
A partial transcript of our conversation:
JB: I want to say how happy I am that you’re doing this Awakening Joy for Kids. It really makes me happy and can be a real blessing if kids benefit and parents and educators from all over get to use the materials and your ideas, so thank you so much for putting your energy and skill into this.
ML: Thank you, James; it’s a pleasure.
How did you get into using the Awakening Joy material and what kinds of things do you do?
ML: Well, I met you three years ago at UBC out at the University of British Columbia, You were doing an Awakening Joy class. And for whatever reason, I was drawn. I was sitting with you and Jane (Baraz), and when you started speaking about teachers, I just thought wow, if you’ve taught and you are doing the work you’re doing, you understand me. You just spoke to me, and so did Jane. I then took your Awakening Joy course online and it made a huge difference. You know, it was a practice for me. And I would take the practices into my classroom and it made big changes. It gave a name to it; it gave me a sense of community that [other] people were doing this — it wasn’t just me and my school.
And we have neuroscience to back it up and that has made a huge difference. Rick Hanson, as you know, is also someone I’m working with, having the neuroscience backed up again with it — it just flows.
JB: Yes, great! So what kinds of things do you do as far as using the Awakening Joy material?
ML: Well, I’m really focusing on working with a chapter, or a step at a time. If you saw your book here, James, it is dog-eared with tons of papers sticking out of it!!
JB: AW, that makes me happy.
ML: And I have it in the class, too. You know, honestly, there’s soooo many stickers sticking out of this and I don’t have a lot of books like that — you know, I really don’t — that I use that way. Your book was so accessible, and being online with the work that you did was so accessible for teachers and for anybody.
And so I would just sit with, “Okay, how can I translate this step of what you were doing into my classroom?” and then I would go try it. I wanted to try the lessons to see how they would float with the kids. I always asked the kids for feedback. I’d say, “We’re working on this. What do you think? How did this lesson go? How might we change it? How might it work for kids who have never done this before?” Because my grade threes have been working in this practice now and they’re so funny — they said to me the other day, “Uh, Miss L, I think this twenty minute mindfulness might be a bit long for new people, but we loved it.”
JB: (Both laughing) Aw, wow. Great reviewers right there, huh?
ML: Well, they’re honest. And you know [the step on] ‘Letting Go.’ I think I wrote to you that we had a monk come who was doing a sand mandala right there that month. So we practiced letting go, we talked about letting go in our lives and things that we’ve had to let go of, even as young as grade three, kids saying they had to let go of a pet or a grandparent. What does that feel like? What is that about, you know? Actually bringing those conversations into the class and writing about them.
JB: Oh, beautiful. That sounds so good. And what kind of results do you find with kids? You say that you’ve found that it has really been helpful: what kinds of things have you seen? Any stories that you can share?
ML: I could tell you so many. I had a great grandmother come in the classroom last Thursday and we were doing a Gratitude Circle at the end of the day. And her little grandson is pretty lively, to say the least. She said to me, “I wish for every child to have this. Every child. My great grandson is so, so lucky.” And the little ones were saying they were grateful she was in the room. And she was just lit up.
I find our classroom becomes a community through doing these practices of Awakening Joy. And then it spreads out into the school. The children are doing random acts of kindness all over. They’re using the language. They’re going home and their parents are saying, “Well, we did this Gratitude Circle tonight at the dinner table.” It’s so lovely, James.
And the piece that I want to share for teachers is that it’s not a separate curriculum. So many teachers think, “Oh, how can I do this as well?!” Are you kidding me?
What I’ve tried to do with the lessons is to weave them all and integrate them seamlessly into all levels: math, language arts, science. It’s almost like a challenge for me. I think, “Okay, where am I going to go with this? How can we keep touching back to those touchstones that serve our children?”
JB: Mmmm, Lovely. It’s integrated into the whole message that you’re trying to communicate.
ML: I know teachers say, “Well, we’re working on this, and I’ve done this before” But for me, I’ve never done these things before because every day is fresh. I have a new moment, my students are fresh, we’re trying something new and who knows what is going to arise in that moment? For me it’s never boring. It’s so beautiful the way they hold each other and it’s unbounded.
JB: And I love what you’ve sent me in some of your lesson plans: the aliveness that comes out of them, the artwork that you’ve shared with me, and just the way you have it laid out so clearly and so user-friendly that other people could use it.!
ML: Thank you. I really tried to work with that. I’ve taught a lot of teachers now in trainings and I also want to say, too, just to honor this piece, I’ve spent many, many years in the non-violent communication community with Robert Gonzales (http://www.living- compassion.org). Having that touchstone as well of how the kids can start to use their language to communicate and bringing it all together — it just makes a place of love in our school.
JB: So you’re using the Awakening Joy material, plus neuroscience, plus non-violent communication, plus twenty-five plus years of teaching experience in training other teachers and it gets synthesized in an alive way as you see what works in the classroom.
ML: I was just going to say, James, the way your book is laid out, step-by-step, and to be able to do lessons with that that tie in is such an excitement for me. The whole idea — I thought about it — was that the people that do Awakening Joy [who] have kids or [could] be able to have something that they could take home with them, like a little gift to their family to share in a tangible way with little ones. It was something I so wanted to do to add into it. I have a lot of people say to me, “I never though of that way,” because they’re not thinking like a child or teacher anymore in that way. They want ‘little’ ideas.
JB: So, you don’t have to be a schoolteacher in a classroom to use the ideas that you’ve come up with.
ML: No, I would love grandparents, great grandparents, family, aunties, uncles, anyone to be able to read the lessons. I really try to write for that as well.
JB: Yes, that’s what comes across. It’s so user friendly and something that people can do whether or not they’ve been educators. Just loving kids and wanting to bring the aliveness and the joy out of them and get them in touch with their own wisdom–that’s a real service that you’re providing.
ML: Thank you.
JB: I’m just thrilled that this can be available and an offering to people — teachers, educators, parents, anyone who wants to use it. And I have a feeling, even the adults can benefit just in the process of sharing it with younger people.
ML: You know, when you say that, James, I think so often adults come and say, “I forgot how to play. I don’t remember anymore.” I think that’s a big piece — let’s go and play some more!!
JB: Ah, that’s great! In the step ‘Connecting with Others’ I make the point that playing is an important part of our well-being. Kids know how to play but adults can somehow forget. There have been a number of studies that show that adults who can play or who can enjoy silly humor or that can laugh–all of these things are major factors in an adult’s well-being. Let’s bring the play back to the adults and let them remember what it’s like to be kids again themselves as they share it with others.
ML: There’s one thing I wanted to go back to. You asked me how did it affect the classroom and I think this is really important. I noticed a huge decrease in behavior problems — huge, absolutely. In the very beginning, we always sit, very first thing and do a mindfulness exercise, any kind, I let them choose.
I put them up on the board and they say, “We want to do a walking one or a sitting one,” whatever they choose. And the decrease is huge. And parents say to me that the anxiety — we have so much anxiety in our classrooms — the kids can go to themselves now and they say, “I need to go and do a little breathing. I need to go connect with myself.” “Can I go outside? Can I just sit for five minutes and come back in? Then I can be present!”
ML: It blows me away, James. It blows me away. Behavior and self-regulation. And then at [home], I have parents say to me that the children now are going and doing the journeys themselves, or being able to calm and soothe themselves. That’s huge.
ML: You know, honestly, I’m so glad to have come to that day at UBC. I so want to contribute to this.
JB: Thank you so much. What you’re saying makes me realize that you’re not just offering tools for the classroom or the child at this age, but you’re planting seeds that will keep on bearing fruit. If that child at the age of eight learns how to self-regulate, just imagine them practicing over the years. When they get to be a young adult and an adult and it is so well ingrained in their system that they know how to take care of themselves and be an agent of peace for everybody around them. That’s a huge rippling effect!
ML: Yeah. !
JB: Well, thank you so much for all the work that you’re doing. I am behind it one hundred percent and cheering you on. Awakening Joy for Kids!!
ML: Thank you, James. I’m so happy. And I’m so happy to meet you, your wife, Jane and your team. They’ve been so supportive, as you have. It’s just remarkable.
JB: I hope that everybody who checks out your blog gets inspired to play around with these practices and share them with as many people, young and older people, as possible and it keeps on having its positive effect in the world. Thank you.
ML: Thank you so much, James!