On Mindfulness, November 28, 2017

While working as a teaching aide back in 2000 at Kelly Elementary school, I met Dr. David Shlim. His two children attended the unique K-5 public school of 46 students that borders Grand Teton National Park outside of Jackson, Wyoming. David shared that he had traveled to Nepal and studied Tibetan Buddhism, and he invited me and my wife, Kelly, to stop by his house one day after school to learn more about his practice. I casually accepted his invitation with no idea of the significance this decision would have on my life. He explained some of the background of meditation and then modeled some basic techniques. He invited me to try, and as I slowly closed my eyes and sat upright on the floor of his living room, I experienced my first intentional breath of meditation and deep mindfulness.

I will never forget that moment, and I am forever indebted to Dr. Shlim for making me aware of the practice of meditation. Over the course of the next year, I slowly built upon my practice, and to this day, I begin most every morning with a brief meditation followed by a visualization exercise of the upcoming day. I attribute my personal and professional success to my mindfulness practice, and I do not believe the French Broad River Academy would exist if it were not for meditation. In addition to providing health benefits and balance, my practice provided the clarity and capacity to envision the French Broad River Academy. Furthermore, mindfulness expanded the space between stimulus and response enough for me to manage the stressful and unpredictable challenges that a small start-up school inevitably faces.

It should come as no surprise that in recent years, we have formally incorporated mindfulness into our FBRA culture and daily routines. I remember speaking to board member and mindfulness practitioner, Scott Wilkerson, about my own experience with mindfulness. He shared his journey with mindfulness and how it changed his entire organizational culture at his various car dealerships across the country. I was initially hesitant out of an unfounded fear of parents being upset with the use of instructional time for something that might be perceived as a religious or faith-based activity. He assuaged my fears and challenged me to take some basic steps to incorporate mindfulness in the school. I accepted his challenge and slowly, mindfulness began to spread throughout the school.

Whether at a school-wide assembly, the beginning of a science class, or on the banks of the French Broad River, the practice of mindfulness can be seen in various contexts at FBRA. Both students and staff comment frequently on the benefits of practicing mindfulness. Students focus on their breath before a major math exam or before a challenging whitewater rapid to reduce anxiety. Teachers begin each staff meeting with a mindful moment to ground everyone in the room and ensure that all staff are present as they delve into important topics and conversations.  

One of my most memorable mindfulness moments occurred last spring on the boy’s 8th grade Costa Rica trip. We had hiked down from the village of Mollejones to the majestic Pacuaré River and completed a jungle hike to some nearby waterfalls. As we were preparing to begin the long, steep climb to return to the village, the Boys School Program Director, Andrew Holcombe, instructed the students to spread out and find a spot along the banks of the river where they would not be disturbed. He explained that we were going to take a moment to be silent and practice mindfulness in this incredible setting. As the 8th grade boys scrambled over rocks to find their space, I thought to myself, “this will maybe work for 10-15 minutes at the most.”

Once everyone was settled in to their spot, I sat down strategically amongst one group and waited patiently for the laughter or sounds to begin. Five minutes passed with no sound or movement. Another ten, then twenty minutes passed with no disturbance. I found myself able to enter a deep, meditative state as the sound of the rushing water and chirping birds relaxed my mind. Eventually Andrew called for everyone to return to the trailhead, and to my disbelief, we had been practicing meditation silently with a group of twelve middle school boys for over forty-five minutes!

This was the moment when I realized the progress we have made with our meditation habits at FBRA. There was no forced requirement or coercion for the boys to be silent. The riverside moment on the bank of the Pacuaré was simply an outcome of years of gradual practice and integration into almost everything we do here at FBRA. In recent years there has been an abundance of science and news articles supporting the benefits of mindfulness both in and outside schools. However, my own observation and experience with that group of 8th graders provided all the proof that I needed.

Mindfulness at FBRA has been and will continue to be a major part of our culture. It enables us to fulfill our mission of building character and integrity, while allowing us to connect with ourselves, each other, and our community in a powerful and transformative way. Most importantly, it allows us all to discover and experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment both in and outside of the school environment. If you have not already, I encourage you to explore mindfulness with your child. You will find that he or she already possesses a great deal of depth and knowledge from their experience at FBRA; how amazing would it be if your own Dr. Shlim turned out to be your child?

Now just focus on the breath…

Not Your Typical First Day of School, October 3, 2017

A minivan pulls up in front of a rustic cabin, surrounded by towering oaks. As the doors slowly open, sleeping bags, backpacks, duffels, and kids burst out of the vehicle. Staff members greet parents, direct children to their cabins, and prepare them for a swim test. Parents are ushered to their cars and encouraged to leave sooner rather than later as their children are consumed with excitement, anxiety, and curiosity about the week that lies ahead.

While parents of overnight campers might recognize this scene, it is actually a description the first day of school at the French Broad River Academy (FBRA). We begin each year with our “Induction Week” at Camps Mondamin for boys and Green Cove for girls. Both camps are located on beautiful Lake Summit just south of Hendersonville. Students spend the entire week at camp learning new paddling skills while meeting and getting to know their classmates and teachers. Induction has been a part of the FBRA experience since day one. But why commit over 100 hours and all the resources and planning to start the school year when we could simply begin in the classroom like most other schools do?

The short answer is that it sets our students and staff up for a successful year. While it is not easy for teachers to leave their loved ones and comforts of home for five consecutive days, the “buy-in” is tremendous because the staff see the results of their investment of time and energy in the students immediately. Teachers learn every student’s first name and develop relationships through unique shared experiences in the outdoors. Induction week also creates the capacity to communicate and establish the FBRA cultural values such as high expectations from the beginning.

While other schools, both independent and public, might outsource an orientation program for their students and staff with an outdoor adventure program such as Adventure Treks or Outward Bound, I am unaware of any other middle school that designs and implements its own multi-day orientation program. The FBRA staff plan the meals, organize the multi-day canoe trips, lead canoe instruction, as well as campfire at night. The result is an intentional and relevant orientation program that is linked directly to the FBRA mission and culture since it is designed by the school itself. This type of experience would be impossible for an outside organization to facilitate or attempt to replicate.

Lastly, being at Camps Mondamin and Green Cove allows us to reconnect with the institution that inspired and shaped so much of what the French Broad River Academy is today. The following quote from the founder of Mondamin, “Chief” Frank Bell, Sr., compelled me to get students outside of the classroom and use the French Broad River and Costa Rica as a classroom:

“If education is instead a series of continuing experiences that build the knowledges, the skills, the habits, the appreciations, the attitudes, the values, and ultimately and hopefully the wisdom that enrich living, then we need to go far beyond the classroom.”

Much like Mondamin and Green Cove still do today, FBRA builds character and integrity not only in the classroom, but in the magnificent surrounding rivers and mountains of the French Broad River watershed. From van driving start-up chants to our musical assemblies on Monday mornings, much of the FBRA programming, rituals, and culture have evolved from our experiences as campers and counselors*.

*Co-founder David Byers and I met during the summer of 1991 as campers, and then worked several summers together as counselors. Liddell Shannon, Katherine Saul, Willy Kates, and David Clarke all worked at Green Cove and Mondamin and/or were campers as well.