Meet Joanie: Educator at PS 126, Chinatown, NY

We’re excited to introduce a new blog series featuring our Mindful Schools community members. This week we spoke to Joanie Terrizzi. Joanie is an educator at a low-income school in Chinatown, NY. She reaches 840 students, pre-K through 8th grade, each week.

She is part of our first Year-Long Certification class, where she is receiving in-depth training in bringing mindfulness to youth. The program includes retreat practice, online instruction, and small group mentorship over a 12 month period.

For practitioners like Joanie, Mindful Schools is proud to offer scholarships to applicants who work in public schools, agency environments, or serve high-risk populations. We’re currently accepting applications for the 2014-15 Year-Long Certification program. Learn more.

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April 2014
Mindful Schools Interview with Joanie Terrizzi
School Librarian, PS 126/Manhattan Academy of Technology
Chinatown – New York, NY

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Year-Long Certification 2013-14 images courtesy of Joanie Terrizzi

MS: Tell us a little bit about your experience with the Year-Long Certification training. What has it been like for you?

JT: It has been the most incredible opportunity of my teaching career. Through this experience it feels like everything has changed but there’s nothing about my life that’s changed externally – everything is as fast-paced and challenging as ever… My life hasn’t changed, I have changed. The difference is internal, and I know it’s because of the work and the support of Mindful Schools.

MS: Were there specific moments in your training that stand out for you?

JT: I think it’s really been a combination of everything … one thing that’s been the most meaningful to me is the genuine connection with other participants – all over the country and the world – and other people doing this work in general, finding meaning with others in what I find meaningful. Somehow even when I get behind in my training homework I feel really connected with the community and the work that everyone’s doing. It’s been really rewarding to build relationships around bringing mindfulness to our youth.  I’ve been inspired, cheered on, and lifted up by these colleagues-turned-friends, and have had the opportunity to be supportive to others in their deeply human moments.

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Year-Long Certification 2013-14 images courtesy of Joanie Terrizzi

MS: You mentioned: ‘It’s you who has changed.’ Can you talk about that a little more?

JT: Just sticking with this work and really going in and embodying the practice, day after day after day; it’s one of these aggregate things. My whole mind is a different place than it used to be and based on feedback from many others in my life, this fact is truly noticeable. My whole approach is really different in a very good way – the way I see, the way I respond, how much less reactive I am… I’m a very different person than I was a year ago and I know I owe it to all of the mindfulness I’ve been doing. It’s my ability to REALLY go with whatever moment is happening. I work with 840 kids and 82 staff members. There is a lot that comes at me in a given day. There are a lot of challenges in education in general: a lot of non-stop, shifting gears. I can see that my skill level in so many areas has totally transformed.  Here’s how I recently described it:

When mindfulness takes over your teaching: It’s that moment, with that child who knows just how to wriggle his way under your skin, the one who can derail your entire lesson, the one so dis-regulated that she spins into a torrential tantrum over the seemingly-nothing … and you’re up there in front of twenty-some-odd young pairs of eyes trusting you to “fix” things, and you’re feeling so triggered. You feel that familiar prickly-hot feeling rising, and you open your mouth (the one that sometimes betrays you and lets the words out too harshly, the one that gets so FRUSTRATED by the things beyond your control in children’s lives, the one that just wants to finish your sentence) … and out pours soft words and sweetness, compassion you can almost taste … and you look around, almost wondering where it came from, and you find yourself smiling at a child you thought of mostly as a challenge, mirroring her look of surprise that you didn’t just reprimand her. Instead, you managed to make a light thing of his behavior, a thing that made them all smile – you navigated a tricky moment, and swooped the attention of the class back around to you, like a dance almost – and it all comes out so genuine, so natural, with no ‘trying’ – and sure it doesn’t happen all the time, but like a good friend you haven’t seen in a while, it comes to visit more and more and more often. That’s what it feels like: like opening your mouth and your best self shows up to talk.

That’s really how it feels. There are still moments when I’m quite triggered, but there are so many moments where I open my mouth and something unexpected and delightful comes out. Lately, it just comes out right. It’s quite natural.

“Let Shawn, one of my 1st graders, teach you about the parts of the brain. I taught this lesson once, and Shawn got up immediately and taught it back to his class – I was SO proud and SO delighted. At this point, most of my 1st-5th graders have this languaging down, and it has had dramatic results on our interactions. Grateful, Grateful to Mindful Schools.”

Year-Long Certification 2013-14 video courtesy of Joanie Terrizzi

MS: We’ve talked about your personal practice and how much of an impact that’s had on your approach to teaching. If we can shift now and talk about implementing the lessons and how that’s going …

JT: I’ve been lucky to be very supported by my administration in this. I’ve fully integrated it into the library curriculum. I’m in a pre-K through 8 school in a very low-income neighborhood in New York City’s Chinatown. Grades 1-5 receive the Mindful Schools curriculum on a weekly basis. I do some mindful games but not the full curriculum with PreK and Kindergarten; I have one class of 7th graders and some individual students that I have also recently started offering mindfulness to. I am delivering the curriculum and also trying to bring it to other teachers. It’s been going really well and has transformed the climate and language in the library completely. I was pleasantly surprised how, from the beginning, it landed really well with the kids.

MS: You’ve sent us a video clip [above] of one of your first grade students, Shawn, giving a lesson back to the class. Tell us about that.

JT: That morning I watched a video of Megan [Mindful Schools Co- founder and Program Director] giving the same lesson and I decided I was going to teach it. I taught it and then I pointed to our brain picture and I asked the first graders, ‘Can anyone teach this back to us?’ I didn’t expect first graders would be able to, but I was curious and open-minded about it. Then Shawn just got up and taught it flawlessly. You can hear the other kids in the background getting excited and being supportive. Shawn’s mom is really proud and was so happy to give additional support and share the video with others. And Shawn loves it. He loves talking about the brain. And the kids really remember it. I have a drawing of it now that I keep to the side and I try to reference it with each class every time they come. I’ll point to it and say something like ‘Is that your amygdala taking over right now?’ or ‘You might use your hippocampus to remember when we…’ They get it, they love it, and are really empowered by it.

MS: Any other breakthrough moments that come to mind with the students and the MS curriculum?

JT: There have been moments when I’ve had second graders cry tears of happiness during the mindful breathing which just blows my mind. I’ve been able to talk kids down from pretty activated or angered states. I had a student try to leave the room and another student said ‘Hey, that’s your amygdala telling you to leave; don’t listen to it!’ I have another student who every time he gets frustrated he gets up and tries to leave the situation and I tell him the same thing – he’s starting to get it. A second grader just told me today:

“Yesterday when I was sleeping, I looked on top of my bed for my mom, it’s a bunk bed, and my mom wasn’t there and little tears came out of my eyes, and I used my mindful breathing and I knew my mom would say that I’m a Big Girl.  And so then I fell asleep.  I’m going to rub my eyes now.” I said: “It’s okay, you can rub your eyes.”  She continued: “I’m just rubbing my eyes.  I’m not crying.  Stop it, water!”

The last thing, and the most important thing that I want to say is that I’m just so tremendously grateful.

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Year-Long Certification 2013-14 images courtesy of Joanie Terrizzi