From India to Chicago, Children with Autism Benefit from Yoga

Kim Goldsmith
YOGA Chicago

As I entered the classroom of a special school in Bangalore, India, and found children with autism on carpets arranged in a circle following the directions of the yoga teacher, I knew my idea would work. Last December, I sat at my desk at Bogan High School on the South side of Chicago trying to figure out a way to help my students with autism calm their anxieties, improve their focus, and incorporate fitness into their daily lives. Including yoga as part of our daily routine in my self-contained special education classroom popped into my mind. I knew how much I have benefitted from yoga and believed it could improve the lives of my students as well.

After doing some research, I learned that yoga is an integral part of many Indian schools, and, furthermore, several schools included yoga for their students with autism. I thought that visiting these schools, talking with the teachers there, and seeing firsthand how to incorporate yoga into a school day would empower me to pursue similar efforts in Chicago. But first I had to get to India.

Left: Children with autism practice yoga at The Mother’s International School in Delhi. Right: Kim Goldsmith takes a yoga class in Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga.

I discovered Fund for Teachers through the Chicago Foundation for Education, whose mission is to “[enrich] the personal and professional growth of teachers by recognizing and supporting them as they identify and pursue opportunities around the globe that will have the greatest impact on their practice, the academic lives of their students and on their school communities.” After proposing my idea and waiting several months, I was granted a $5,000 fellowship.

I landed in Delhi, India, on July 10. For the first two weeks I oriented myself by traveling to different spiritual centers: I went to Amritsar, where Sikhs make pilgrimages to the Golden Temple; Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community; and Rishikesh, Allahbad, Haridwar, and Varanassi, which are holy Hindu cities along the Ganges River. In Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga, I stayed at an ashram and took two yoga classes to prepare for the next three weeks of my fellowship.

At the Academy for Severe Handicaps and Autism (ASHA, ashaforautism.com/index.html ) in Bangalore in the state of Karnataka, I first witnessed a 40-minute yoga class taught to students with autism. The students I saw reminded me so much of my own. Some were quite independent and were able to follow right along with the instructor; others needed individual help from the teaching assistants with the postures and breathing exercises. Some of the students were verbal, others nonverbal. Still other students made repetitive motions, such as rocking their bodies and flapping their hands, and a few could stay still. Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it affects everybody in different ways to different degrees, and these students, halfway across the world, mirrored the range of abilities of the students in my own class.

When answering my questions about the yoga class, the school’s director reported that it was only a six-month-old program in their school, but significant changes in students’ abilities were already evident, including increased balance, flexibility, ability to focus, and independence in following along. Regardless of their skill level, they all appeared calm. In my Chicago class, the presence of a visitor can cause my students to lose focus and, in some cases, become overly anxious or distressed. However, my presence at this yoga class didn’t seem to faze the ASHA students, indicating to me that they were feeling relaxed. It was truly impressive and very exciting.

The next school I visited was the Vega Devi Center, also in Bangalore. This was a school for students with autism and other disabilities involving communication difficulties. I spent about 20 minutes in a classroom with a group of students, some of whom were deaf and some who had cognitive disabilities. I asked the students and their teacher if they do yoga, and one student with Down syndrome eagerly rose out of her seat to demonstrate a balance pose. In fact, the students practice yoga on a weekly basis. From the students’ enthusiasm about yoga, I knew it was not only a beneficial, but also an enjoyable, part of their school day.

After flying back to Delhi, where my journey began, I had the opportunity to visit several more schools, some of which were specifically for students with autism and some that were not. After confirming my theory regarding the benefits of yoga for students with autism, I was ready to learn more specifics about teaching yoga. Although I did not complete a teacher training course while in India, I did have the opportunity to learn from the teachers at the The Mother’s International School, a private school in Delhi affiliated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The school teaches pre-primary through high school students, all of whom take yoga.

The high school teacher helped refine my poses so I could better teach them to students and gave me some materials about yoga to share with my class and parents. The primary school yoga instructor invited me to participate in his class alongside his students and then let me take over. This was a great way to learn what to do when instructing my own students who are at the same beginning level as these primary students. He also gave me some book titles, such as A New Education With a Soul and Awareness of the Body , both based on the works of Sri Aurobindo.

In the final two weeks of my fellowship, I visited several more schools in the state of Rajasthan. In Jaipur I went to the Subodh Public School, where students practice yoga on a weekly basis, and the Vinay Balbharthi School, where students greeted me with an incredible performance of yoga. Teachers at another school explained that students spend five to seven minutes at the beginning of each class period in silent meditation. All of my school visits inspired so many great ideas to implement at Bogan High School.

School resumed for me on September 8, and only two short weeks later, my students knew to take off their shoes and lie down on their yoga mats when they enter my classroom. I start each day leading everybody, including a parent who drops off her son, through 10 to 15 minutes of meditation, pranayama, and asanas, and can already see the benefits. For example, one student with severe anxiety tensed up his body when he sensed another student was about to scream. Loud noises make him very nervous, and during the previous school year he routinely required one hour to calm down after such a moment of anxiety. This time, I reminded him to breathe deeply and suggested he recite “Om” several times. After doing this, it took him only about 10 minutes to relax his body. I am sure it will only be a matter of time for him to achieve his new goal: to remember to breathe without my cue. I am looking forward to seeing the continued progress that my students will make with daily yoga practice.

The opportunity that Fund for Teachers gave me to explore the use of yoga in schools in India, and particularly for students with autism, enabled me to learn how to incorporate yoga into my classroom. I hope that other teachers and schools in Chicago will also begin to teach yoga, as I’ve learned that it is incredibly beneficial for all!

Note: Fund for Teachers opened its 2010 grant cycle on October 1. Teachers are encouraged to apply online at www.fundforteachers.org.

Kim Goldsmith teaches at Bogan High School on Chicago’s South Side.

Wisconsin Seizes Opportunity to Bring the World to Their Teachers

Title I and “Schools of Recognition” Now Eligible for Fund for Teachers Grants

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Oklahoma Teacher to Share African Students Stories

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY – Since 2006, 439 Oklahoma teachers have traveled the world through the Fund for Teachers program.

Some have crossed the Pyrenees on horseback from France to Spain to compare the two cultures. Others explored the ecosystems of the Gulf of Alaska or toured Romania to learn about its culture and geography.

Judith Blake, a television production teacher at Norman High School, traveled last summer for five weeks to Cape Town, South Africa, where she filmed public and private high school students at four schools.

The idea was spurred by a Nigerian student in her classroom who asked why the media only seemed to portray Africans sitting in huts or in the middle of violence. “We get a skewed view of life in Africa,” Blake said.

“I was quite surprised at the dignity and intelligence of the (African) kids,” she said. “They are quite sophisticated. We’re in la-la land (in America) if we think we don’t have to work very hard.”

Judith Blake, a television production teacher at Norman High School, spent five weeks in South Africa this summer.

Blake also took videos about life in Oklahoma to share with the schools and a community cable television station. She’s in the process of creating a documentary about the trip, which she hopes serves as an eye-opener for her own students, she said.

American students must realize their future competition is global, Blake said. “I hope my students will see how serious other students are in less advantaged circumstances,” she said.

Seeing how teachers and students are affected by their experiences is rewarding, said Dayna Rowe, program administrator at the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence. The group administers the grants alongside the Tulsa Community Foundation and the national Fund for Teachers organization.

“I meet all these teachers on the front end and they’re so excited about what they’re going to do,” Rowe said. “But it’s even better when they come back.”

Since the program began in Oklahoma, it has awarded $1.4 million, Rowe said.

Capetown Meets Norman Through Public Television and Fund for Teachers Grant

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Newsletter – Volume 5, Holiday 2009

In This Issue:
Water, Water Everywhere…
Rewriting the Future
Peace & Goodwill
Unmasking Humanity
Letters Home

Read our recent newsletter, Odyssey.

 

Teaching by Example

This holiday season, Fund for Teachers celebrates our shared humanity as represented by three 2009 Fellow experiences. We move into the new decade with great aspirations for our nation’s future – one that’s built upon everyday efforts, like teaching, that produce profound outcomes. Season’s Greetings and Happy New Year.

Confronting the Past to Re‐Write the Future

Helping students connect with their authentic selves through writing motivates Nella Wortman. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, the weight of the past often became overwhelming and stifled transparency in her own life and writing. To inspire students’ deeper reflection and cathartic prose, as well as her own, Nella confronted her family’s defining moments by visiting the sites of historical and personal significance in Europe and drafted a corresponding Memoir Writing Unit for her students at Houston’s Pin Oak Middle School.

Left: Nella with Suor Luigia, who cared for Nella’s father and aunt as “Hidden Children” during World War II.

Right: Nella’s students create similar journals in Houston to inspire their own writing.

During the month of July, Nella explored her family’s history rooted in the landscapes of World War II. Her pilgrimage included residences of great‐grandparents and aunts, the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, the convent that hid her father and aunt during the war, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and Hitler’s bunker. Finally, like her grandmother and great‐grandmother before her, Nella entered Auschwitz but, hours later, left – the only one in her family to do so alive and free. Along the way, she created a notebook of impressions and ideas to share with students as a model for their own notebooks that incorporate their lives as the inspiration.

“I’ve learned to not hold anything back, to put it all on paper,” said student Kayla Bell. “And you won’t believe it, but once you write, you feel much better.” Fellow student Ethan Blair agrees, “Ms. Wortman taught me to express my feelings and life stories in my writing. This changed me because the more I write, the better I get at writing. And the more I want to write. Instead of just holding onto ideas, I put it on paper.”

“Every moment of my fellowship was beyond imagining and I continue to write in my notebook because I feel invigorated as a writer,” shared Nella. “My trip was an effort to integrate my writing and teaching so I could inspire students to become more engaged writers themselves. I am now contributing to the lives of my students in a more meaningful way. I guess you could say that I’m my own work in progress and I continue to grow in each of the valuable roles that affect my students: Teacher, writer, and human being.”

Water, Water Everywhere…

Biology teacher and former hydrologist Kara MacDevitt’s curiosity and professional training led her to Southeast Asia for six weeks this summer to examine the worst water quality in the world. As she crossed Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam testing water, every sample revealed contamination. Kara encountered people whose entire cultures revolved around their rivers and water systems, some of whom failed to realize the magnitude of the problem and others felt powerless to act.

Left: Testing water outside a temple at the Angkor Complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Right: Gathering a sample of the Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos.

“I traveled through rural lands, passing rice paddies irrigated with the very water polluted by the factory next door,” said Kara. “People who dumped trash into the river also drew the same water out for household use. I kept thinking, ‘Something can be done’ and knew education was key, but corrupt governments and ctizens’ resignation to the problem relegated these people to continued illness and low life expectancy rates.”

Observing a sample from the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos, with the help of a young girl
interested in the process who helped complete the tests.

Returning to her science class at Brooklyn’s International High School at Lafayette, the relevance of her fellowship crystallized for her students when a city‐wide debate flared around drilling for natural gas in the Catskills and the implication on New York City’s sole water supply. Because one hundred percent of Kara’s students arrived in America less than four years ago, recent struggles with non‐potable water in their native countries informed the water quality discussion, as did their school’s closure last year due to toxic levels of lead in the pipes. Consequently, one teacher’s hands‐on international experiences, combined with engaged immigrant students and a local public policy debate, evolved into a grassroots campaign to protect the city’s water.

“I wanted to teach them that even as high school students relatively new to America, their opinions count and their voices matter.” So Kara and her students mounted a letter writing campaign and plan to state their case before the city government.

“I was astonished that New York City, the capital of the world, can generate this kind of atrocious problem,” said student Morshed Alam. “In my country, Bangladesh, people are poor and ignorant about the impact of factory waste or farming fertilizers. But here, they want to drill knowing the risks. I am urging the government to take action and stop this malevolent problem.”

Benjamin Franklin prophesied, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Two centuries later, for teenagers in New York City, the well delivering their water isn’t dry, but potentially polluted. By joining the debate, Kara’s students now
confront water quality issues and seek positive outcomes not accessible in their native countries – an effort worthy of any patriot.

Unmasking Humanity Behind The Polity

While the war in Afghanistan and Iraq consumes our country’s greater conscience, the largest military build up on American soil since The Civil War continues to expand along the US/Mexico border ‐‐ constituting a raging battle encompassing issues of homeland security, economic impact and the moral issue of humanity. Determined to document the multiple issues and perspectives surrounding the debate, three Expeditionary Learning School teachers from Taos, New Mexico, spent their Fund for Teachers’ fellowship living and researching the migrant workers’ experiences crossing the border.

Ned re‐fills water tanks in the desert with Humane Borders.

Comprising the Humanities Department at Vista Grande High School, the team included: Josán Perales, a bilingual Spanish instructor who facilitated interviews with Mexican individuals and organizations to understand the international perspective of border issues; Toni Wright, a history instructor who examined the conflicts unique to the U.S.‐Mexico border in the context of root causes and present issues; and Ned Dougherty, a Language Arts instructor who met with activists and organizations in order to understand the varying perspectives.

“Borders manifest themselves in many ways. People always have obstacles to overcome, a wall to climb or daunting odds to prove wrong. Opportunity often lies on the other side of the border. The U.S.‐Mexico border is a volatile example of a border with many faces.” – JosÁn Perales, 2009 ELS Fellow

Attempting to avoid political arguments, the team interviewed representatives from humanitarian organizations such as No More Deaths and Humane Borders, law enforcement representatives from the Minutemen Project and Border Patrol, and those in the middle making the often lethal sojourn across the Sonoron Desert. Their end game was to create a learning experience that provides primary resources for a year‐long, multi‐disciplinary and school‐wide curriculum entitled “Borders.” Exploring the shared humanity of migrants and Minutemen alike provided the team a compelling study in contrasts and
an often haunting view of the people on both sides of debate. By gaining first‐hand experiences relating to the many facets of the border control issue, the team could relay facts that can empower students’ deeper understanding of the issue and development of their own opinions.

A mural of crosses on the border wall in Nogales, Mexico, each with a name of a deceased migrant who died in the desert.

“The three of us traveled to this scorching area of our country to investigate an incredibly misunderstood, complex and divisive issue shared by two countries, many cultures and a frightening reality,” said Ned. “We had no idea how profound and life changing our immersion into this issue would prove to be. A group of new teachers emerged, humbled and inspired to expose the ugliest and most precious truths of this issue for our students in New Mexico.”

“Through our own voices and that of many experts involved, like the migrants themselves, Border Patrol and
humanitarian activists, the students are beginning to understand how incredible it may be to attempt to cross, inhibit the passage or aid this tidal wave of humanity crossing into our country daily,” said Toni. “Whereas the heat was enough to challenge us physically, the people we met during our trip have forever reshaped our view of what it means to be human. Let us remember that, beneath everything, we are one.”

Photos: Food for Thought Luncheon 2009

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Global Learning Adventures Await Chicago’s Top Teachers

Fund for Teachers Now Accepting Applications for 2010 Summer Education Grants

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