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Teaching to the Heart

Poetry, Climate Change, and Sacred Spaces
Teaching to the Heart


Take a deep breath in.

Hold it for 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Now let it out.

This is what I tell myself as I feel my anxiety start to rise along with the temperature of our tender planet — and this is what I tell my class of 7th graders as we begin our first conversation about climate change. I want my students to understand the very real threat human actions pose to our planet, and I also want to give them tools that will help them be brave — instead of paralyzed — when fear arises. 

I want them to talk about places that are sacred to them so that they may better understand places that are sacred to others, and better connect with this critical problem we call climate change. 

I first discovered Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner in 2014. She had just spoken at the U.N. Climate Change Summit and her poem, “Dear Matafele Peinam,” was going viral online. That summer I attended the Oregon Writing Project, and together with fellow teacher Patricia Montana, developed a lesson using her poem. Jetñil-Kijiner’s powerful piece blended dire reality with unwavering certainty that our actions matter. It was a perfect opening for our first conversation about climate change.

I open by telling my students we are going to start taking a mindfulness minute at the beginning of every class. I have them sit up in their chairs and tell them to have their feet flat on the floor, or at least pointed toward it.

“Put your hands on your desk or on your knees,” I say, “and have your eyes open or closed.” I wait until they are ready, gently coaching students with a gesture or smile to sit up a little straighter, or put their head down on their desk if the temptation to look around is too great. 

“OK,” I say. “If this is the first time you’ve done this, it may feel a little weird at first, but just trust me, I got you.” A few of the boys giggle, but they stop, and I begin.
“I want you to think about your toes. Go ahead and wiggle them in your shoes. Notice where your feet touch the ground and what your sock feels like on your foot. Now think about your ankles. We don’t think about our ankles much, do we?” I pause for just a beat. I don’t want to rush our body scan exercise, but I also know that with middle school students, one minute is about all I have the first time around. So I keep talking, my voice slow and serene, and ask them to think about their stomachs, their hearts, where their backs hit the chair and where it’s just air. I finish by asking them to think about the space just above their heads and to take a big, deep breath that we hold for five counts before letting out.

I look at my classroom of 12- and 13-year-old students. Some are squirming in their seats, some haven’t lifted their heads from their desks, and one or two are calmly opening their eyes. 

“I’ll bet you are wondering why we did that,” I say, while preparing the video of “Dear Matafele Peinam” on my computer. “We did the mindfulness minute because I want you to notice how you are feeling, right now. In a minute, I’m going to play this video and I will ask you to notice how you feel after watching it.”
I pass out copies of the poem and continue explaining.

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