Mindfulness and Making at Falk Laboratory School

by Leah Northrop and Jill Sarada

Innovation, openness, collaboration, wonder, kindness, engagement, action.

Can we teach our children these important attributes? At the University of Pittsburgh’s Falk Laboratory School, specialized programming endeavors do just that. For example, on February 2, 2017, Falk hosted an evening of Mindfulness and Making to highlight curriculum and share practices in action. The night was one installment in a series of events sponsored by the Pittsburgh Alliance of University Schools (PAUS) group and was organized by Falk’s PAUS representative, Jill Sarada, and a team of teachers at Falk. Other member schools include: The Campus School of Carlow University, as well as The Cyert Center for Early Education and The Children’s School, both at Carnegie Mellon University. More than 100 teachers from member schools gathered at Falk to practice, connect, and learn.
The evening began with an introduction to some of the mindful awareness practices (MAPs) that we engage in at Falk School. The intentional choice to include mindfulness and other practices in our curriculum demonstrates a commitment to the myriad of benefits a quiet practice brings to an educational setting. Before sitting down to a bountiful meal with stimulating conversation on the side, we started with a simple, but important, mindful eating practice: noticing the environment, acknowledging the effort others put forth to bring the meal to our table, and observing and connecting with the company surrounding us.  

Following the meal, sessions to share some of our classroom activities based in mindfulness continued throughout the evening. 1st and 2nd grade teacher Becka Wright shared her 2nd grader’s pebble practice—a mindfulness activity based on the work and book by Thich Naht Hanh. Kindergarten teacher Chelsea Knittle introduced her classroom’s work with building empathy through animal observations. Visitors also experienced mindful movement and breathing led by Leah Northrop, the school’s yoga and mindfulness instructor.

A guiding wish for our children is to understand the importance of quiet and relaxation as necessary components of learning. We believe mindful practices aim to create connections between people in experiences and across abilities to build a community driven by kindness.      
How does “making” nurture these qualities? During the second part of the evening we shared and explored more than a dozen hands-on, project-based ways teachers can facilitate making opportunities that foster curiosity, collaboration, integrative thinking, and experimentation in both children and themselves.   

In Falk School’s newly constructed Wonder Lab, a space that provides tools, expertise, and room to engage in making, K-8 technology teachers Tim Wagner and Laura Tomokiyo, and after-school director Tim Doyle, welcomed visitors to both deconstruct and construct at their leisure, while exploring electronics, woodworking, and animation.  Down the hall in a 4th grade classroom, teacher Autumn Dillaman showcased current student works-in-progress, including, sewing projects, wooden pentominoes, and a class-made foosball game.

Artist in Residence, Cameron Barnett, led visiting teachers to observe and author poetry based in observation with an invitation to make connection and evoke story from ordinary objects often taken for granted. Middle school teachers, Joe Scheller (music) and Tim Kirchner (math), highlighted student work connecting math, music, and making with the 6th grade wooden xylophone project.   

As teachers from across the city filed out of the building after 9 p.m. on a school night, we were met with rekindled enthusiasm and eagerness to bolster practices that are already taking place in classrooms at the Pittsburgh Alliance of University Schools. At Falk, it is our pleasure to share with and learn from our peer schools and we truly look forward to the next PAUS event!  

Leah Northrop is a yoga/mindfulness teacher at Falk Laboratory School, in addition to teaching individual “therapeutic” yoga sessions for students with various challenges, as well as leading a research project at the University of Pittsburgh, Yoga for Anxious Children.     Jill Sarada is the Falk School director of admissions as well as the school’s kindergarten teacher.