Exploring How Mindfulness Meditation Is Helping High School Students Align Their Lives With Truth And Love
Author: Ryan Shelton
While my job description is to lead the science department and teach physics at Padua Academy in Wilmington, DE, my calling is to prepare teenagers to lead their communities towards a vibrant and healthy future. This purpose has lead to the creation of Loving Lives Delaware.
Before becoming a teacher, I explored many careers and had many adventures in search of the best way to make a difference in the world. I hiked over 1700 miles, traveled to 5 continents, managed a bakery, started a meditation center, counseled troubled teens, attended Duke, UNC, and Harvard, protected forests as a wildland firefighter, volunteered thousands of hours with Americorps, rafted the Grand Canyon, and SCUBA dived on the Great Barrier Reef.
My next adventure is starting a family with my beautiful wife in our Wilmington home. I'm sure there will be many mistakes along the way, but I hope we're able to create a loving household that's a beacon of support and clarity for others in our community. Thank you for all of your support throughout our journey.
There’s something so amazing, almost magical, about putting conscious intention into setting your day in the morning. Hello everyone, my name is Natalie Onesi and I am currently a Sophomore at the University of Delaware! I am a double major in Neuroscience and Psychology with a minor in Theatre Studies, and I also balance about three jobs (that I love so much) at any given moment. Needless to say, I am a busy busy person. However, one thing that I have carried with me to make this less stressful is the techniques that I learned with Mr. Shelton both within his classroom and within our Meditation Club at Padua Academy. I am beyond thankful for the things I learned from these techniques because they help me stay on top of everything I have to do and approach it from a more stable and calm position rather than trying to approach it from a frantic and stressed point of view. One of the biggest things I remember about the techniques Mr. Shelton taught us is about relieving pressure on ourselves when we lose focus. When our minds started to wander, Mr. Shelton reassured us that it was okay, and we shouldn’t put so much pressure on staying on one track because putting that pressure on ourselves actually has more deleterious effects when we are trying to practice mindfulness. He would always say, those thoughts are trying to be there, don’t block them from coming, rather try to redirect yourself by thinking the phrase “inhale, exhale” and trying to focus on the area of our face that we were directing our breathing. While this was a technique we used during meditation when our mind started to wander, it was something I applied to everyday life. In life, losing focus on things and losing your way can be scary and frustrating but ultimately you have to balance yourself in order to move on in a productive way. So in moments when everything got very overwhelming, I remembered to just take a breath and redirect my energy.
Meditation has so many benefits. So, so many! And the experience differs for everyone. Personally I struggle with pretty significant anxiety that can sometimes even present itself in physical pain. Meditation was something that actually helped me reduce the intensity and duration of these pains. By being able to put myself into the right mindset and tame the anxiety, I was able to lower the severity. This was huge for me and I am eternally grateful for it! In addition to that, I noticed an increased amount of energy throughout the day, generally better mood, and ability to focus more. Practicing mindfulness lead to all of these things for me and in turn lead to healthier and more positive interactions with myself and the people around me. Good luck to all of you practicing mindfulness. It truly can change your life!
Meditation has always been an idea that I’ve wanted to try but never followed through with. In the past, I’ve attempted meditation but didn’t see the benefits until I started my physics class with Mr. Shelton. I find that as a teenager, it’s really hard to take a break, but just taking 3 minutes before each class to reset has really helped me and my classmates focus.
Although I could talk about stress reduction, relaxation, and the other benefits of meditation, I want to focus on its challenges. As someone who constantly feels pulled in a thousand directions, it is difficult to quiet your mind and focus on the moment. I always used to think of meditation as something you are either good at or you’re not (I considered myself as the ‘not’ group). However, if you practice quieting your mind and focusing on the moment, that feeling of being pulled in a thousand directions will start to decrease. I have seen that meditation is something one must practice, and I find that having the patience to practice is more challenging than simply deciding that one is ‘good or not’ at it.
Why is that the case? Most people, especially teenagers, would rather accept that something is not possible than patiently practice it. Not because they are lazy, but because there are other things they need to prioritize, they need to move onto the next thing. Teens are in an odd and important state in their lives. They are learning about the world, expected to make life changing decisions, and are working hard at their grades and lives. That idea of being pulled in a thousand directions is extremely present for high school students. That’s why it’s so hard to make time to patiently practice meditation. The act of meditating is difficult because everyone always feels guilty for not being productive, and the concept of practicing not being productive is what meditation is! Even if someone knows he or she needs to make time to relax, watching Netflix for an hour is still perceived as more productive than meditating for 10 minutes.
This is why meditation is so challenging and it’s why one needs to patiently practice it. So, today I challenge you to make time to quiet your mind, focus on the moment, not worry about being unproductive, and patiently practice meditation.
Vanessa Vavala, a religion and social justice teacher at Padua Academy, shares her experience introducing meditation to her sophomore classes during Lent:
A few years ago, a friend of mine told me she was making a conscious change in how she looked at life. She noticed that all too often when asked, “How are you?” or “How’s everything going?” her response, and that of so many others, was about busyness. So she decided to eliminate the word busy from her answer. After all, she asked, “Who isn’t busy? And why have we decided to make being busy a badge of honor as if being overwhelmed by the pace of life is something we should achieve?”
The more I’ve worked with the practice of mindfulness, the more I’m reminded of this conversation. Sadly, this isn’t just a phenomenon adults experience; I see it all too often in my high school students. They seem to have bought into the lie that if they just do enough things, they will achieve everything they want. And they are overwhelmed. So, at the encouragement of my colleague, Ryan, who introduced mindfulness to our school community, I decided to introduce meditation in my sophomore classes. Lent was about to begin and it seemed the perfect season to take a few minutes at the beginning of class to focus on being still and being present.
All of my students, except one, were willing to give it a try. At first they thought it was strange to simply stop and focus on nothing except their breathing for a couple of minutes. But what a difference it made. For a little while, they stopped worrying about the grade that might have been posted, the assignment they’d just been given, the upcoming performance, the game that night, or anything else. For a few minutes, they stopped spinning. For a few minutes they were simply present to the reality of the moment. When class began, they were in a totally different place. They were more focused and less distracted. For a couple of minutes, they understood what it was like to be at peace with oneself and the world. We can teach our students many things, but if we can teach them to be at peace, we have given them something they can carry with them for a lifetime.
Before practicing meditation in Mr. Shelton’s Honors Physics class this year, I was very stressed out about my senior year at Padua Academy. With new harder classes and college applications, I didn’t know what to expect or how I would manage to handle all of my responsibilities. Now one semester into my senior year, I’ve been amazed by the results of meditating for just three minutes at the beginning of each physics class. The most prominent benefit is my improved stress and time management. Whenever I have a stressful or challenging class, I anticipate meditating in Physics because it allows me to relax, refocus my mind, and prepare for the coming class. This break in between classes has made me a more productive student by making it easier to learn, participate, and perform in class.
Another difficulty meditation is helping me with in my senior year is preparing for the transition from teenager to adult. In a few months, I’ll be heading to college to face new challenges like living on my own and meeting new people. Through this overwhelming transition, I know that I can rely on meditation to help me stay in the moment and overcome any challenges that I face. When I feel overwhelmed or stressed with classes and activities, my breath helps me to relax and refocus. With meditation, I’m now looking forward to the transition to college.
It’s amazing to see how just three minutes at the beginning of class has created such an impact in the mood and environment of my physics class. Compared to other classes which do not start with meditation, this class feels more enjoyable, fun, and interesting because of the unique mindset of my peers. With meditation, we’re able to calm ourselves and re-energize our minds for the difficult class ahead. Even though physics isn’t easy, we actually enjoy the experience. This has been an amazing transformation.
I hope to see meditation continue to grow throughout Padua. If meditation can spread to more teachers and classes, I believe they will experience similar transformations. I hope more students will get involved and experience the benefits of meditation, so as a community, we can grow even further together. I’m looking forward to continuing to learn and grow with meditation along with our community for the rest of my time at Padua and into the future.
My name is Alysse Young and I am a current junior at Saint Joseph’s University. I had the pleasure of having Mr. Shelton as my Physics and Environmental Science teacher during my time at Padua Academy. What really struck me about Mr. Shelton’s classes and his method of teaching, is that he implemented lessons that his students could apply to their lives outside of the classroom. Some of the skills he taught us included meditation and self-reflection. Mr. Shelton reminded us that in life it is easy to get caught up in the stresses and daily to- do’s, but it is important to take a step back and put everything into perspective. These lessons began to resonate with me, so I decided to continue these practices for the rest of my time at Padua and into my college years. This past semester I had the joy of taking a yoga/ meditation course to satisfy my religious difference requirements. I was able to use the knowledge I gained from Mr. Shelton’s class and build on that knowledge throughout my class this past semester. Ever since putting meditation into my daily routine I have noticed significant and positive changes in my life. Some of these changes include increased energy, less stress, and overall increased happiness. If I could give some advice to anyone trying to incorporate meditation into their life, it’s to let things come and go when you meditate. It’s easy to get frustrated when you can’t silence the thoughts that come to your mind. This is something that I really struggled with when I first started my practice. The best thing to do is to allow thoughts to come and go and to not try so hard to block them out. Meditation can really change your life if you are open to it. I hope writing about my experiences can help some of you reading this. I wish you all the best in your meditation journey!
Current Padua Academy Junior Emily G. shares her thoughts about meditation:
This year I tried meditation for the first time. Although I’ve always been familiar with meditation, I had never really taken an interest in it until Mr. Shelton’s Physics class. After listening to his talks and participating in daily three-minute meditations I began to see a change in attitude in not just myself, but also my classmates. These three minutes set a tone for the rest of the class, and the classroom environment became clearly calmer. With a calmer environment, my classmates and I were able to maintain focus and have a better learning experience increasing our overall productivity. After noticing these changes, my curiosity grew and I realized that I wanted to find out more about what meditation is and what it does for the mind and body. I had a lot of questions, so when I saw that Mr. Shelton had a club for meditation, I decided to join. My friend Isabella E. and I told Mr. Shelton about our interests in the club and he gave us the opportunity to become co-leaders. I also brought my ideas and interests in meditation into my Junior research paper. My paper explained how meditation would be beneficial for students if implemented into classrooms nationwide. From writing this, I began to understand so much more about meditation. I learned more about its history and read about actual studies on its benefits. I soon concluded that the benefits of meditation outweigh any of the doubts, and implementing it into our lives would help our schools and society overall. (Read Emily’s research paper here) As a society, we definitely struggle with finding love within ourselves and within others, and I believe if more people meditated, society would become more peaceful and relationships would be stronger. I am excited to be involved with this club, to share my thoughts and experiences with others, and to learn even more about meditation. I hope to see the club grow, letting more people experience the benefits of meditation, and in the end, create positive changes in the community.
Over Christmas break, I’ve been working on a new presentation to help my students align with love instead of anger, fear, or greed. The slides for the presentation are here. I’ll be curious what my students think after seeing the presentation in the next few days!
Isabella E. shared her experience learning to meditate with Delaware Changing Lives here. The text can be found below.
“My name is Isabella Elliott, and I’m a high school junior at Padua Academy. In Mr. Shelton’s Honors Physics class, we’ve started each class with 3 minutes of meditation since the beginning of the year. I want to tell you about my journey and how this small change has benefitted me and my classmates. When Mr. Shelton first introduced meditation to our class, I was open to the idea because I had tried apps for meditation, however, I never could seem to stick to a schedule. After only a few classes of meditation, I began to look forward to class every day. Not only to learn physics but also to get the feeling of relief and calmness that meditation brought. That’s when I realized how meaningful meditation truly is.
After a few months of meditating in class, I noticed it got easier and easier to settle down and focus. I was able to put my restless thoughts at ease and focus on myself as a whole. After each session, in addition to feeling mentally relieved, my body was physically calmer and I felt more focused for class. I noticed that meditation was helping other students too. Everyone was able to settle down, and give their undivided attention to learning. Due to how stressful a high school environment can be, I believe it is very beneficial for students to have meditation, even if it is just 3 minutes a day.
I was not surprised that meditation greatly benefits one’s mental health. I tend to overthink a lot about my day and the future, however, with daily meditation I have come to realize that my daily stresses are much smaller than I think. After participating in one 10 minute session of meditation after school, I noticed that the feelings of frustration and worry that dwelled in my mind all day had vanished. It truly felt like I had come out of a trance when the session ended. My mind felt free as if it were a blank slate that I could build upon with only positive thoughts. I believe that people in our society struggle with creating these positive thoughts and finding peace with themselves and one another. If more people meditated, I believe our society would be more open-minded and people would be able to live more freely.
To help more students and teachers experience the benefits of meditation, Emily Gallo and I are partnering with Mr. Shelton to have a monthly 10-minute after-school meditation for anyone who wants to try it. In our first session, we had about 20 people! We’re planning to put up posters to spread the word about our December session with the student body and faculty in hopes of having an even better turn out. We’re excited to see what happens next on this journey!”
For the last two years, Padua Academy has provided Mindfulness Meditation training for their teachers. Several teachers shared their experience for Delaware Changing Lives. You can read the story here.
Four of my students shared their experiences with Delaware Changing Lives here. Below are some additional thoughts from my students.
Lauren O. – 2 years ago, I sustained a concussion that lasted 9 months and severely affected both my physical and mental health. I had horrible headaches and nothing seemed to help, so one of my doctors suggested meditation. It had not only helped to ease my headaches, but it calmed my mind of the anxiousness that overtook me every day. I continue to practice meditation in school and in life, and have found countless benefits.
Riley H. – I had never experienced meditation before Mr. Shelton introduced it to me in class. Being a junior in high school with an extremely busy schedule, meditation has allowed me to let go and feel relaxed about all my struggles and worries. Meditating at least once during a hectic day allows me to see the bigger picture and appreciate what is actually important in life. I now meditate everyday due to the positive effects it has had on my life.
Olivia R.- Mr. Shelton introduced a three minute meditation session to my physics class this year, and while at first I was hesitant, I have learned that it really has helped me with my everyday life. I have realized that those three minutes help me to let go of pointless worries that I have and allow me to focus on the most important things in my life.
Cristina H.- Meditation has been a way for me to clear my mind of all the stress and worries in my life. It has been a way for me to step back from the mayhem going on in my daily life and relax. In physics class every morning we have been practicing meditation and it has been a nice way to relax before a stressful day of classes or just been a way to take a few moments to focus on myself rather than other things going on in my life.
Jess C.- I never liked meditation before Mr. Shelton’s class. I thought it was a waste of time and I could never quite settle myself enough to get what the whole thing was about. Through the guided meditation in his class and the just three minutes we take before class starts I have been able to really realize how quieting your mind can help you feel more relaxed, collected, and focused on the task at hand. Thanks to the way that Mr. Shelton guides the class in meditation I have realized how useful a tool meditation is and why it is so helpfully implemented into his class.
Maggie P.- Before this year, meditation has never really been something that was a part of my life. However, after being introduced to it by my physics teacher, Mr. Shelton, it has had a positive effect on me and my relaxation level throughout the day at school. Those three minutes of meditation before class have allowed me to focus on only myself and no other outside worries. Meditation, personally, has also challenged me to try to put everything else out of my mind. I’ve grown from my experience and become a better meditater. In addition, I have also started to meditate after long stressful days of school and at very stressful times of my life just to calm myself enough to focus on my next task at hand.
Naja M.- Meditation was introduced to me through my physics teacher, Mr. Shelton. We would begin classes with a short meditation to help center ourselves before class. These short meditations sparked an interest in me. I now use meditation in my daily life, in the mornings and before bed, and in the process I’ve learned how to calm myself and prepare for the day ahead of me.
Vanessa B.- Meditation has really opened my mind. I have learned how to mentally step away from the chaos of the day for just a few moments. With practice over time, I have developed an increased mindfulness and realized how simple life really is. Meditation helps me to embrace who I am through a feeling of inner peace and satisfaction, in addition to being a major stress reliever.
Ally D.- I was introduced to meditation and mindfulness when I was suffering from severe anxiety during Freshman year. It helped me take control of my thoughts and my feelings. Since learning how to cope with my emotions and nervousness, I honestly didn’t make as much time to meditate. Since beginning Physics with Mr. Shelton, I have been exposed and given the opportunity to meditate and practice mindfulness on a daily basis. The three minutes of class that we are able to focus on ourselves and just breathe deeply has helped me to relieve stress and calm myself during a difficult day.
Katie H.- This year I was introduced to meditation through Mr. Shelton’s physics class. I have always been a person who experiences a lot of stress and anxiety due to my extremely busy schedule with schoolwork and sports. I was surprised and happy to see that in a normally stressful class, like physics, the teacher focused a lot on mental health and well-being along with obviously the classwork. At first, I did not think 3 minutes of meditation every class was going to have any effect on me, but I found myself refreshed and less stressed coming into class.
As my students continue to express benefits from meditating in class, I was asked to give a presentation at an event sponsored by Delaware Changing Lives headlined by Delaware Governor John Carney and US Senator from Delaware Chris Coons. My 2 minute speech is below.
Rules, titles, money, and competition bring order and compliance to society because they give us the illusion of understanding and control. If we follow the rules our lives will improve. If we break the rules our lives will suffer. By the time we discover the fallacy of these statements, it’s too hard to walk away. We discover that the humans in power create rules that benefit themselves, and we follow because we don’t have the power or understanding to create change. If logic was our only tool to impact the world, we would be stuck, but love presents a scary and exciting alternative path.
Unconditional love it a truth beyond human constructs. Love is not concerned with rules, titles, and money; Love is about acceptance, understanding, and compassion. Love starts within our own mind and body and projects out into the world. When someone is connected to unconditional love, titles projected on them by society are powerless. Love has the potential to transcend the nuanced difficulties of our communities.
When a person leads with power, they push subordinates in a desired direction based on rules, punishments, and rewards. When a person leads with love, people follow because they’re attracted to their leader’s qualities. Leading with love is not easy because it requires a person to surrender control, honor the people in their lives, and hope for a positive and unified direction. This may sound weak, but a small group of people listening to internal truth, embracing love, and living compassionately have the power to show the most privileged humans a quality of life that will attract them.
Unconditional love for oneself and others is the ultimate treasure worth discovering for everyone. Seeking love and truth is scary and humbling as you discover that your beliefs and the entire human construct are full of holes and weaknesses, but if you open yourself up to the natural truth, you will discover a tool strong enough to guide you and our world in a healthy direction for all. We can do this!
Following two more mass shootings, I am determined not to respond with fear or anger because I know that love is the only action that can reunite this country. It would be wonderful if swift action, like a new law or new leadership, could quickly resolve these problems, but our struggles run deeper than that. Anger, fear, greed, apathy, loneliness, hatred, and selfishness can be found in diverse people throughout our country, and they need help, but we need to help ourselves first. If these events trigger destructive emotions inside of us, we are only adding to the collective struggles. We must connect to a higher purpose that’s more important than our personal needs to bring stability to our communities.
In a country that discarded God decades ago, has started to discard science, and is constantly witnessing tragedy and sensationalized news, how can people find grounding and stability? I think it’s driving us all a little crazy. Love is the one tool strong enough to draw people out of the darkness and into a healthy and stable place. Love is peaceful, eternal, and beyond life and death. Love can guide us out of this misery.
People connect with love in different ways: religion, family, and community service to name a few. The challenge is to expand these pockets of love towards continuous unconditional love for all. We can’t be loving if we’re feeling anger, fear, or greed, so we need to learn how to manage these feelings. I believe there are many successful strategies that can help people grow in love, but the one that is most helpful to me is meditation.
Meditation gives me a tool to observe and weaken harmful emotions within myself without burying them or dumping them on someone else. Meditating with a group provides the same individual benefits, but also unites the group in the mission of peace, unity, and love. Since meditation is simply a technique to discover the truth within, we can bypass the complicated and divisive arguments between various philosophical and religious beliefs and join together with the simple purpose of connecting to love. The spread of meditation through different compartments of society gives me hope.
Unfortunately, many more people will die from gun violence in the coming years. If we can respond to these tragedies with love, compassion, and peace, we will be building the foundation for a future full of love, compassion, and peace. If we respond with hatred, fear, and blame, our future will carry these same qualities forward. Let’s be diligent in discovering how to bring love into this world together.
Meditation is more than a tool to decrease stress and increase productivity. As technology speeds up the world and opinions become more divisive, I believe meditation will be the tool that allows us to stay connected to our hearts and our communities so we can create a beautiful future for everyone on our planet. This may seem a bit idealistic given our current political and social climate, so let me explain how this could work.
As technology speeds up the world, we’re expected to make decisions and take actions more rapidly. This speed emphasizes the processing power of the brain and devalues the depth and strength of the slower moving heart. When we feel discomfort, the brain tells us how to quickly escape it with easy distractions like scrolling social media or watching Netflix. While this diversion can be helpful at times, by avoiding negative feelings, we’re often simply delaying dealing with something like work, relationship struggles, or other responsibilities. Negative feelings are messages that we need to hear and process to reach our potential, and while the brain avoids them, the heart has the tools to skillfully listen and act.
People connect with their hearts in different ways: taking walks in nature, reading poetry, or sharing tea with a friend. Even the brief pauses between events, like a car ride or waiting in line, used to allow processing time for our hearts to talk to us, but most of these breaks have been eliminated by technology. Yes, technology has made many monotonous tasks more efficient in a wonderful way, but this processing speed is causing us to lose connection to the heart resulting in an increase in mental health concerns.
While there are many ways to passively connect with the heart, meditation is an active conscious effort to create the space in our day to make this connection. Instead of letting the same thoughts repeatedly spin through the brain, or completely shutting down by turning to the Internet, meditation allows people to stay present with their body while mental tension naturally unwinds. In the process, the heart, which was previously being ignored, gets recharged and reintegrated.
As the world struggles to navigate difficult large-scale challenges, it’s essential that we reconnect to our hearts so we can reconnect to love, compassion, community, and faith. If we’re always stuck in our brains, it’s easy to become self-centered, afraid, angry, or greedy because it’s not our brain that connects us to other people. Building a healthy future for our planet requires our ability to connect with one another through our hearts. Meditation is the strongest tool I’ve discovered to strengthen my connection to my heart. Maybe it can help you too!
Another mass shooting. We know there will be more. How do we feel? Anger? Fear? Apathy? How do we respond? Do we fight back? Do we hide? None of these thoughts and feelings seem to make me feel any better. I grew up in an America full of hope and promise; Now we seem to be waiting for our turn to experience tragedy. We escape to artificial virtual realities and live at the surface of our emotions to avoid the depth of our pain, but deep down, we know we must face these feelings and circumstances head on.
Our current reality isn’t the one I hoped for. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t have picked this situation, but this is my life, and my life gains meaning by my response to challenges that present themselves, not the privilege that was handed to me. I’m not on this planet to simply take in oxygen and consume nutrients. I’ve been given this opportunity to make the world a better place, and the more difficult the path, the stronger my conviction must become.
Our world is so full of anger that individuals are choosing to fire repeated rounds into crowds of innocent people and often take their own lives shortly afterwards. I can’t simply chalk this up to mental health or gun access; It’s happening too frequently. Instead, I believe people are in so much pain that this outburst of aggression provides an emotional release. Individuals are choosing these types of action because they believe the results are the best their life has to offer. I feel bad for anyone who feels so tortured that this seems like their best path forward.
I wish I had a solution that could solve these problems quickly. I don’t, but I do have a solution. We need to rebuild a world full of hope and inspiration. As distant as this dream seems, all it requires is for people to purposefully stand together and walk in the direction of love. We must put into context all of the minor difficulties of our lives, we must create space to take care of our own mental and social well being, and we must invest in the people in our communities so they have better opportunities and choices. Instead of burying our emotions or letting them overpower us, we must use them to fuel us to act in positive ways. Things are only going to get better when we start to invest in one another and start believing in a peaceful and compassionate future for all people. Let us walk together with love knowing that the challenges ahead won’t be easy, but knowing that the future is worth the investment. When tragedy hits, let’s focus our energy on becoming a stronger community that supports all of our members. Let us have faith that with good intentions and right actions we will produce positive outcomes. Let us stand together to build the future of our collective dreams.
Healthy relations depend on the mental and physical health of both partners. If a woman is unsafe, unsupported, and unprotected, it will be difficult for her to feel healthy, strong, and confident in her life. I work at an all-girls high school with 650 students, and the current message in the press that a girl’s body is not valued and is unnecessary to protect is simply unacceptable. We need to find a way to do better. As a teacher, I have a responsibility to help my students skillfully navigate our complicated world. As a male, I need to join the conversation about how we can best support women. If I want to live in a healthy society, I need to support a positive growth environment for all of its members, and I believe that starts with a conversation.
We are constantly persuaded by advertisements to seek out quick thrills. Watch this movie! Eat this dessert! Drive this car! Wear these clothes! Drink this beverage! It feels good, so live in the moment, and go for it! We promote the thrill of sex in the same way by separating the feelings of sex from the long-term implications of intimacy, and I think this opens the door for sexual abuse. Individuals are seeking sexual thrills, but intimacy requires two people, and for intimacy to be healthy, both participants must consent. Personal connection gets reduced when there is loud music, dimmed lights, and intoxication, and it’s completely lost when an individual is using someone else’s body as a tool to produce a thrill.
We need to help boys and girls realize that intimacy is more nuanced than a temporary thrill, and we need to be able to talk about it. We need to explore how certain situations or behaviors make people feel uncomfortable, and we need to learn new strategies to promote the formation of healthy relationships. We need to learn how to create safe environments for women to live in while promoting a culture that prioritizes mental and physical health for everyone. By teaching boys how to become better human beings, we will help girls feel safe, and support vibrant relationships. We can make improvements in our communities that will benefit all of its members, but we need to start by having a conversation.
Our Loving Lives team of 4 students and 5 teachers travelled to the University of Pennsylvania to share our story with Angela Duckworth and the Character Lab. While all the teachers did a great job, our students stole the show by sharing their personal stories through powerful speeches (copied below). As a high school teacher, I never guessed I would be leading a presentation at UPenn and receiving compliments from someone like Angela Duckworth while trying to help my community tackle difficult issues like teen suicide and school shootings, but here I am, and I can’t wait to discover the next chapter of our journey.
You can find the presentation slides here. Student speeches are below.
Lauren Gempp – Seeing the Loving Lives presentation for the first time (slide 12)
This idea was introduced to us in the fall of our Junior year. The day of the first presentation, I sat in the classroom ready to complete a physics lab and learn more formulas. I had upcoming tests and quizzes on my mind, in other words, the usual Junior year stress. As you can see on this slide, “Before” the presentation I was distracted by many obligations- academics, volunteering, sports practices, and time for friends.
Then, Mr. Shelton began this presentation. First, I realized how my goals and many of those around me were in line with the left. Get good grades, find a great job, build a good resume. I was so surprised to hear a teacher point these out and show that everyone was similar in this sense. Usually, students today are used to hearing about the importance of high success academically and in extra curriculars, so I was trying to process what he was pointing out.
As he continued, the right side goals were goals that many of us in the classroom WANTED to have. Do your best, but accept yourself, help society not just yourself. Throughout this, my mind was hearing what he was saying, yet I was still thinking about my upcoming obligations. By the end, I felt confused- a teacher telling us that we don’t need the best grades or the greatest job. But it was also a relief, as seen in the last image on the slide. I can do my best and accept that even if it isn’t the best of the group, and be content with whatever the results may be. I should always lift those around me up. His presentation showed us that a happy life doesn’t need to include being rich and winning awards. You can be the best possible version of yourself, help those around you and still be successful and happy in a different way. We need to put standards aside and work as a cohesive group to better the world around us. If people are smarter, more talented, or more experienced than you, you must take it and learn from it.
This took me time to comprehend and I am still understanding it fully now. But the main things taken away from this first presentation was that one’s goals do not have to be “me focused” to be successful.
Maureen Haffey – Navigating the Parkland school shooting together (slide 19)
When hearing about school shootings, we as students often feel afraid and helpless, and it can feel as if we have no one to talk to.
Our talks about the Parkland shooting that we had during school really helped students to clear their minds and talk about the fears that come with hearing about school shootings.
For me personally, only 2 of my teachers allowed us to openly talk with them about the shooting. I know many students wished more teachers (and other adults in general) talked to us about these tragedies because talking about these things with adults that we trust gives us a sense of security and we feel less alone.
We also talked about how we always feel as if we “live in a bubble” and nothing will happen to us or our school, but we really can’t control what happens, so it’s very possible it could happen to us.
The social contract helped us to focus our energy more on having an open mind and thinking about a positive future, rather than living in fear that something dangerous could happen to us or our school.
Seeing that 20% of faculty signed the contract definitely made students feel more confident about it, because although not all teachers will openly talk about these difficult topics, it shows that they really do support us and want to lessen our fears in order to help us make a more positive future.
I know students attitudes about school shootings and just tragedies in general definitely changed after the social contract and our discussions, and they were more focused on helping create a positive future. Now, after all the talks we’ve had, we are ready to take on any challenges we may encounter, and we know we are not alone while facing them because we have the support of not only our peers but the adults in our lives as well.
Madelyn Williams – Integrating meditation into the classroom (slide 23)
Good Afternoon everyone. My name is Madelyn Williams and I was a student in Mr. Shelton’s Physics class this past school year so I was involved in his Loving Lives meditation study.
Meditation gave our students an outlet to find themselves, become grounded, and regroup for the tasks ahead. We had discussions about our feelings on current events and how things beyond our control, like the Parkland shooting and our current political state, were in a way controlling us and making us feel unsafe, confused, paranoid, or even scared. By implementing meditation techniques throughout the year and having open discussions, our class reported feeling much more aware and in touch with ourselves, more powerful, and in control. We reported less stress and more contentment with our course work and our life outside of school. Meditation created a class environment where we all felt safe and supported when bringing up such hot button issues. These in class discussions really allowed us to reveal our true views and concerns without judgement or reprisal. As a representation of our student body, I feel that implementing meditation techniques to encourage free thinking and dialogue between all kinds of people can not only help pave a new path towards compromise and clear a troubled mind, but can also create a focused and relaxed environment for everyone to excel and be their best. For me personally, my meditation experience started a few years before this class, but regularly meditating with a group of people was definitely an empowering experience, unlike what I was used to before. But not only was it empowering, it also gave our girls the opportunity to feel in control and gave them a chance to really engage in current events on their own so they didn’t feel so helpless. It gave our students the level-headedness and clear mindedness to really delve deep into our society’s issues and discuss them as a class in a way we wouldn’t be able to in a class that didn’t implement these meditation techniques. Thank you.
Caitlin Baxter – Seeing parents, teachers, and students supporting Loving Lives (slide 35)
Growing up, I was the girl who had to get straight As, had to make no mistakes in sports, had to be perfect. Success, in my head, was defined by the previously discussed individual goals. I constantly placed this pressure on myself as I did not want to disappoint my parents, who sacrifice so much for me. I would compare myself to my siblings and I knew my grades had to stay up to remain eligible for athletics. When Mr. Shelton first started talking to us about Loving Lives, I was hesitant to buy in. It did not seem feasible that others would get on board. Influenced by the people in my life and some movies, I noticed the focus on individual goals, from getting into the great college to the perfect happily ever after. However, as he continued to show his passion for creating this new mindset, I started to develop a belief that it was possible. Seeing the statistics come back from the surveys increased my hopes too. I noticed that the majority of all students, teachers, and parents wanted to see a focus on community goals rather than individual goals, the opposite of what I had always felt. During this past school year, my parents noticed me getting really overwhelmed and stressed managing school, sports, and a social life. It was very interesting to me because the first thing that they told me was that my health and overall happiness triumphs over any of the previous things. I had just heard Mr. Shelton’s talk and here my parents were reiterating what he had said, without me ever bringing it up. They have also mentioned that I don’t need to be the smartest or be making the most money to be successful. They preached that as long as I was doing something that made me happy and being a civil, good person, I was a success. It relieved a lot of stress and pressure knowing that my parents were more focused on me gaining experience and retaining useful information rather than just a grade. This is not something that can shift overnight, but it is slowly becoming easier for me to think about community centered goals. As the Loving Lives message spreads, hopefully, little by little, more people will incorporate community goals into their lives allowing them to decrease stress and increase confidence.
Schools appropriately recognize individuals for standing head and shoulders above their classmates at various award ceremonies throughout the year. Unfortunately, many students have internalized that if they are unable to achieve at an elite level, they must be disappointments to the community and unworthy of recognition. Fear of letting people down brings stress and anxiety into students’ lives because they feel the world is demanding that they achieve things beyond their capability. This is an opportunity to fix this misunderstanding.
Every individual has unique gifts that must be encouraged and celebrated by their community. Students don’t need a plaque, trophy, or certificate to be acknowledged for their talents, but they do require support and encouragement from peers, teachers, and parents to cultivate their passions, to mature their unique abilities, and to shine their light on the world. While walking in front of a crowd to receive an award is meaningful, being appreciated for who you are by the people closest to you is the most precious gift a person can receive.
Technology is causing life to speed up and our focus to rarely look more than a few days into the future. We seek the instant gratification of a handful of likes on our social media accounts, but the satisfaction is fleeting, and the thirst for contentment returns quickly. We must take time to step back periodically and reflect upon what we’re doing. It doesn’t take long to remember that sustained happiness comes from a deeper connection to yourself and the people in your life than the Internet can provide. We must sit face to face and have meaningful heartfelt conversations about the challenges in our lives. We must help one another put our daily struggles into context so we don’t overreact to minor disappointments. We must take time to share the simple joys that we experience every day. While these conversations may feel like obstacles to the completion of your daily tasks, they are actually the foundation for lasting relationships that will support you throughout your life and be valued far more than any trophy.
Life is long and will be full of ups and downs. Success is not the product of perfectly executing every task set in front of you, as this is impossible. Instead, success demands courage and commitment to your goals and dreams even after you’ve been knocked down a hundred times. Milestones like getting your driver’s license, getting accepted into college, building a successful career, and starting a family will automatically arrive in your life at the appropriate time if you remember to develop and nurture high quality relationships along the way because those people will keep picking you up and inspiring you to keep going. We don’t want you to measure your value by the accomplishments you can write on a piece of paper, but by the positive impact you have on the people in your life. If you’re able to focus on these goals, regardless of the outcomes, you are a success in our eyes.
Today I am presenting to 60 high school freshmen from approximately 20 schools near Wilmington, DE at the HOBY Community Leadership Conference. HOBY’s mission is, “To inspire and develop our global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service, and innovation.” I am extremely excited for this opportunity to share my thoughts and ideas, and potentially spread the Loving Lives model beyond the walls of Padua Academy.
For those who have been following along, I will be presenting an updated version of my Loving Lives talk. This new version includes new survey data from parents and students with several intriguing conclusions. Contrary to student and teacher expectations, parents would like their teenagers to pursue the goals introduced by Loving Lives, and a student survey given 6 months after the original talk suggests that Loving Lives increased academic achievement while reducing stress and anxiety.
The slides for the new talk can be found here. If you just heard the talk, please rate it or leave a comment to let everyone know how you liked it!
Nothing feels better than being accepted for who you are at the deepest levels of your truth. While it’s easy for anyone to appreciate our strengths, individuals who still accept and love us after understanding our darkest moments and witnessing our most hidden weakness are the people we acknowledge as our closest friends. As humans, social connections are pivotal to our happiness. We dress, talk, and act like the people around us because we want to fit in. We often straddle the line of being who we are and being who others want us to be without knowing which parts of us are which. It’s just as easy to get lost in abundant compliments as no compliments at all. We’re continuously searching for our authentic truth beneath the facade of superficiality we present to the world.
As I look out into this world, my stomach turns from the discrepancy between our perceived blissful surface reality and our ominous foundations we are secretly destroying. We pretend that our lives are full of joyful accomplishments while we sulk in our worries for the future. We’re afraid to say what we really feel because we don’t want to be ostracized from our social communities. We spend every waking hour trying to follow the script that was given to us without knowing how the story ends or what we’re trying to accomplish along the way. We’re afraid to question our true intentions because we doubt that people would still like us if they really knew who we were.
Well I have a secret for you: everyone is lonely sometimes, everyone has flaws, and we’re all different. True friends are the people who are willing to listen to your authentic truth and support you no matter what challenges you are facing in your life. These true friends are the ones you will still be in contact with you 5, 10, even 20 years down the road. Those friends who expect you to always be perfect will disappear from your life as soon as difficult struggles appear on your timeline. Struggles are not bad fortune. Struggles are opportunities to grow as an individual and to grow in your relationships. Every life is full of ups and downs. Don’t hide from your struggles, and don’t hide your struggles from your true friends. And when a friend approaches you to discuss a difficult topic, sit with them, hold them, and love them with your whole heart. If you can do that, I promise that they will be there for you when you need them down the road. There are many good people in this world. If one person lets you down, let it go and move on. Keep searching. Keep exploring. Keep living, no matter what.
We are facing many real challenges in our world today. Let’s stop pretending that they don’t exist. Instead, let’s use these challenges as opportunities to help our friendships grow to deeper levels. Let’s discuss the real struggles in our world openly and honestly, and maybe we will be able to overcome these obstacles together. We will make mistakes, and some people will call these mistakes failures, but who cares what they think? We know that the only way through this mess is forward so let’s go! Be real, be honest, and be loving, and let’s see if we can leave a positive mark on this world together.
It’s time to stop pretending that everything is okay. We’re trying to find solutions to specific issues like teen suicide and school shooting, but when are we going to realize that these are simply symptoms of much deeper problems. Our problem isn’t that a small number of children are struggling to cope with life in today’s world. The problem is most children are struggling to cope with life, and for a few, the only solution they can see to escape the suffering is to kill themselves and others. For a child to take such an extreme action, they must have built up a tremendous amount of anger and fear over many years of their short lives, and we’re letting it happen.
I’m tired of people justifying horrible societal norms in the name of some virtuous agenda. If you are attacking another person, tearing down someone’s beliefs, or using your platform as justification to refuse to listen, you are adding to the problem. If you are so busy that you don’t have time to question the long term outcomes of your actions, you are adding to the problem. If you are unable to hear the children all across our country currently screaming for help, you are adding to the problem.
We need to stop. The way we’re currently living our lives is not working. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. We need to do better than choosing one side of a political debate and fighting for it. We need to realize that to make any improvements in this world, we need to work together on some common goals. Children across this country are screaming for help. Just because they don’t know the solutions to our problems doesn’t mean they can’t help us understand what the problems are.
Jesus Christ taught us how to bring love and compassion into moments of grief, division, and despair. He taught us how to come together for the betterment of the whole community. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t simply mean attending church every Sunday. Following Jesus requires that we develop the qualities he modelled for us within our own lives. He taught us that no matter how dark the world around us, love can guide us to the light. It’s time to reject the rules that are guiding us into darkness so we can come together and write new rules that will guide us into the light. Let us hear the children across this country that are screaming for our help, and come together to create a future we can all believe in.
In February and March, the world started to unravel again. 14 students and 3 teachers were shot in Parkland, FL. Two teenagers from Wilmington, DE died, one by suicide. Another school shooting occurred 150 miles from my school. While I didn’t have answers for how to help students navigate these tragedies, I tried to listen and understand. Eventually I encouraged the students to stand together on the platforms of love and unity by writing the below social contract. 263 of our students (40% of all students) signed this contract along with teachers and administrators. It seemed to help. Over the next 2 weeks I will share some letter I wrote to help me process all of these difficult events that lead to the creation of The Loving Lives Revolution.
While the Parkland shooting is frightening and devastating, I refuse to allow my life to be overpowered by fear, anger, or helplessness. I understand that there are many factors in this world that I cannot control, but I will not let these outside factors define what my life is about. When I am scared, I will reach out to friends, family, and other adults who can support me to borrow their courage to face my daily challenges with an open heart and open mind. When I am strong, I will provide support and friendship for anyone who needs it. When confronted by adversity, I will join hands with others in my community to face these difficulties together. When a community member offers an opposing opinion from my own, I will listen with an open mind, share based on my best understanding, and unite over the common goal of love. I know that we can build a healthy and inspiring future for our community if we work together. Every day, I will invest my energy into creating a positive future full of optimism, compassion, and innovation for the benefit of all people.
While my students and I celebrate small successes in building a loving classroom environment, we know that the world outside is getting worse. The world is full of anger, fear, divisiveness, and blame, and these realities are leading us in the wrong direction. We need to come together, listen to one another, and discover new solutions together. Instead of going in circles by recycling the same strategies and proposals, let’s work together to invent new comprehensive solutions. Let’s try many different solutions, learn from our mistakes, and modify our plans to be more effective so we can reach every individual in our communities. Let’s unite on the common goal of building safe and hopeful communities centered on truth and love.
I would like this blog to be a think tank with students, parents, and teachers sharing their thoughts and feelings, proposing possible solutions, and implementing action plans together. Let’s look more deeply at our goals, discuss possible paths for achieving those goals, then follow through on those plans. The biggest obstacle is that we must construct proposals that promote the best interests of all parties. We must be willing to sacrifice personal gain for the wellbeing of the whole. We must have faith that asking hard questions with a loving heart will result in a positive outcome. We must bring hope, compassion, and trust back into our communities.
Next week I hope to start posting input from other people in our community. If you have something you would like to share, please email it to me at email@example.com and I will post them in the order they are received. I look forward to a positive, healthy, and constructive conversation.
A school community consists of 4 major groups: students, teachers, administrators, and parents. After the faculty meeting, Loving Lives had the support teachers, administrators, and about 10% of the students. So how could we share this message with the entire student population and their parents? Would the students want to take ownership of this message? We had a big brainstorming session and my students decided that they wanted to make a video. Their 2 minute video was posted on the high school Facebook page in December.
Considering our school only has 650 students, we were excited to see 5 times that many views of the video meaning that most of the students, many parents, and many beyond the school community took the time to watch the video. For a few days there was a buzz about the video within our school. Our Loving Lives message was out there, but how could we put it into practice?
Before presenting Loving Lives to my students, I felt isolated in my thoughts. With the support of my students, the teenage rebel in me was inspired. As a teenager, I always felt like it was me versus the world. With a privileged upbringing, this wasn’t actually the case, but I always found the defiance to be kind of fun. So here I was again, plotting ways to overthrow the system when a younger (but more mature) teacher asked if I had thought about sharing the presentation with Administration. In my rebel head, I thought, “The Administration will never go for this. I’ve got to sneak up on them and trick them into supporting this. There’s no way I could just ask them for their support.” With a good nights sleep, I remembered that I’m 36, not 16, so I followed my friend’s advice, and shared the slides with administration.
I was simply asking permission to share the slides in the faculty newsletter, but the administrators liked my slides so much that they created a faculty meeting the following week (which never happens) so I could present to a live audience. Suddenly I felt nervous; Was I doomed to fail because teachers were being asked to stay after school for some lame faculty meeting? Teachers are free to leave school at 3pm, so I expected most teachers to rush for the door as quickly as possible after my presentation (which ended at 3:05pm), but almost everyone stayed engaging in Q and A and small group discussion until 3:45 and beyond. I couldn’t believe it! I must have really been on to something my community needed. But how could I keep up the momentum?
The slides for the faculty meeting are below. I started by giving the same presentation that I gave to the students, followed by some student survey results and some content specifically for the teachers. I also added some teacher survey results collected following the meeting.
One week in October of 2017, a student at a local school committed suicide and a man responsible for a shooting a few hours south of my school was on the run somewhere nearby causing a school lockdown. Unlike 2015, this time I chose to act. I don’t know how to stop depression or prevent shootings, but my brain doesn’t work that way. Instead of considering how to stop bad things, I start pondering how to create good things. I figure out how to get kids to think so we can develop solutions together. If individuals and communities are invested in creating positive change, can there be any time left for anger, worry, fear, stress, depression, or violence?
So the night after the lockdown, I nervously prepared a presentation to share with my physics students the next morning. I guessed at their life goals and questioned the outcomes of these goals. I shared how I would reframe these goals, and encouraged students to pursue my positive vision for the future. I’m 36 years old and my students are 16 and 17, so I was pretty sure my presentation would crash and burn. Their world’s are so different from mine or the one I grew up in, so how could I possibly share a personal perspective following a teen suicide and local shooting that struck a positive cord with my students?
While I anticipated failure, I knew that I had to try something, so I swung for the fences, and it worked! Each of my 4 classes received it slightly differently, but all the responses were very positive. My students were extremely thankful that I was willing to talk to them about these real life struggles. They appreciated that I was willing to take a step back and question what was causing teens to feel unhappy. They were thrilled that I was willing to put their mental wellbeing ahead of their course work, at least for one day. Most importantly, my students learned that I care about them and that I want to help. This was a start. Click the link below to see my presentation.
2.5 years ago, one of my high school students was impacted by a suicide in her family. I was a first year teacher, and I didn’t know what to say or do to support her. The first time I had her in class after the event I asked her how she was doing, she said she was okay, and I nodded in support. Then I thought that the best thing I could do was to help her return to her normal routines. I tried to pretend like nothing was wrong, and that the best path forward was to continue with the school curriculum. What else could I do?
A week later I was talking to a fellow teacher who also had this student, and I asked her opinion of how the student was doing. This teacher had a better relationship with the student, and had learned that none of the student’s teachers were talking to her about it. It seems like we all had come to the same conclusion; It was not our place to get involved with such a personal matter. But then I started to wonder, who was helping this student navigate this difficult time? By not talking to her, were we sending the message that students needed to figure out how to navigate these situations on their own? Was this in the best interest of the students?
This episode has stuck with me over the years. I concluded that I would not force any of my future students to face such a difficult time alone again. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say or if there was a “correct” way to support a grieving student, but if a similar situation ever presented itself, I needed to try to help. I could let the student know they were not alone. I could listen patiently and peacefully as they shared what was on their mind. I could be honest. After this event in 2015, I knew I had failed to meet this challenge successfully. The next time, I vowed that I would try harder. Unfortunately, this was not a one time event.