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A day in Boston

Maria Loskot, Play for Peace Mentor in Poland wrote this story.

All day, I tried to keep up with Alice. It is not easy; Alice walks very fast and is present in many places at once and with every person. She is very attentive. She asks everyone, "How are you?" but these are not empty words. She looks deep into their eyes, and they answer with the truth, a truth that is not always easy. She is a Lead Teacher for  Social Emotional Learning in Cambridge. Primarily, she works with children with trauma and mental health problems. When she started, she was alone with 7,000 children. Today, she has a team of several women. She is 70 years old. Alice Cohen is like a celebrity in Cambridge. People run to her everywhere to hug her, greet her, and exchange a few words. And Alice is very modest. She never takes a spotlight on herself. To compliments, she replies, "Well, I don't know about that," and smiles. Everyone has an issue, and Alice remembers every conversation and situation exactly. "God has sent us Alice". - I hear. And with such a person, I was lucky to have spent this day. And it was not the last. In farewell, I heard from Alice: "We are not done yet! We have work to do!"

Thanks to Alice, I met many extraordinary people: directors, educators, nurses, and teachers. In the beginning, Alice took me to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School High School. The school is divided into different sections: artistic, social arts, and science. In addition, there is a room where any child can come to get support in looking for a job. There is also a college application room to discuss your choice and get practical support. There is also a press office. It is the oldest school newspaper. It is created entirely by students. Walking through the corridors, I could hear teachers excited about being featured in the newspaper. It is an integral part of school life. There is also a printing room and a place to prepare teacher activities. Teachers can print posters there, laminate materials, or ask staff to do some research for them on a specific topic. And much more. We only managed to get around part of the school.

We entered the history teacher's classroom. The entire classroom was covered with posters, photos, and decorations, like a teenager's room. Alice explained that the school is a mirror of what is most important to the teacher. Each teacher decorates their classroom. For him, current social topics and elections were critical. At the back of the classroom were armchairs and recliners, and at the front, tables were arranged for working in small groups. Some students sat at the tables, and some stood. Everyone was very focused on what the teacher was saying, and he was very smooth in asking questions, gathering knowledge from the group, equalizing getting to the voice, and tossing in-jokes to help understanding and memorization. The topic was the functioning of the German government—a phenomenal teacher. As I found out later, he was also in an honorable place in the latest newspaper edition.

The next stop was a lesson on social engagement. In these classes, students prepare projects for the support of some community. In the beginning, we had a moment to talk before the director came in to lead the class. I told them about what I do at Play For Peace, and the children said to me that they also do similar things, going to schools for younger children and doing activities for them. They showed me the posters they had prepared for them. Finally, the principal came. I didn't know what he was going to talk about. He started by saying that he wanted to talk about behavior. Online, in the classroom, in school spaces, and he spoke of a fight situation and the fact that school is considered a place where you can't feel safe. There is smoking in the toilets, there are reports of drug dealers, and sometimes we witness fights in the corridors, videos of which circulate online. This is the image of our school outside.

My stomach tightened, and I imagined a difficult conversation and the students' defensive reaction. I looked around the circle but didn't notice anything like that. Everyone was very calm. The principal said he didn't want to blame anyone; he wanted to talk with them about how they saw the situation and how they could solve the issue together. First, he asked everyone to introduce themselves, say what pronouns they were using, and what topic they had chosen for their project. The projects ranged from climate to violence among black people, toxic masculinity, and social inequality. Then, everyone was allowed to speak, and the director listened to everything carefully, asked questions, and took notes. Their voices were very touching.

  • "First you have to find out who the people are who get into fights. Without stereotyping (says the black girl) most often they are black boys who have nothing to lose. Classroom activities won't change anything, because they're often people who don't go to class or afternoon classes. They have nothing to lose."
  • "Suspending such students is not a good solution; perhaps their environment is less safe for them. They come to school because they feel safer there than at home; you can't take that away from them."
  • "However, the suspension gives them a chance to sort themselves out and cool down from their emotions. If they went right back to school, the chance of another fight would be high."
  • "Or maybe a special program would have been useful for them. To separate them from the classroom, yet allow them to come to school, accompany them, and teach them empathy."
  • "You have to be realistic. No workshops will work here. If someone gets into physical fights, it means that he has a problem with expressing anger, he is frustrated, he needs someone to listen to him, maybe some therapy."

The principal notes. "If you have ideas about what should be included in such a program, please speak up," he says.

"It is very important to go out to these students and not wait for them to come. They often don't know how to talk about their issues, so they won't approach, even if they have someone to approach. Especially after the pandemic, people have trouble talking about their emotions and needs."

I can see Alice listening to this and just nodding in delight: "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

The discussion was very heated, with much focus, involvement, and emotion. I didn't manage to note everything, but the ideas were brilliant, to the point, and very mature.

And then suddenly, one girl began to twist in spasms. The teacher asked if she was all right, but she didn't have time to finish because the girl got up from her chair and collapsed straight facedown on the floor. A nurse was called very quickly. The children were told to leave and go to the classroom next door, where another lesson was just taking place. The students, in shock, gathered in a corner. Alice walked in; "Is everyone okay? You have witnessed a challenging incident. Is anyone's heart beating faster? This is normal; it means that your body is reacting correctly. All you have to do is breathe calmly, and you will return to earth." She took a deep breath. Then she went up to each individual and checked to see if they needed anything.

The teacher tried to continue the class, but there was a lot of distraction. Alice stepped into the middle. "Listen, did I ever tell you how I saved a duck's life? No? Then listen," she said. And she told the story, making everyone laugh. Then the teacher came in and said that the girl got proper care everything would be ok and that they should report to Alice if they needed anything. I hope everything will be ok with this girl because when I went back to the room to get my bag, the men were just mopping up a puddle of blood from the floor. She must have hurt her head badly.

After the break, Alice took me to another school. This time it was a Montessori school. Surprisingly, it too is a public school. Quite a large one. They have 321 students. We walked into different classrooms and observed, sometimes stopping longer to talk to the children or teachers. In one classroom, the children were very diligent about turning the classroom into a restaurant, because the next day the children were to bring a traditional dish from their culture for the next day's brunch. There were even fresh flowers in jars and cards with descriptions of the dishes. Elsewhere, a small group was learning the alphabet. We went out in the courtyard. One teacher was passionately discussing something with the students. Alice and I joined in. It was very noisy.

Alice explained to me that it's very important for children to shout when they're outdoors because it stimulates their vagus nerve and regulates the nervous system. In the corridor, we also met several teachers who wanted to consult Alice about something. One of them excitedly told us they needed to introduce mindfulness classes. She learned that MBSR had been developed in Massachusetts and was delighted, but also surprised that she had not heard of it before. We exchanged experiences. She said that if I have time, I can always stop by and observe their classes. In the end, I met another woman from Poland, who is in charge of contact with families. She organizes assistance for families, educational meetings for parents, and various other things. She invited me for tea and promised to show me around the school. On the way out, they all assured me that I could come whenever I wanted and they would be happy to introduce me to other teachers and social workers from the school and gave me contacts.

"Quite a day, eh?"

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