For a couple of hours each week, a group of ordinarily bustling, energetic elementary schoolchildren focus on the art of silence at Positive Tomorrows, a school for homeless children.
During the weekly sessions, the elementary schoolers practice silence and introspection, guided by two women who visit several schools sharing The Resilience Project.
The project is sponsored by The Silence Foundation, an Oklahoma nonprofit organization that encourages children and adults to observe silence in an almost meditative state, using techniques such as noticing where their breath originates, listening for the room to settle into silence after the resonance of a bell dissipates and journaling what enters their minds during silence.
“One of the reasons why we use this kind of silence is because it helps us focus and helps us be present in the moment,” Patricia Webb tells the roomful of attentive children.
The Resilience Project is a 10-session curriculum that combines mindfulness, image-based journaling and sharing circles geared toward helping kids identify their inner and outer resources and learn how to apply them in their lives.
“We're very devoted to helping children and adults find inner stillness, reflective ability — that kind of quality of thoughtfulness about your life. Mindfulness, we call it,” Webb said.
Webb is a teacher, writer and Oklahoma Artist-in-Residence since 1991. Cathy O'Connor, a Resilience Project facilitator, has 28 years' experience as an educator and holds a master's degree in family and child studies with an emphasis on resilience.
The project emphasizes seven traits of resiliency: insight, independence, relationships, creativity, initiative, humor and morality.
These traits of character are innately within us, O'Connor said, but sometimes “when we get slammed by life, we don't know that we have these strengths to rise above it or move beyond it.”
According to the foundation's website, www.silencefoundation.org, many kids caught in desperate situations don't have the skills to create solutions or rise above their circumstances. Without tools of resilience, they give up hope and are at risk for dropping out of school, violence, abusing drugs, becoming pregnant or committing suicide.
During a recent session at Positive Tomorrows, Webb and O'Connor led an interactive discussion with the students in which they talked about some signals of resilience in nature.
One boy raised his hand and gave an example of how a lizard can regrow its tail if it's severed.
“There's a lot of resilience in nature,” Webb agreed. “Things come back in nature. Trees may look kind of dead right now, but we know that in a few weeks they're going to be green again, right?”
The kids were asked to choose a photo of an animal and to think and write short poems about how their animal uses the traits of resiliency in its life. After they finished writing, the group formed a circle to share some of their poems.
“I am a tiger and my greatist (sic) danger is humans and hunters,” wrote Devven, one of the students. “And my greatist strength is meat and sharp claws. And my number one resilient trait is independence. Also humor. Run to get meat.”
After each child who wasn't too shy to read his or her poem aloud, the circle of children applauded and gave praise.
O'Connor realized the need for resilience training during her career teaching at-risk teens.
“I just knew that they needed some help because at that point in their lives, they'd failed so many times. I noticed they were without hope,” she said.
“So I just felt it important to start empowering people with these traits. Life is going to be hard for all of us, but it doesn't have to be that thing that slams us.”
Webb and O'Connor tested The Resilience Project for two years at Putnam City Academy with about 100 at-risk teens.
In addition to Positive Tomorrows, Webb and O'Connor take the project to Boulevard Academy (an alternative high school in Edmond), Putnam City Academy and Mission Academy.
The two plan to hire and train several new staff members this summer to take the program to more schools, as the foundation has a waiting list.
I just knew that they needed some help because at that point in their lives, they'd failed so many times. I noticed they were without hope. So I just felt it important to start empowering people with these traits. Life is going to be hard for all of us, but it doesn't have to be that thing that slams us.”
Resilience Project facilitator