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This week’s blog is from our own Amy Edelstein, who shares about a wonderful student retreat experience.

As November races to the end, with its shortening days and frosted dawns, we are beginning to see students normalizing at schools and beginning to come back into more regulation. That being said, this year’s set point is far lower than it was prior to the pandemic. Students appear, overall, more anxious, more withdrawn, less focused, more unclear about behavioral norms, and often more expressive in language and behavior modeled after rough video games or explicit song lyrics. Sometimes high schoolers don’t really understand why their language or behavior towards one another is being corrected. In schools and as a culture, we have some heavy lifting to do this year, not only to return to a civil society but also to express and manifest the kind and generous shared culture we’d all enjoy living in.

As part of that, Inner Strength is experimenting with some new one-off programs to foster community and friendship among students who were out of physical school buildings all last year.

This morning I took a group of 90 Freshmen on a half-day mindfulness forest walk in the Nature Center and protected woodlands across from the school. These students were from a Philadelphia public school where Inner Strength has worked for several years. The setting is lovely, just on the outskirts of town.

It was a clear and crisp morning, the sun beaming through the yellow-leafed trees. Hawks overhead looking for rodents. The smell of fallen leaves under foot. Branches cracked as we walked and observed. Students getting used to being surrounded by the lacy wall of bare branches rather than cinderblock classrooms.

The theme of the retreat was creating community—what qualities do you appreciate about your friends? What qualities do you bring to a friendship? What messes up friendships? What is one commitment you will make to reach out to someone you don’t know and make a new friend?

While the woods seemed somewhat overwhelming to the city students, once they started talking about friendships they were clear and had a lot to say. Friends are kind, loyal, funny, smart, make good decisions, aren’t selfish . . . and bring food. 🙂

The Love & Kindness practice seemed to hit home after the reflection. As we walked back through the trees to the school, the athletes racing each other up the hills, the forest felt a little more familiar, a little more welcoming.

We closed the day in the warmth of the school, writing Affirmations on bright colored Origami paper. These will live in a wide mouth 5-gallon glass jar so any time a student is feeling the need for some encouragement, they can walk by and pick one, written by their classmates to help them through one of those harder moments.

I hope that more students will be able to experience retreats like this in the future, and revel in the peace, joy, connections, and possibilities.

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