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Meditation activity draws concern

Lawerence Synett: Students in a freshman honors English class at Prairie Ridge High School were asked to assume certain positions, chant and lie on the floor as part of an activity connected to reading the novel “The Alchemist,” drawing a complaint from a father who is a minister and thought the exercise had religious overtones.

Teacher Christine Wascher let students opt out if they felt uncomfortable, but now has stopped what was intended as a new way to relate to the book.

“What she had them do was a mind-clearing visualization exercise that a parent felt was transcendental meditation,” Superintendent Jill Hawk said. “It was an activity to engage them in a part of the book that talks about being one with the earth.”

Last month’s activity was designed to help students forge a…

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deeper connection to the text, Principal Paul Humpa said, and was followed by Wascher leading an analysis of specific quotes from the book.

“A parent felt that this could be considered an endorsement of the religious practice known as transcendental meditation,” Humpa said. “This was never the intent of the teacher.”

Transcendental meditation, based on ancient Hindu writings, uses breathing exercises and certain body positions for relaxation. While schools and other government entities cannot lead or organize what could be considered religious practices or endorse a particular religion, Hawk said there’s a fine line between trying to engage students and accommodating everyone.

“In this case, we had a teacher using a creative activity to engage her students in good literature,” Hawk said. “If we have an upset parent, we want to know why and resolve it. In the same sense, I don’t feel that we should have to design our curriculum and instructional practices to the ideology of a certain group.”

Douglas Mann, an ordained minister who works for the Christian-based International Aid Services, took offense to what his daughter described from her class.

“We decided that the lesson plan that day involved transcendental meditation-type poses and postures,” Mann said. “It was quite concerning for me, from my background as an ordained minister and my understanding of transcendentalism, and not wanting my kids forced into those type of positions.”

Mann met with Wascher and the department head about the lesson plan, at which time it was decided the activity would no longer be used as a teaching tool.

He also contacted The Rutherford Institute, a non-profit conservative legal organization dedicated to the defense of civil, especially religious, liberties and human rights. The group sent a letter to the district demanding the activity stop and never happen again.

“Most teachers have no clue what they can or cannot do,” said John Whitehead, president of the institute. “Teachers are forced to do these inventive things that aren’t necessarily bad, but illegal.”

Mann was pleased with the outcome.

“I was very satisfied with their response and they assured me that was an isolated incident, and I believe that,” Mann said. “This is a wonderful teacher, who aside from this incident, we are very pleased with.”

Wascher could not be reached for comment.

This is the second activity at Prairie Ridge in recent months that’s drawn a parental complaint. Late last fall, a parent complained that “The Vagina Dance” used to teach students about the female reproductive system was inappropriate. It is no longer used.

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