Sometimes Cristina Ross asks her students what they think qualifies as meditation. Does running count? More often than not, the students shake their heads, Ross says, assuming that “you need to be sitting in lotus position and humming and saying ‘om.’”
Every morning when she wakes up, Ross practices 10–15 minutes of meditation and repeats the process at night before bed. Far from the cross-legged image in her student’s minds, her meditation is totally flexible. “Sometimes it’s going to be a meditation while I’m petting my cats, and sometimes it’s going to be while I’m making my son’s lunch. If we just name meditation as a quiet moment for yourself, whatever else is happening, you’ll do it mindfully. You’ll do it moment to moment without self-judgment. Then meditation can be anything.”
If you’ve sat with your mind wandering through a meditation class or thrown your phone at the wall after flailing through an app’s promise of zen, Ross’s words come as a big relief. And that’s by design. When it comes to bringing the inaccessible within reach, Ross says, “I would name that as one of my life’s goals. I really want everyone to hopefully find one moment in their day or in their life or in their night when they can really understand that it’s up to them to find the answers to whatever these unattainable things are. That the answer is always inside of you.”
Demystifying what’s out of reach is part of what Ross does every day, especially given the age group and subject matter of her classes: Ross teaches Spanish to pre-kindergartners, kindergartners, and first graders and ethics to second graders. The first thing Ross says to parents at Open School Night is that “learning language is learning culture. I can’t see it any other way.” Ross’s language instruction involves “the places, the people, the customs, the traditions, the religions, the colors, the flavors” — much more than just grammar and vocabulary.
Teaching students at such a young age provides the perfect opportunity to answer bigger, bluntly honest questions without judgment or pretense. “Some students say, ‘So you're from Mexico and you speak Spanish and you’re my teacher, but you don’t look like my doorman, and so why?’” Ross tells her students that there are 21 countries and territories where Spanish is the official language and there is no one way for a Spanish speaker to look. “I also say, ‘Look around this class and this school. We are all unique, and so is the rest of the world.’” And when her students ask about her white skin, Ross tells them her grandparents came to Mexico from Germany, Holland, and the Basque Country — “so they had less melanin in their skin.” Kindergarteners and first graders at ECFS are having discussions about melanin and racial differences in their other classes, and this is an opportunity to explore the nuance. “Those are the best moments, right? That's when you can have a real meaningful conversation that includes everything,” Ross says.
Since 2008, Ross has also taught ethics to second graders — a position she came to as a result of her interest in mindfulness. It’s the first class most ECFS students take in a subject they will continue all the way through high school. For a second-grade audience, ethics classes are primarily about learning core values like kindness, respect, compassion, empathy, love, belonging, and friendship. The students learn by reading stories, playing games, or — in true Ross fashion — engaging in mindfulness. (She dedicates the first 15 minutes of each lesson to the practice.) By the end of the year, these second graders have a grasp of ethical values, with the goal of living these values as they grow.
Ross’s paternal grandparents left Germany and Holland before World War II and settled in Monterrey, a city in northern Mexico not far from the Texas border. Ross’s father grew up in a Spanish- and German-speaking home, and when Ross was four, her family moved to Mexico City, where her parents enrolled her in a K–12 German school. “It was a big challenge, but it was a really big gift because when I finished high school, I was trilingual. When I was 18 and ready for the world, it felt really lucky and amazing to be trilingual and to have that sense of the world and all those new perspectives,” she says.
English was one of her favorite subjects, and one day in high school, she happened into the library after the arrival of a massive donation of old books from someone’s personal collection. The trove was full of 19th-century poetry books from England with beautiful binding and lush illustrations. “It was like a treasure that they were just giving away,” she says.
“I remember clearly sitting down and starting to read Dante Rossetti and all the pre-Raphaelites and looking at the pictures — the paintings of Ophelia in the water surrounded by flowers and the Lady of Shalott pining for her lover and going down the stream of the river — and immediately feeling a huge connection.” Ross knew she wanted to live somewhere where English was more accessible and she could speak English every day. “It just sounded like I had to live in English,” she says.
In Mexico, Ross says, it’s very common to live at home while you go to college, so she went to school in Mexico City, where she studied Latin American literature. She assumed she’d stay on the higher education track, get a master’s and PhD, and become a professor, or write and research. “I thought that a life inside a library was going to be my biggest joy,” she says.
But Ross had a change of heart. “I realized that sitting down on the floor and having a conversation with a child about anything just felt like the deepest and most meaningful connection I could possibly make,” she says. “It felt like a connection with myself but also with the innocence and awe I believe we all need to live a compassionate life.”
With the drive to move to an English-speaking country and a desire to teach, she applied to graduate school. The University of Rhode Island gave her a full scholarship, free housing, and a teaching job, so she moved to Kingston and earned a master’s degree in literature in Spanish and Spanish instruction. She started teaching Spanish classes to adults and realized that she loved every aspect of the classroom, from explaining the nuances of grammar to making personal connections with students. She started teaching to all levels at the New School in New York City and eventually joined ECFS in 2006.
Although she enjoyed teaching adults, Ross has “always found an affinity” with kids. “I was always trying to take care of my friend’s little siblings when I was growing up because I didn’t have any siblings of my own. I was always, like, ‘Yeah, I’m coming over for playdates, but what I really want to do is carry your two-year-old brother.’” Ross says it wasn’t maternal instinct: “It felt more like I wanted to teach this kid how to play with his toy. There was always this element of me passing on some sort of knowledge or experience.”
Ross came to mindfulness eight years ago. An ethics co-teacher told Ross about a four-day mindfulness in education workshop at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in upstate New York, and the pair decided to enroll. “It was my first taste of meditation. I got hooked immediately. As soon as I sat down and I started hearing these people speak, it was a feeling of coming home to something that I had always wanted for myself. It really was that feeling of discovering something new that I knew right away: I want this in my life in whatever means possible.”
If we just name meditation as a quiet moment for yourself, whatever else is happening, you’ll do it mindfully.
Mindfulness is the cornerstone of Ross’s instruction — even when it comes to language. “Every one of my Spanish lessons incorporates validation and exploration of feelings, gratitude for our abilities, passions and curiosity, and songs about noticing how our bodies move,” she says. That might mean going around in a circle and asking each other how everyone is feeling in that moment, making a connection between bodies and movement, or using mindful listening while singing a song in Spanish and noticing how the words sound different from their English counterparts. (The students have a favorite song called “Tres Velas,” or “Three Candles,” which serves as a breathing exercise. Students hold up three fingers to symbolize the candles and slowly blow each one out.) To her, mindfulness is as integral as the definitions of values or grammar rules. “I really believe that when you’re a teacher, all of the elements of being in the present moment, with love coming from mindfulness, are going to help you anyway, no matter what you’re teaching,” she says. “When you teach from your heart and you teach with calmness and patience, things stick.”