Sparta Middle School club uses tech to explore new concepts
By JESSICA MASULLI REYES
SPARTA -- In this technology-saturated world of iPods and iPhones, students at Sparta Middle School are joining an iClub where the "i" stands for intelligence.
"Intelligence is nothing but the ability to respond spontaneously to a situation or challenge," said club adviser Elena Zelenina.
Zelenina, owner of Biryukov Academy of Art & Music in Sparta, started the iClub to give middle schoolers an opportunity to awaken intelligence through talks, yoga and meditation, while also being creative with technology and art.
"You have to find what excites the people you are teaching and then you use that," said Zelenina, who uses the middle school students' love of computers, cell phones and cameras to teach them about their own intelligence.
At the iClub's second after-school meeting Thursday in the art room, 10 students ranging from sixth to eighth grade tackled the topic of self-love just in time for Valentine's Day.
Zelenina discussed with the group the feelings people have on Valentine's Day, whether it be excitement, loneliness, love or sadness. She explained that when children are in elementary school the teacher encourages everyone to bring a Valentine's Day card for each classmate, but once students get to middle school, they may feel upset to not get Valentine's Day cards from every classmate.
"How do you feel on Valentine's Day when you don't get 30 valentines?" Zelenina asked.
She explained that later in life a single person might feel upset if he or she doesn't have someone giving them a Valentine's Day card, chocolates or roses on Feb. 14. But, Zelenina said that this emotion can be broken by understanding and self-love, such as buying yourself a red rose.
"Look into an unpleasant emotion and make sure you understand it," she said. "Then, you can break it."
To further visualize what self-love is, Zelenina stacked glasses in a pyramid shape. She poured water from a red bowl into the top glass and the students watched as the top glass overflowed to fill the lower-tier glasses. She explained that by first filling the most important glass, yourself, then you can pour love into the other glasses, or people, in life.
"Until you all start loving yourself, you cannot share it," Zelenina said.
Each of the 10 students was then given an opportunity to recite a Buddhist meditation mantra about self-love.
"Let this good person, Olivia, be healthy, successful and kind," eighth-grader Olivia Ledingahm recited.
Each student after her said the mantra filling in their name and the things they want in life -- success, confidence, strength, love, money, happiness.
At the end of the one-hour club, Zelenina broke the group into three and gave each group a piece of technology. The challenge was to use the technology creatively to express self-love.
One group molded their bodies into each letter of the word "LOVE" to photograph. Another group used a flip camera to interview people in the library about what self-love meant to them.
The new club will focus on love for the next few months so the students can explore this often-misguided topic using art, technology and other creative ventures.
The iClub was born from Zelenina's own experiences with meditation training in India and her master's degree from her home country of Russia. In 2010, Zelenina was part of a creative team that designed the curriculum for the "eN-Genius" program in India. This helped her to establish what she wanted to do with her own daughter, a Sparta Middle School seventh-grader, Alice Sungurov, and the other students at Sparta Middle School.
She wanted to help them avoid stress while awakening their own intelligence.
"It's the ability to live in a highly intense life without traditional stress," Zelenina said. "You can change all that without changing the position of where you are. The younger you are, the easier it is. The transformation of kids is light speed."
In November 2010, Zelenina started PEAK, a similar group that was composed only of students at her art studio. A well-known meditation teacher, Martyn Williams, who goes by the spiritual name Dheera, which means courage, came to speak to the PEAK group for a "From Everest to Enlightenment" talk that outlined his mountain climbing life to meditation to spiritual enlightenment.
"My kids were fascinated by him and his stories," Zelenina said.
The PEAK group was able to go on Skype with an ashram in India to learn chants and was able to do other meditation classes, but Zelenina wanted to extend the program into the public schools.
With approval from the Board of Education in July 2011, she set out to get the club started. The club first met Jan. 26 with five students and a week later attracted 10 students looking for a creative outlet.
Zelenina is focusing the group on love for the rest of the year, but she also hopes to venture with the group into fear, desires, confidence, bullying and other topics that affect adults and children. The group will also have guests to teach yoga, meditation and acting.
The children will learn techniques to thrive in the often-difficult middle school world.
"It is about becoming more sincere in what they do," Zelenina explained.