I recently attended a book launch open house where my friend Rob Dunlop celebrated the culmination of four years of work on his book STRIVE for Happiness in Education. Rob is totally on the right track with this book. In a time of such significant upheaval on multiple fronts, his book serves as a balm. I’m very happy for Rob and his achievement, but part of me is unhappy purely in thinking about why there is such a great need for a book like this.

I’ve focused often during my blogging through the alphabet on mental health and well-being and social-emotional learning. They are both of utmost importance to the success of students as well as teachers, but happiness is the real goal. Reading Rob’s book helped me to reaffirm that focus and define the ultimate goal: happiness.

Teaching English literature affords me one of the greatest ways to teach social-emotional learning, particularly self-awareness and relationship building — story. Stories are magical things with the ability to launch us into other worlds and lives, and that is based on neuroscience! Did you know that we remember facts better if they are woven into a story? Our brains are wired for stories which is why they are such powerful vehicles to build better relationships and learn more about ourselves. The area in our brain that is activated when we read about something is the same area activated when we see it in real life. A 2013 study from Emory University showed the region of the brain associated with physical activity and movement is activated when we read. Essentially, the reader does what the character does and feels what the character feels. In fact, the study showed that our brains remained changed for days after reading a novel. So stories change us, not just mentally, but biologically. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is no longer a trite metaphor – we really DO walk the mile! That’s why story has such a strong link in increasing empathy.

Understanding these factors helped lead me to develop a mental health and awareness unit. Three years ago students voiced their displeasure at on e of the novels on our syllabus – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Now I love the book and particularly felt teaching it was important because it opened the discussion of mental health, but students complained that it was too hard and that they didn’t connect with it. Normally “too hard” is not sufficient reasoning for me to change a book – desirable difficulty is a GOOD thing – but the fact that they didn’t connect to it gave me reason to pause. Without connection making headway with the mental health discussion would be lost. I shared these concerns with my students and they immediately voiced their desire to learn more about mental health but they asked why it had to be a novel. Their desire was to learn about the real thing, so our mental memoir unit was born.

That first group of students and I chose several memoirs focused on mental illness and they formed small book chat groups. Over several iterations of teaching the unit, it has evolved to opening the unit with a book tasting. In the spirit of supporting students’ emotional needs around what can be sensitive topic, I first transform my classroom into a browsing space with book displays and small seating areas, then I create a relaxing atmosphere by playing soft music – think of the great background music in an upscale coffee shop. To complete the tasting, I make sure to bring doughnuts or cookies for everyone (it is amazing how disarming a gift of a treat is for students and how instantly they take on a more open-minded, relaxed attitude). When students walk in, they are initially stunned at the transformation, then delighted when I serve them a treat, and finally eager when I tell them to take their time browsing the books.

Students enjoying a book tasting
Time to really take in a book during book tasting

Throughout the unit, students gain a personal perspective reading the memoir and an academic perspective by researching the illness using academic databases and journals. To supplement and expand the learning, we have guest speakers and connect with experts via Skype. We cover a variety of related topics including careers in the field, the function of stress, the difference between stress and anxiety, adaptive and problematic anxiety, and calming and coping strategies like breathing and visualization techniques.

I run a presentation design workshop during the unit where students learn visual design techniques as well as oral speaking tips and skills including strategies to overcome stage fright. Did you know smiling has a reciprocal affect? That’s why it’s important to smile during a presentation – the audience naturally smiles back and that causes a positive neurological reaction in the speaker’s brain producing a calming effect. I use this kind of information, neuroscience, to help students understand their own reactions to stress, particularly during public speaking. We talk about the stress response – fight, flight or freeze – and how adrenaline can be a boon and a bane when under stress. Most importantly, I emphasize how nervousness, stress and anxiousness are normal reactions and that it is important to know yourself, plan and utilize smart strategies to alleviate the worst symptoms of the stress response.

Students then collaboratively create and deliver professional presentations to teach their peers about the mental illness their memoir focused on. We increase our sense of community in the classroom this way, but then expand that sense of community through public service announcements that we create to share with the school and broader community. Finally, student increase their own self-awareness through a written personal reflection of their learning throughout the unit. According to the positive student feedback, these activities encourage improved mental wellness, reduced stigma, and increased empathy and are a necessary addition to the course as well as being a refreshing and practical way to deliver the curriculum.

Increasing and developing empathy is a powerful thing because it not only helps to increase students understanding of others thus supporting positive relationship building, it naturally supports the development of a powerful identity and feeling of self-worth. Empathy, so often only thought of as something that is directed out to others, can and needs to be directed inwards to self too. Brené Brown, research professor studying courage,m vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and author of the book The Secret of Being Enough, says that being compassionate to ourselves and others puts us on a path to recognizing and building our own self-worth.

Increasing empathy is one way to help students become confident, self-aware individuals, but it is developed even more by building in self-reflection. I do a blogging project with my students that allows them to express themselves in a creative, authentic way. We focus on connecting to the novel we are reading – Frankenstein in this case – but we focus on the modern connections to their lives and their learning, for example plastic being our modern monster. Sometimes students struggle with clearly expressing their thoughts and emotions. Again, English class lends itself to this in the form of vocabulary instruction. Being able to identify emotions is important in dealing with them. An emotional word wheel is very helpful. Students are able to find the general emotion category at the centre of the wheel then work through the layers, which increase in emotional intensity, until they find the emotion that provides the clearest description.

Emotional Word Wheel

Throughout my courses, I integrate a lot of explicit teaching of neuroscience – how the brain works and learns – like the stress response of fight, flight or freeze during the mental memoir unit, but also the value of retrieval practice and how memory works. I emphasize how we need to learn how we each learn best and use the tools that will help us do that. For this reason, I incorporate extensive instruction of supportive ed tech tools that allow students to be more independent which leads to increased confidence. Accessibility tools are a large part of my program – for EVERYONE. They may be necessary for some, but they are good for everybody, so using a learning platform like Microsoft Teams or an LMS like D2L helps my students stay organized and gives them the capability to review on demand. Microsoft’s OneNote notebook is a mainstay in my classes, not just for the organization but the the learning tools like the immersive reader and dictation feature that are integrated in. OneNote even has inking and audio file capabilities, so it covers the gamut for students to show their mastery in a variety of ways.

Students are empowered when they are given tools that help them be more confident and independent learners. This supports a student’s sense of control, builds their self awareness as well as honing their self regulation skills. Opportunities for decision making further backs up these skills through the varieties of choice offered throughout the program – books, products, vehicles to demonstrate mastery. All skills are enhanced through community building and collaboration. Increasing student voice through blogs, podcasts, Flipgrid, etc and taking part in collaborative projects increases students’ sense of belonging in our class and school community and globally.

By using stories, I help my students learn about themselves and others. I continue to underscore that learning by explicitly teaching mental health and wellness and neuroscience thus arming them with multiple strategies to support themselves – through supportive ed tech, calming techniques, breathing exercises, and positive thinking strategies – all of which improve self-regulation skills.

Bottom line, all of these topics and techniques – reflection, choice and voice, community building, global collaboration, mental health, and accessibility – increase the social-emotional skills of my students. Its interesting to note that they are all also essential in building resilience, and even more importantly, in increasing happiness. In his book, Rob Dunlop says that happiness is 50% genetics, 10% circumstances, and 40% stuff we control. Increasing social-emotional skills puts students on a positive path for them to be in charge of that 40%. That’s a big win, because happy people are 30% more productive, 3 times more creative and all around better learners. Helping students to be happier is putting them on a path to have more success in all aspects of their life, now and always.