By Lauren Rotzien (she/her), teacher, Coquitlam
This last year and a half has been a roller coaster for teachers and students. Remote learning, wildfire smoke, changing COVID protocols, cohorts, and heat waves had a large effect on our community’s morale. As a school that always values collaboration, at École Maillard Middle we knew we needed to find a way to build community school-wide despite being completely separated from each other.
We began to rebuild our community with a collaborative mural project titled Together We Soar, funded by our parent advisory council. Our school is divided into four separate teams. For the mural project, each team created a bird representing their core values. We also enlisted our district’s Indigenous Education Department to introduce our students to the symbolism behind each bird: Raven—Humor, Owl—Wisdom, Heron—Tranquility, Hummingbird—Joy. Using stories and class discussions, we connected these values to our perseverance and resilience through COVID. We also connected these themes to colour theory and watercolour painting techniques, so that every student could contribute a painted feather to the final bird images. The result was a beautiful, commemorative display that will remind us of our strength during COVID for many years to come.
Through our continued discussions on the reasoning behind the mural project, we realized that we wanted to further build our community while continuing to educate our students on mental wellness. As a result, we developed a Mental Wellness Fair focusing on the effects of stress on the body and coping strategies during this tumultuous time. Our overarching goal was to create a common language school-wide, as well as provide specific techniques students could apply to their daily lives to reduce stress. We also wanted to bring some joy and excitement to an otherwise challenging year.
We chose six main themes and recruited experts from our school and district to guide us on each theme. We included brief introductions on the topics during morning announcements, and then teachers discussed these ideas further with their classes at appropriate times throughout the day. The theme presentations were prerecorded to allow flexibility for teachers. Daily optional reflection activities were also provided for teachers who wanted to delve deeper into these topics.
Students were also encouraged to check in with their feelings, practise mindful breathing strategies, write positive affirmations, and reflect on their gratitudes daily. We incorporated mindful breathing into our daily morning virtual announcements to encourage as much of the school to participate at the same time as possible. The Mental Wellness Fair ran for three consecutive weeks and incorporated the following theme days (two each week): learn, breathe, energize, connect, create, laugh.
We kicked off the fair explaining how our brains and bodies are affected by stress. We also discussed intentions and encouraged students to set an intention for what they hoped to gain from the fair. Follow-up activities included exercises to build emotional vocabulary and a brain scavenger hunt encouraging students to take pictures of things that cause them stress, represent happy memories, show resilience, etc. We shared these pictures with the school at the end of the first week during our virtual morning announcements.
Mindfulness was a key focus for our fair. During this session, we explained the Mood Meter, a tool that helps build emotional awareness and provides new vocabulary words to express feelings. We also discussed the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus and how they relate to the fight, flight, freeze response. Our school community participated in daily mindful breathing exercises for the duration of the fair. By connecting these topics to mindful breathing and the importance of a calm amygdala for learning, we ensured the students understood the importance of these coping strategies.
We discussed how dopamine is released during exercise and the positive feelings it elicits in our bodies. We then encouraged classes to increase their activity levels that week by challenging them to a daily walk. We also invited a local martial arts studio to teach our students new stress-relieving techniques. In case of inclement weather, we provided in-class yoga activities.
Our daily walk challenge helped get us outdoors connecting with nature. Some classes also chose to grow small plants to further their connection with the outdoors. They served to remind us that to grow our brains, we need to nourish them and provide them with an environment that allows for growth, just like our plants! We also wrote letters to loved ones that we hadn’t seen in a while and created a collaborative chalk mural outside allowing students to connect with friends outside of their cohorts.
We discussed staff members’ creative outlets, many of which the students were unaware of before the fair. And we challenged students to create something new over the week. Students chose various projects that were of interest to them, from trying new recipes, to learning how to sew, or making new worlds in Minecraft. We also connected the create theme to mindfulness by trying out various mindful art challenges.
Our final theme day was meant to bring joy to our students and staff. We talked about laughter and its effects on our bodies—the benefits of dopamine again! We created meme contests and played dad joke bingo. We ended our Mental Wellness Fair with a virtual spirit assembly full of fun activities that were meant to get us laughing together as a community. It was a great way to finish the fair on a high note!
Although the last year and a half has been a bumpy ride, we learned a lot about mental health alongside our students. We learned the value of brain-based learning and mindful breathing practices, as well as the importance of bringing joy to each day. We also managed to rebuild our connections with others outside our cohorts by having common activities to share and discuss, either through virtual announcements/spirit assemblies or through similar shared experiences.
Student reflections after the conclusion of the fair indicated gratitude and enthusiasm for learning different strategies to cope with stress, many of which they plan to continue to use in their daily lives. As a staff, we plan to carry these ideas of mindfulness and coping with stress forward into the new year to continue this journey. We’re excited to see where the adventure takes us next!