April 24, 2018
“I go in there and I feel like there’s a weight lifted off my shoulders,” senior Ryan Cox said. “I’ll be in class and I’ll forget I’m in school.”
Combining work and play, students in Positive Psychology can be found playing tag on the back field, studying cognitive distortions in the classroom and writing in their journals. The class aims to help students learn strategies and coping mechanisms to utilize outside of the classroom, provide a safe space for students to relax and take breaks from an otherwise stressful day. At a school where administration and teachers have said they’re trying to decrease stress levels through mindfulness and other methods, Positive Psychology is the physical manifestation of those efforts.
English and Positive Psychology teacher Susana Herrera tries to emphasize being mindful in her adaptable approach to the class, balancing the work and fun and spending more time on some units as necessary. She extended the Courage and Fear unit from one week to three weeks. She also gauges her class at the beginning of each period every day, sometimes abandoning her lesson plan if she senses a lot of stress, pushing it for a later day to go outside and destress. Every Friday is a “Fun Friday,” with an activity that helps students relax and learn — originally planned by Herrera, students now help plan activities themselves.
“Is this about work or is this about fun?” Herrera said. “Well it’s about both. It’s work and it’s a lot of fun, and that’s what life is about. Work gives us purpose and fun makes the work even better.”
Writing plays a significant role in Positive Psychology, serving as a gateway for students to try to better understand themselves and to comfortably choose what they want to share with Herrera and their classmates. Sophomore Lily Wang says that writing in the class helped her learn to better articulate her emotions. Beyond the classroom, she began writing letters to her parents after the semester final focused on expressing feelings. For her, writing helps solve arguments more than talking because it allows her to choose her words more carefully before sharing them with others.
As students wrote and journaled more, they gradually started sharing more with their classmates in small and eventually large group discussions. Students have forged strong bonds inside and outside the classroom, creating a sense of community.
“Learning these things about each other made us feel less judgmental,” senior Helen Kochetkova said. “I’ve become less insecure by being in a class that accepts you, where we can be ourselves.”
Through short-term and long-term assignments, students work to make themselves happier — one paper, called the “Five Problems Paper,” has students identify five areas in their lives that they would like to work on. Using the skills they’ve learned in the class, they come up with several ways to address these problems and document their experiences doing so.
Beyond being a class that focuses on developing mindful thinking and behavior, Positive Psychology is unique in its adaptable class structure. Starting as a semester class, Herrera said she extended it to a year for more learning and “more fun.” That includes more field trips, which could be grabbing a drink at Jamba Juice or seeing a screening of “Love, Simon.”
“[When we went to Jamba Juice,] we savored going outside of class and just having an enjoyable moment,” senior Varun Bopardikar said. “I think the whole idea of savoring has been my favorite idea, just taking some time to enjoy what you’re doing and not thinking about anything else that’s going on.”
Looking forward, Herrera plans on continuing to experiment with the course to make it the best experience for students possible. Some students have even expressed interest in retaking the course, and Herrera’s working on a second curriculum for people who want to take an even deeper dive into introspection.
“There’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of fences and people are locked up and blocked, and that’s okay,” Herrera said. “It can’t be a class that everybody will want, but for those who want to work through and heal and get connected, I hope they’ll give it a chance.”