As the old saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Or, as we tell our student writers, the writing journey begins by just sitting down at the desk. To begin a journey is a daunting task, especially when the question you are exploring feels large, unclear, or heavy. We are English teachers, not wellness educators, so to begin exploring student wellness in our English classrooms can feel complicated, especially in a year when time is stretched thin and COVID-19 has asked us to condense our syllabi and define what curriculum is essential. If you ask an English teacher if wellness is an essential skill in their curriculum this year, you might get a mixed bag of answers, ranging from “yes…be well and healthy during this global pandemic” to “no, we don’t have time to stray from our content-specific skills.”
In order to make student wellness an instructional focus, what if English teachers built upon what we already do to make wellness competencies work alongside the content competencies we already teach?
To explore this possibility, I began by defining a manageable set of skills that support the development of healthy, well students who can go out into the world and live rich, meaningful lives. These skills also relate to our literary analysis, as we can analyze our stories and protagonists through these lenses. I decided to focus on:
From here, I created a rubric in which students self-assess each of these competencies, using the texts we read and analyze and the experiences of our protagonists as examples. In other words, through their analysis of characters and stories, students understand what it means to have a growth mindset, to be resilient, to self-express, and to be empathetic. My thinking was that once students analyze how characters embody these competencies, they can then consider their own lives and how they themselves are developing in these important life skills.
I assigned Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens as required summer reading for my freshmen classes because I knew that Kya, the protagonist, would be an awesome example of resiliency in a young girl/woman, as she grows up alone in the Carolina marsh. After we wrote our first essay on the novel, I asked my classes to assess themselves on the wellness competency rubric (pictured above), using their learning and understandings from Kya’s journey in their responses. The students assessed themselves on the rubric, writing reflective connections. For example this student meditated on her own resilience:
At this point in the semester my goal was for students to become familiar with the rubric, so that by December, after completing our second novel, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, they could reflect again, perhaps recognizing their growth in the competencies. For example, this student noted her growth in resilience:
I was thrilled to see the students reflect on their growth and, in the case of the student above, move herself forward in her understanding of her own resiliency.
Based on the students' thoughtful reflections, I also wondered if this competency rubric could be applied to literary analysis. I met with my Department Chair and brainstormed the questions: What if the students assessed Cassandra, the protagonist of I Capture the Castle, in one of our wellness competencies? And, could Cassandra’s empathy, for example, be assessed on our wellness competency rubric, thus creating an opportunity for students to use our wellness competencies to write a dynamic character analysis, including textual evidence and discussion?
This felt like a breakthrough moment, as we were no longer talking about student wellness in the abstract, but rather including wellness competencies in content and curriculum and asking students to showcase their understanding of these life skills in an academic essay.
For our in-class essay assignment, students responded to the following prompt:
Student analysis included beautiful connections between the protagonist and their own lives. Here are some highlights:
To be honest, I teared up a bit reading many of my students’ discussions and analysis, because I could feel their hearts in their writing and their analysis felt so true and so honest. On the other hand, this was a challenging essay topic for freshmen, and some students of course wrote stronger than others, but their feedback was overall positive about the prompt.
I walked away from the first attempt at directly linking wellness competencies to English curriculum with more questions than answers. How could this style of character analysis help students empathize with and connect to protagonists across race, socio-economic status, gender, and religious beliefs? How can students use their own well-being as a guide to their choices in texts, book clubs, and essay writing topics? Or, how do wellness competencies support a personalized classroom?
To begin is a bit scary, but to quote my student’s writing: “starting fresh does not show weakness, but resiliency.”
Owens, Delia. Where the Crawdads Sing. G P Putnam’s Sons, 2019.
Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. St. Martin's Press, 1948.
Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.