To note: This story was originally posted by chalk beat.
By Dashawn Sheffield
I went to 19 funerals in the first year of COVID. When I wasn’t saying goodbye to the people I loved, I was in front of a screen that was my connection to school and my friends for a year and a half.
I used to greet my friends and teachers with an enthusiastic “Hiiii” and engage in lively class discussions – experiences I couldn’t replicate on a computer. During online school, I struggled with grief and depression, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed. I was trying to learn while dealing with uneven internet and helping my three younger god siblings with their studies. During this time, I turned to a longtime hobby: journaling. It helped me get in touch with myself and overcome what was thrown at me.
As I was jotting down some ideas in my notebook one morning, a question came to mind: When will we ever talk about mental health here? At the height of COVID, with so many of us suffering in isolation, this was sorely needed.
I was already in the process of creating a wellness council, a club where students could share their struggles and hear about what others were going through. If we could start this club, why not a to classify about mental health integrated into the school day?
My research began online. I read studies on the benefits of social and emotional learning and thought about its application in the real world. I watched lectures on YouTube about the importance of mental health lessons. I even spoke with curriculum developers. Personal struggles, along with this research, have underscored the need for a mental health class at my Newark high school.
So I scheduled a meeting with my supervisor, Mr. Michael Mann, and began working on a presentation that included testimonials from current and former students and staff. I had sent out surveys to students – from freshmen to seniors – asking them what their mental health needs were. They said a course focused on students’ mental health would not only reduce the stigma around mental health, but also help foster social and leadership skills, self-awareness and caring relationships with those around them.
My director seemed surprised at the passion with which I defended this class and offered me his wholehearted support. Then I contacted Ms. Julie Jackson, one of the co-CEOs of Uncommon Schools. (My school, North Star Academy Washington Park High School in Newark, is part of the Uncommon Schools charter network.) Soon I was sitting down with one of the most powerful people in my school’s network. Ms. Jackson started the meeting by praising my efforts, and she assured me it would be a casual conversation. Turns out she was also on board.
Then I created a working group made up of North Star educators and students. Our goal: to create a course where students could learn more about the causes and symptoms of mental health problems, and how to advocate for themselves and their peers.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I worked on lesson plans and brainstormed ideas for final projects. One lesson I’m particularly proud of is about consent. Here is one of the assignments: “During the next week, please record two situations in which you were asked to give someone else permission for something and at least three situations in which you asked someone else permission to do something.” This lesson focuses on the three Rs of consent: rights, respect and responsibility. Another lesson asks students about their evolving ideas about mental health, and a third helps students understand the difference between sex and gender.
The result of all this planning is an actual class called Health and Wellness.
Because the class was piloted during the peak of COVID, it started virtually, so class attendance and participation initially lagged. However, since last school year, the class has been in person. Dr. Shaniqua Fitzgerald, who now teaches health and wellness, welcomes students to her cozy classroom with a broad smile. The smell of cocoa butter fills the whole room. It is warm and serene inside. Just walking the path to class, I often hear students excitedly shouting different answers every time Dr. Fitzgerald asks a question.
Students tell me how this outlet helps them find their inner voice and relieves stress, making them less likely to experience burnout. They say they have a better sense of autonomy and agency thanks to the lessons on sexual health. (Now Dr. Fitzgerald and I are talking about taking this class to other charter network schools.)
During distance learning, struggling with grief and depression, I wanted to develop something that would help me feel better and empower others. I’m proud of what health and wellness has become, a classroom that de-stigmatizes difficult conversations and promotes knowledge, openness, empathy, and caring.
Dashawn Sheffield is a senior at North Star Academy Washington Park High School. It aims to educate students and faculty about the symptoms of mental health problems and to promote mental health support in the school setting.
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