Be Well, Learn Well

On the bookshelf in my office, I have a stack of over 100 colorful love letters, each sealed with a smiley face sticker. Some have been folded into origami sculptures. Others are tightly wound into a scroll. One is inexplicably shaped like a boat. And many are addressed to “My Future Self.”
In our first Wellness class of the year, Middle School students and I discussed the benefits of positive self-talk, focusing on the importance of recognizing our personal strengths and unpacking why we often find ourselves slipping into self-criticism and overlooking our accomplishments. I then asked everyone to write themselves a “self-love letter,” extolling all of the things they love about themselves as well as their hopes and dreams for their future self and the steps they can take to help those things come true. I collected each one, promising not to read them and that I would return the letters at an undisclosed point in the future.

This exercise, which proved to be much harder for some students than I anticipated, reinforced how essential it is to explicitly teach wellness within our curriculum. While the full scope of the pandemic’s effects on education and adolescent development is still unfolding, the toll on students' mental health is undeniable. It was with this reality in mind that School Counselor Karen Boyer, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Denise LaRosa, and I partnered to formalize and codify our Wellness programming that had previously been housed in advisory periods and one-off class meetings. The main goal of Wellness, which every Middle School student has once a week, is to hold time and space to focus on students’ individual wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of our entire Ellis community. Topics that we’ve explored so far include community building, feedback and grades, stress management, and social thinking skills. As Ms. Boyer puts it, "We normalize the concepts of wellness through teaching how brain health and body health are connected. This emphasis allows students to both learn about and implement their own wellness tools and reach out for additional help as needed."  

Throughout the year, Wellness sessions will be led by a variety of Ellis adults, reinforcing for students that the health and happiness of our community is everyone’s job. In addition to Dr. LaRosa, Ms. Boyer, and myself, students will hear from School Nurse Susanne Osche, Athletic Director Katie Johnson, and our Sexuality Education Instructor Sam Gerard. While each of us brings a different area of focus and expertise, the common thread is our desire to provide students with explicit skills and strategies to care for their mental, emotional, and physical health, as well as the positive learning environment and interconnectedness of our whole school community. With her focus on inclusion, Dr. LaRosa highlights how “each student brings their lived experiences and identity to the school experience. Our Wellness program reinforces our commitment to ensuring that every student feels like they are a valued member of our community and that they belong simply by being who they are.” It is that sense of belonging that is essential to students’ ability to meaningfully connect and flourish at school.

Ellis is an exceptional school with challenging academics, a plethora of co-curricular options, and a student body made up of some of the most creative, funny, driven, and confident girls I’ve ever met. But in order for our students to fully engage in all that Ellis has to offer, they must feel grounded, safe, and healthy. Caring for our students in intentional and explicit ways and providing a wide net of adult support as they navigate the wilds of Middle School in the wake of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is our priority to ensure that they continue to thrive here at Ellis and beyond.