Park City High School offers happiness class
There is one classroom in Park City High School that feels different from the rest.
The students are spread throughout, lying in sofas by a fireplace screensaver on a computer or gathered at a small table. There are no textbooks or worksheets on the desks, only identical journals with the word “Happiness” printed on each one.
It is the happiness class.
Twenty-three students are enrolled in this year’s course, which is the first of its kind at the high school. Those enrolled in the semester-long elective learn about meditation, conflict resolution and how to be more grateful. Sam Walsh, the school’s intervention counselor, and Melanie Moffat, an English language learning teacher, are in charge of the class.
Walsh said the idea for the class emerged out of the Park City School District’s commitment to teaching the “whole child,” particularly emphasizing social and emotional learning. While teachers and administrators considered incorporating mindfulness techniques into the classroom or hiring additional counselors, Walsh stumbled across an article describing the most popular course being taught at Yale University — the happiness class.
She decided to bring the class to Park City High. After making the pitch over the last few years, Walsh said she finally got the go-ahead at the end of last school year to pilot some lessons on mindfulness and conflict resolution during an elective class. She taught a couple of lessons in the spring.
“What we found is kids really were hungry for this kind of content and information,” she said. “Giving them the tools to manage their own conflicts and their own relationships, I saw that (be) really freeing to them.”
The students who had, before the lessons, frequented the counseling office because of arguments with their peers were suddenly asking to use a room in the counseling office to talk through their problems themselves. Data collected before and after the pilot showed that students who participated learned valuable skills, such as problem solving, Walsh said.
Given that success, an entire course dedicated to the subject was put on the list of elective classes offered this school year, and Walsh and Moffat got to work building the curriculum. Borrowing from Yale’s happiness class, a dialectal behavior therapy class taught at another school in the state and Walsh’s experience working with students, the class was formed.
Students learn about the science behind happiness and practice skills that have been shown to increase joy. They learn about mindfulness by hiking up PC hill or eating a clementine and focusing on what they can taste. Or, they are given a hypothetical problem and must come up with possible solutions in a group. Students are graded on self-reflection and journaling.
So far, the students say the class has been useful.
Laine McKibbin, a senior, signed up for the class because she wanted to develop skills for herself and others, since she hopes to one day work as a therapist. She said she is already trying to implement mindfulness when classes get stressful.
She hopes people can realize how beneficial it can be and sign up for it.
“You get what you put into the class,” she said. “The more people that take the class seriously, the better the school is going to be as a whole because it’s more people sharing kindness and being grateful for what they have.”
Ben Quinones, a junior, said he enjoys the time to pause during the school day and de-stress, especially because Park City High is a “high-pressure school” where students are expected to succeed in all aspects of their lives. The break is relaxing.
Walsh said she knows how high expectations are for students at the school, which is one of the reasons she wanted to introduce the class.
“In the 10 years I have been here at the high school, the No. 1 need that students say they need from our school is help with work-life balance and lowering anxiety,” she said. “We are trying to meet part of that demand and request by offering this class.”
Walsh said the broad range of students taking the class shows that everyone can get something out of it. If each student walks away with one skill — whether it is how to mediate their own conflicts or manage stress — she said it will be a victory.
“The thing that I am the most excited about is to get these positive coping skills into the hands of more students,” she said.
The arsenic-and-lead-containing soil has been a contentious issue for the district, which piled it onto the junior high campus in actions that were later discovered to be in violation of a covenant with the Environmental Protection Agency.
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