Challenging Perceptions of Well-Being: A New Course for Grade 11s

A global pandemic certainly wasn’t on Mr. Milonas’s radar a year ago when he pitched the idea for a new interdisciplinary course on well-being and happiness for Grade 11s. As CDS’s Head of Physical and Health Education, he had enrolled in an online course titled The Science of Well-being offered through Yale University, and felt strongly that high school students could benefit from what he was learning as well. After sharing this idea with colleagues, they encouraged him to submit it as a course option that fit nicely within the phys-ed, science and humanities curriculum, and would be both interesting for students and exciting for faculty to teach.
As we now know, his timing was uncanny. Joined by Head of English, Ms. Bevacqua-Tirone and member of Student Services Centre and former member of the Science Department, Ms. Houston, this dynamic trio has been recalibrating and tweaking as they go as the course was initially designed to be taught by all three teachers in tandem. But in keeping with COVID safety rules, they typically divide and conquer across three separate spaces in order to teach the 28 students enrolled.

They have a real mix of personalities taking the course, from introverts to extroverts and everything in between. And they try to appeal to very different learning styles as well, which requires a great deal of ingenuity – something these three teachers possess an abundance of.
 
“We are trying to keep things as connected as possible,” explains Ms. Bevacqua-Tirone. “Whether that is going outside as a group whenever weather permits, gathering on the Learning Stairs or working together on Google Docs.” The remote learners connect through Google Meet and engage in the group tasks whenever possible by collaborating via screen or on a Google Doc.
 
The course consists of three units:  Me, We, Us. “We are looking at these perceptions to well being as they relate to the individual, groups and the wider community,” explains Ms. Houston. 
 
While there is no typical class, an example of a recent one involved a rotation of workshops. There was a session on Meditation led by Ms. B. Another session involved a walk outside led by Mr. Milonas who spoke about Gratitude, and the last was a lesson on Cognitive Bias, led by the Scientist among them – Ms. Houston.

When students learned they would not be marked for this course, instead it would be a credit/no credit system based on university approach where they would be marked on whether they are meeting or exceeding expectations – some were thrilled, and others disappointed. A teachable moment followed with an explanation of how rewards and marks can be detrimental to someone’s happiness. The three teachers explained that for this course in particular, it will be far more beneficial if they focus on the regular feedback, learning value, and individual assessments and remove the stress brought on by grades. 
 
“We want to instill the tools on how to fill their happiness tire,” says Mr. Milonas. Essentially, the primary objective is to fill their students’ tool box with skills on how to live a happy life.
 
According to Dr. Laurie Santos, the Professor of Psychology who teachers the course at Yale, “Happiness is like a leaky tire, you just need to know when and how to fill it.” Mr. Milonas uses this quote in class quite a bit, “It’s about knowing how (the tools) and when to be able to fill or add air to our tire.”
 
Students are now creating a hypothesis for their own personal experiments and have started doing research to test it, all while documenting their own journey. In this “Happified Scientific Process,” their teachers arm them at the start of each class with clipboards and buttons with their assigned Human number, i.e. Human #7. Students eagerly request their buttons at the start of each class, as it draws attention to the scientific component of the course, and they go about gathering data as they challenge perceptions of well being and arrive at their own conclusions.
 
Their teachers are employing the Try, Why, Do strategy. The three help guide their students through the Try part, then advance them to the Why – where they assess research in the area and investigate what is happening in their brain, and that initiates the Do based on how it impacts them personally.
 
The students have already dubbed this the Happiness course, and according to one student, it appears to be achieving its objective.
 
“This course has exceeded my expectations and has been a great means for self-reflection and to explore concepts that challenge my perception of how to achieve a sense of well-being,” says Lauren Neil ’22. “It has been especially valuable, given the challenges we are currently facing. I expect that the strategies I have learned thus far will serve me well for the remainder of the school year and beyond.”
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13415 Dufferin Street King, Ontario L7B 1K5
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Founded in 1972, The Country Day School is a co-educational private school offering programs in JK-12 and located on 100 acres north of Toronto in King.