There is a gumball machine filled with red candy in Melissa Nikolai’s classroom. It’s stashed next to a box stuffed with craft supplies, amid layers of photos of dogs - hers and her students’ - and funny memes covering cupboards and creeping past the edges of the whiteboard.
Bursting bookshelves below windows, and dozens of letters from former students, spilling over with gratitude, are filed as wallpaper in the alcove adjacent to her desk. Ms. Nikolai's classroom is filled with objects meant to spark creativity.
But nothing is just an object to Melissa, an English teacher in her 28th year. She teaches regular English classes, of course, along with classes like “Literacy of Happiness,” and each item in her room is a talisman, meant to inspire students as they work through the curriculum - each lesson thoughtfully and strategically built over the next.
HAPPINESS IS A WORK ETHIC
Like the talismans in her room, Melissa’s teaching is more than standing up in front of students and talking about books. Her instruction is meant to ensure literature’s lessons transcend words on a page.
“I reinforce to them: you are building habits of mind. Your happiness is a work ethic. You are building these habits not to achieve a goal - or a grade - but to be the best person you want to be. It starts with this: if you prime your brain to be happy, you learn better. And when you learn better, you feel better within yourself. And when you feel better - you feel ready to face more.”
Melissa talks about creating new neural pathways, focusing on the positive emotions often drowned out by the negative, contextualized with research on topics like the benefits of journaling and meditation.
Students start class with a five-minute meditation - and then write in their journals (funded by Park City Education Foundation!). To Melissa, of course, the journals are so much more than blank pages bound together:
“These simple journals PCEF funded... My kids pour their heart and soul into these journals! Because of that, they're able to clear their heads. Take a deep breath. And clear their bodies of how they feel…
And then - I have their attention for the next 80 minutes, and I can get up there in the front of the classroom and say, 'Alright! Here's what I've got for you today!'”
WHY WELLNESS IN THE CLASSROOM?
"Every time I get a grant from the Ed Foundation, it's like, this grant came because they believe in me - I cannot express how much it feeds me,” Melissa reflected.
“They see in me what I try to be every day - and I don't ever want to let them down. I will do everything to live up to that, and to be the kind of teacher they see I can be. I will always put that into everything I do.”
She continued, “I don’t know what I would do without PCEF. It serves me so I can serve my kids - the journaling, the bean bag, the art projects, just funding the physical items. And the fact that the Foundation believed in me enough to give me a grant to BUY CANDY - it means so much. It means they trust me for thinking outside the box. They trust me.”
Candy? What do the kids do with candy in the classroom? It’s another way - unique, unexpected, and yes, effective! - to teach mindfulness.
“We had a caramel meditation and they LOVE IT - they perk up a lot when we do a food meditation. It’s a different way to get them to be mindful.”
And Melissa says it’s more important than ever for the students to perk up - and to engage.
“COVID has done a number on these kids. There’s something different in their willingness to connect with one another,” she reflected. “It seems hard for them to let their guard down. Hard to share and create a community,”
The deeper the learning from the “Literature of Happiness,” Melissa hopes, the greater the chance the curriculum will expand beyond the walls of her classroom…
“Because the minute they walk out my door - chances are, you’ll encounter something that could be triggering. What are you going to do?”
Learning the mechanics and mechanisms of happiness will only help…
“Visualize - how do you carry yourself - what’s the feeling of being confident and strong and gentle with yourself? Knowing your mistakes don’t define you - every day - if you can step into that just a little bit.“
She thought a moment and added, “And, presenting those strengths, you’re NOT being fake. You’re a multifaceted diamond - you’re showing the best part of you.”
WELLNESS IS AN ESSENTIAL SUBJECT
The pandemic showed the world: wellness is an essential subject. It also made clear to PCEF just how critical it is to support educators and students beyond pure academics.
That’s why we invest thousands of dollars in programs to promote mental wellness for our educators, who’ve been on the frontlines; and for our students, who’ve suffered more anxiety and stress than ever before.
We are all taking Educator and Student Wellness one step at a time - or - in Melissa's case, one candy at a time...
"I can’t tell you how much the kids love the gumball machine," Melissa said. "The teenage brain likes novelty, and these food mediations are a new way for them to learn. When they can learn what it feels like to have that piece of candy melt in their mouths - that's mindfulness."
And once our students learn mindfulness, they are on their way to learning happiness -- inside the classroom and beyond.
PCEF also created an Educator and Student Wellness Speaker Series, featuring three speakers this school year:
- Dr. Michael Thompson presented “Are the Kids Alright?” in August.
- Dr. Jason Rafferty will speak on December 5th: what parents need to know about adolescent substance abuse/exposure.
- Dr. Martha Haakmat will speak April 3rd, 2023: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the school setting.
All events are free and open to the public.