Whether or not happiness is a skill we can teach our students, just as we teach them math, music, or any other academic subject, is a question facing educators lately, and for good reason. Anxiety has increased by 20% in children ages six to seventeen, based on data collected from 2003 to 2012 by the National Survey of Children's Health. A recent study done by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that children exposed to trauma had higher levels of cortisol, which reduces memory and executive function in adolescents. Because anxiety interferes with successful learning, educators are motivated to find antidotes to student stress and trauma.
To counter the effects of stress and trauma, tools such as classroom-based yoga, the mindful school movement, and books on meditation and relaxation techniques aimed at children and young adult readers seek to put students in control of their own well-being. So too does the Art of Happiness, a program started in Woodlands Middle School Library Media Center in Greenburgh Central School District in Hartsdale, New York. The Art of Happiness is an annual conference of workshops, assemblies, and presentations that expose students to a variety of stress-reducing, happiness-building strategies. Coordinated by the school librarian, the Art of Happiness offers a buffet of workshops not only on yoga and mindfulness, but also art therapy, healthy relationships, and diet, to name a few.
Offering a single-day program of diverse well-being strategies exposes students to a wide variety of life-improving possibilities without force-feeding them on any single one. In addition, it won't alienate students and staff who don't accept the scientific validity of mindfulness, yoga, and meditation. But most importantly, the school librarian can tailor the program to meet the unique interests, assets, and priorities of the school population being served.
Robin Schamberg, who presided over many well-being programs, both as assistant principal of Fox Lane High School, in Bedford, NY and as principal of Woodlands Middle School, believes school librarians occupy ideal positions from which to plan such programs. Librarians engage with a wide range of students on a daily basis, overhearing conversations and learning firsthand about the difficulties students face, says Ms. Schamberg. "It is important that we give students a voice in the strategies that support their needs and interests. Students need buy in. It is paramount to a successful program" (phone interview, December 2018).
At Woodlands, a school in which more than half the students qualify for subsidized lunch, there is an emphasis on strategies to help middle schoolers recognize that improving their lives doesn't always depend on economic factors.
In planning a well-being conference school librarians can apply their own programming, organizational, and resource gathering skills to design a uniquely suitable event by following some general guidelines below.
You might wonder who would say no to happiness but your administrators can, particularly if the request for time and resources competes with academics. When pitching a happiness program, be armed with statistics that underscore the connection between student success and emotional well-being. Project Happiness, a nonprofit organization with a comprehensive, easily searchable website, provides curriculum support to administrators and educators eager to integrate happiness and mindfulness programs into school curriculum. It also provides a Science of Happiness link within its education section to help educators access evidenced-based journal articles supporting the connection between happiness and health, academic success, and well-being.
Assure administrative stakeholders the program will require minimum financial support and provide maximum flexibility. If a pitch is compelling enough, administrators might provide money for such extras as keynote speakers and supplies.
Once there is administrative approval, it's game on. Timelines and action lists are a great way not only to start the brainstorming process but also to build the program in a chronologically sensible sequence—from how to assemble a collection of workshops to when to send out thank you notes to presenters, committee members, and administrators.
Once the administrators are on board, teachers will more likely be motivated to join your roster of workshop presenters. Send questionnaires that survey their skills and interests. A school needn't be comprised of master yogis and gurus to run a wellbeing conference. All that is needed to run an affordable program are teachers willing to share with students their own stress reduction recipes. Your staff is likely comprised of knitters, bakers, zumba enthusiasts, gardeners, jugglers, and any range of hobbyists at various levels of proficiency. For a presentation on healthy snacking, for example, Woodlands' school nurse conducted smoothie-making workshops. Beyond knowing how to use a blender, no special talent was needed. Other school specialists, including guidance counselors, social workers, and art teachers can easily contour lessons fitting the happiness theme. As your talent scouting process unfolds, remember to identify people to help on planning committees—including, of course, students. Tapping kids for leadership roles can be a student empowering byproduct of your conference.
Consider ways to involve the community as presenters. Invite the public library, local hospitals, and nonprofit organizations that provide educational outreach to residents in a school's geographic area. For example, Woodlands's public library ran a free workshop called Shelve Your Sorrows, which profiled popular self-improvement books and library programs aimed at young adults. My Sisters Place, a nonprofit organization that aids victims of domestic abuse, ran free presentations on dating smarts. Local hospitals often present free programs on diet, exercise, and other health and well-being topics.
Select and assemble the course offerings to reflect the widest variety of student interests. Be sure enough workshop choices are provided to meet student registration. Fourteen workshops comfortably satisfy Woodlands 225 student registrants, who typically attend one school wide assembly and two back-to-back concurrent workshops during the half-day event. It's best to enroll no more than 20 students per workshop to minimize classroom management issues. Course room assignments should also be listed in your catalog along with brief workshop descriptions. Catchy course names help to engage students: Yogatta Relax, for a yoga workshop, Good Mood Foods for a presentation on healthy snacking, and All You Knit Is Love for an introductory class on knitting. Your course catalog is as much a promotional as a practical tool. Not only will it guide students through registration procedures, but it will also generate excitement for the program.
Once the catalog is completed, registration forms can be created. Woodlands uses Google Forms, a flexible program that can produce spreadsheets capable of printing student schedules, master lists, attendance sheets, and more.
Registration can be scheduled in the library or classrooms, but in either case, it's useful to have the librarian on site (with course catalogs) during this process. This will help students with registration questions, promote the program, explain its purpose, and spread excitement.
Students should receive their conference schedules from homeroom or classroom teachers the day of the event, just prior to kickoff. Workshop presenters should also receive a packet of information that includes a master schedule, their individual workshop attendance sheets, and evaluation forms.
Presenters should be prepared to leave five minutes at the end of their workshop so students and staff can complete workshop evaluations. Evaluations are critical to the overall program planning process according to Ms. Schamberg. "Every time you run a conference, take the time to have students and staff reflect. You want your students to be engaged and active in the process, not just have a bunch of speakers come and talk at them" (phone interview, December 2018).
Evaluations, furthermore, are an important way for building a library that is central to year-round student wellbeing. Library programs can reflect student interests and concerns made evident in program evaluations. Book displays devoted to the most popular life-improving strategies, makerspaces designed to help students channel new-found interests and creative outlets, and even media center meditation and relaxation spaces are possible extensions of happiness day.
Ms. Schamberg has seen so many benefits result from wellbeing conferences, including an overall improvement of school climate, a way for students to get to know their teachers and classmates outside of pre-established roles, and an opportunity to expose everyone to new ideas and interests. "Teenagers can be so caught up in their day to day social lives that they can't see beyond themselves," says Ms. Schamberg. But when we introduce new ideas to students, it can be a life-changing epiphany.
Carrion, Victor G., et al. "Can Traumatic Stress Alter the Brain? Understanding the Implications of Early Trauma on Brain Development and Learning." Journal of Adolescent Health 51, no. 2 (July 2012): 23-29.
"National Survey of Children's Health." Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health. https://www.childhealthdata.org/learn-about-the-nsch/NSCH.
"Teach Happiness. Facilitate a Child's Happiness in School and Life." Project Happiness. https://www.projecthappiness.org/get-involved/education.
Access the infographic with Joy's tips for creating your own program here.