In the old days, health class may have looked like a teacher standing in front of a room delivering content in lecture format while disinterested or embarrassed students looked on, likely wishing they were anywhere else. Not the case in health educator Bessie Oster’s classroom. Just last week, her Junior Seminar students, in a session about managing stress, took turns balancing peacock feathers on their hands and noses.
“Junior year is stressful for many kids,” says Oster. “I can’t eliminate the stress for them but I can offer strategies to manage the realities of that stress. Mindfulness is associated with higher academic performance, better sleep, improved self control, and so many other benefits.”
The purpose of the feather exercise was to give boys the opportunity to practice mindfulness, or what Oster calls paying attention on purpose. “If you develop that skill, it helps you to choose what to pay attention to and to master your own thinking.” Paying attention on purpose can be applied to countless situations, like focusing while taking the SAT, preparing for a big game, or moving through an uncomfortable moment.
The feathers helped her demonstrate the stress management lesson for the 11th graders that particular day but Oster employs props and other engaging techniques using skills-based education when she teaches health in every grade in the Upper School. Instead of the old-school method of having students memorize facts and hoping that they use that knowledge when making personal decisions in the future, skills-based education takes a different approach. It connects the typical health-related topics — like alcohol and substance use, human sexuality and relationships, mental wellness, and nutrition, among others — to real-life situations in which students may find themselves, and it provides students with tools for navigating them.
In an upcoming Freshman Seminar, Oster will set up a role-play scenario where students will gain practice in critical decision-making involving alcohol poisoning. “If you’ve thought about it in advance, you’re more likely to enact your best thinking” in a real-life situation, she says. The ninth grade curriculum includes time spent with peer educators (juniors and seniors) who lead candid discussions on the subjects covered in class.
Oster’s role at Gilman this year not only expands health education classes throughout the Upper School but also provides an overarching health education strategy for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. In collaboration with Director of Wellness and Support Christina Kim, Director of School Counseling Dr. John Mojzisek, and school counselors Amy Summers and Laura Jordan, plans to create a curriculum map that reflects state and national standards and is also tailored to the values of the School are in the works. “My goal is to thoughtfully provide resources for students as they move through Gilman.”