Health Week: A Wellness Immersion

At the end of each trimester at Compass School, classes are suspended for week-long immersions in rich, problem-based learning experiences. During Health Week, Community Service Winter Term (which we call Winterm,) and Project Week, students are involved in travel, meeting local community needs, and doing in-depth projects and explorations. One of these weeks, Health Week, is devoted entirely to wellness-related matters and has been an annual tradition for the past eight years. I am astounded by the enthusiasm students have for this symposium-like week of workshops and celebrations built around the concept of health. When I think about my experience as a teenager with health, sex education or learning about “how to take care of my teenage self,” I think of awkward class discussions and lectures which left me feeling completely overwhelmed by the dangers of the world. At Compass, this week-long immersion throws out taboos and encourages students to look honestly at the issues in front of them.

Health Week was created in response to a need to meet state standards in health education and a desire to build community in a very young school. Compass was only two years old when the first Health Week was planned. It has evolved from a few days of healthy exercise and discussions about gender identity and health to a multi-workshop conference style extravaganza. The scope has expanded to include alternative health and medical practices while also connecting to the community surrounding our school. Health Week has become a way for people in the community to know more about Compass and for our students and staff members to get to know the resources out there. The planning is wildly intensive, requiring hours of phone calls, scheduling, organizing, and grant writing. It often feels unsustainable—yet the week itself feels indispensable.

The planning of Health Week starts during August In-Service meetings, and becomes increasingly intensive as the first trimester draws to a close. True to the CES principle that emphasizes teachers as generalists with a commitment to the entire school, each staff member at Compass has a few “guruships,” specific areas of responsibility outside his or her teaching duties. Health Week usually becomes the charge of two staff members, but almost everyone joins in to assist in the planning process at some point, pitching ideas, sharing resources, and offering to give workshops in areas of their own interest or expertise. Janet Van Alstyne, Compass’ special education director (and adept detail manager), has been involved in this process since its inception. With the help of many others, she has woven a web of community resource connections that allow us to branch out farther each year, so one could say that Health Week’s foundation grows stronger and more stable each year. There are certainly challenges with trying to book upwards of 50 presenters in order to offer relevant choices to students, requesting donations from local food distributors in order to prepare fresh, organic meals that can be free to all, and finding grant money to pay presenters who are unable to participate without financial compensation. Since Compass is a small independent school with a relatively tight overall budget, there is no specific budget allotted to Health Week. Grant money may be available for a certain events or presenters, but there is often a chicken-and-egg situation in terms of needing to book presenters ahead of time, but not being able to book them until we know we can pay them.

Once the school year is in swing, students participate in the planning process by discussing in Advisory what they hope to learn about, things they’ve liked in past years and new directions they might dream up within the scope of the week’s main topics. Last year, a core group of students joined the organizational process, forming a committee that met on a weekly basis (and then more frequently closer to the start of Health Week). This year, I was Janet’s sidekick in organizing Health Week, and we solicited student input casually, but frequently, as we worked through the details. During the week itself, some students facilitated discussions and workshops, such as those involved in the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Queer group or exchange students who may give talks about traditions in their home countries. Given a choice between several different workshops for each time slot during the day, all students are involved in framing their personal experience during Health Week.

Every other year, Health Week’s topic is “reproductive health and substance abuse,” a.k.a. sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The alternate year focuses on a more holistic look at health and wellness. Health Week has recently been combined with Culture Days, another Compass “tradition” that halts the “normal” flow for a shot of multiculturalism in Vermont, a state with overwhelmingly homogeneous demographics. Last year, this cultural approach allowed us to look at health as something beyond condoms and exercise. Each day had a different theme as we explored the concepts of a healthy self, healthy relationships, healthy community, and a healthy planet. Looking at health in this light helped students to see the interconnections between their own personal health and a spectrum of choices, interests, and affiliations.

Especially for teenagers, health is about having outlets for energy, anger, frustrations, joy, and excitement. In addition to sessions on sexuality or the effects of substances on the brain and development, workshops on yoga, hula-hooping, juggling, Aikido, journaling, art therapy, and Budo punctuate the morning. In the afternoons, ultimate frisbee games, contra dances, and dance-offs get people moving. Workshops focused on the health of the community, such as “Shades of Gray: Bullying and Harassment,” result in shifting student perspectives, allowing them to become more conscious of actions that can degrade the health of our school community. Workshops on topics such as parent-teen relationships help students learn to understand situations they are facing and how to deal with them in healthier ways.

The conference-like structure of Health Week allows students to hear many different speakers talk about similar issues, giving them the opportunity to see the range of perspectives that exist. Our most recent Health Week had discussions led by a bisexual male who pushed students to think beyond the normal boundaries of what’s expected of specific genders. In the same day, presentations given by middle-aged heterosexual women advocating celibacy as a healthy sexual choice challenged the same students to think about the stereotypes that exist about sex and gender roles and the “truths” that have created them. Students are pushed to the edge of their comfort zones in a safe setting, allowing them to question things aloud and providing the substratum for real learning to take place. Speakers are inspired by the honest culture of our school and our forthright students who ask insightful questions and don’t appear to be squeamish in the presence of difficult topics. In turn, the outside presenters are upfront with students and a high level of respect ensues.

New students are astonished by Health Week’s content and structure, comparing it with the uninspiring grind of health class at their previous school. A student who has been at Compass for three years says, “It’s a fun, chill break from the normal, stressful school schedule.” In fact, he finds it to be more than a “break,” saying, “I usually take something away from each workshop. I’ve learned a ton: everything from diet to understanding the mind.” Other students praise the week as a time when the school comes together. One eighth grader comments, “I remember how much [a workshop during Health Week] made our class start having in-depth discussions about what the presenters told us and if we agreed with it or not. It helped us bond and get to know each other better.” Many students love the chance to be in workshops with students from all grades, a trademark of these special weeks. When necessary, students are separated by age if a topic is age-sensitive, but generally there is a feeling of dissolved lines between high school and middle school.

After so many years of passionate involvement in Health Week, Janet Van Alstyne feels like all the exhausting planning is worth the hours on the phone and the days and weeks of planning. Thinking back to poignant moments that inspired students, speakers, and staff alike, she wonders if a Compass alumna, who has gone on to work with HIV/AIDS patients in West Africa during her college career, had a flame lit under her during Health Week. That year, an AIDS patient came to speak during Health Week about the emotional pain of keeping her condition a secret from her mother because she was so ashamed. The student went up to her at the end of her talk, put a hand on her shoulder, and told her that she must tell her mother, tears streaming down both of their faces. One can imagine that such a moment was responsible for helping to focus that student’s subsequent years of study, travel, and service.

The school is shaken up in a wonderful way during Health Week. This year Eric Rhomberg, Compass’ director, gave up coffee publicly and encouraged students to kick caffeine along with him. He also gave a talk about drugs that challenges students to look at the way that they take care of themselves and how to keep drugs out of the picture. Students mingle with students in other grade levels, engaged in a workshop schedule that they have chosen. The school community is infused with new faces and people who are passionate about what they are presenting. Energy is high because there’s no homework that week, and the new pace of learning hardly makes it feel like learning. The change in the normal schedule inspires spontaneity: music breaks out at lunchtime, hula hoops revolve, and local, organic food graces the lunch line while students chat with visiting speakers. This is school, but during times like these, it feels like a lot more; it’s a community within a community. The connections that are made during this week inspire the students and staff to recommit not only to our own health, but the health of our community, and it shows. The sparks of Health Week set fires glowing all over the place.

The Compass School Compass School is an independent school in Westminster, Vermont, designed around CES principles to be a model for choice in public education, working within the public school tuition rates and serving students regardless of economic need or prior academic record. In its ninth year, Compass serves a diverse population of approximately 90 students in grades seven through 12 with a staff of 15. Through the development of a strong, caring school community, an active, place-based, real-world curriculum, and meaningful community service, Compass provides a personalized educational option for students in our rural area.

Lauren Beigel is a seventh and eighth grade Humanities teacher in her second year at The Compass School. She is also the faculty point person for Compass’ student-led Judiciary, and is passionate about helping students to find healthy releases in their lives, especially through writing, exercise, and time outdoors.