Brooklyn

Teaching real-life superpowers in the classroom

Students at Champlain School learn to use compassion, empathy, and social justice to battle mental health challenges

Teaching real-life superpowers in the classroom - United Way Winnipeg

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Batman. Black Panther. Wonder Woman. The Hulk. Equinox.

Haven’t heard of the last one? 10-year-old Brooklyn can tell you about her.

“Equinox is brave. She stands up for what’s right, so kids could have a safe school. So when Equinox is eating lunch and looks down, she doesn’t have to worry about mice running around, like she used to,” said Brooklyn. “And she went all that way to stick up for her school and have the right to go to school.”

Equinox is a superhero in DC Comics’ Justice League. The character is based on the real-life story of Shannen Koostachin, a 13-year-old Indigenous girl who sought justice by travelling from her remote Cree community, to stand on the steps of Parliament Hill and fight for equitable education funding for her community.

Brooklyn’s teacher, Ms Catherine Siller, teaches her students about Shannen to help them learn more about Indigenous history and also as part of the Thrival Kit™ curriculum, where kids can create their own superhero, or choose an existing one.

“In our classroom, we use Equinox as our superhero, since we’re really focusing on social justice issues and building empathy and perseverance,” said Ms Siller. “A lot of the students see themselves in her. Someone who looks like them* and someone they can get inspiration from. We brainstorm about things that are going on in our city, our country, our world. It motivates kids to think about things they can do in their own communities.”

Thrival Kits™ was developed in 2017-18 through a partnership between the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), a United Way Winnipeg donor-supported agency partner, and the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, in collaboration with Manitoba teachers. The curriculum was developed to promote mental health strategies in the classroom for students in grades 4-6.

In addition to the superhero theme, two of many powerful tools Ms Siller said she uses in her Thrival Kit curriculum teaching are mindfulness and meditation.

Teaching real-life superpowers in the classroom - United Way Winnipeg

“It’s hard to feel pride when your classrooms are cold, and the mice run over your lunches. It’s hard to feel like you have a chance to grow up and be someone important when you don’t have proper library resources and science labs. You know that other kids in other communities have proper schools. So you begin to feel as if you are a child who doesn’t count for anything.” – Shannen Koostachin

“When we first started using the kits, we’d start every morning with mindfulness and meditation for about 10-15 minutes,” said Ms Siller. “We would sit on yoga mats, and I would guide them through their practice, using a script that was provided. Eventually a lot of kids started making it their own, listening to their music and self-regulating their breathing.”

Ms Siller said mindfulness and meditation are about taking those moments for yourself, to centre yourself, and get yourself ready.

”We talk a lot about the mind-body connection, and how it’s easy to go from calm to angry but not as easy to go from angry to calm,” she said.

For a lot of kids, she said it’s a real lightbulb moment when they realize it’s okay to feel and react a certain way, and it’s also fine to take the time and use tools to decompress.

“Meditation may not get rid of the problem, but it takes the heaviness away, and it makes things more clear,” said Ms Siller. “Maybe there’s some tension at home, but they can better understand where it’s coming from and understand other people’s anger as well. We’re building empathy together bigtime.”

“It makes me look forward to morning,” Brooklyn said. “If I feel upset, I have something to hope for and be happy about. And it’s taught me more about mindfulness and how people feel.”

As part of the curriculum, each student receives their own Thrival box, including a journal.

“It’s a way to get their feelings out,” said Ms Siller. “It’s a a tool to help get their feelings out. And they’re encouraged to write little notes and quotes for inspiration.”

The box also includes a rock, which students hold in their hands, and when it gets warm, they can start thinking, in a mindful way, about the negative things that are bothering them. Students are also encouraged to fill up their boxes with items that mean something to them.

Not every school has access to the kits, but Brooklyn hopes one day they will.

“Maybe if they learn how other people feel, there won’t be any more school fights or bullying,” she said. “Since they’d know how it would feel.”

*Approximately 60% of students at Champlain School are Indigenous.

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