German studies department implements wellness curriculum into introductory classes

The initiative reflects research that finds that emotional health supports academic learning.

by Ben Fagell | 1/13/23 5:10am

1-12-23-emilliden-germ
by Emil Liden / The Dartmouth

In December, the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning awarded the German studies department a $5,000 grant to implement the German Foreign Language Offering Well-being initiative in all introductory classes after a successful pilot of the program during the fall term.

The wellness curriculum integrates mental health-related activities and instruction into GERM 1, 2 and 3 — all titled “Introductory German” — as a direct response to an “unprecedented” increase in mental health crises across college campuses, according to German language program director Nicolay Ostrau.

The German FLOW initiative serves “to recognize where barriers to mental wellbeing are coming from — social factors and personal life choices — then to mediate them or remediate those that would negatively affect [one’s] life,” Ostrau said.

According to Ostrau, the grant will fund the creation of a website for German course students containing articles on wellness, a virtual platform with recorded interviews from German experts on mental health and a teaching assistant position that will, for example, translate mindfulness exercises from English to German.

German studies professor Heidi Denzel said she incorporated several of these exercises into her GERM 3 class during the pilot period in the fall. In one activity that relies on positive self-talk and the value of repetition, students recite the mantra “I am strong; I am smart; I will find solutions” in German.

“For me, all the exercises that I’m doing [in class] have a linguistic component,” Denzel said. “It’s not esoteric breathing and being silent for 20 minutes. If they do that [after class], that’s great, but that’s not what I will do in my classroom. Everything is related to language.”

Denzel also partnered with the Student Wellness Center to integrate meditation into her class. SWC director Caitlin Barthelmes wrote in an email statement that students in Denzel’s class practiced Gatha meditation, a short poem that is recited concurrently with mindful breathing to deepen awareness. She added that the exercises, completed in German, helped students practice German pronunciation and grammar.

Denzel said she is experimenting with exercises involving a gratitude journal and a mood journal but has made these activities optional because she does not want to “force a wellness initiative on the students.”

“I don’t want to just open up Pandora’s Box and overwhelm [students],” Denzel said. “We have to find a way not to tiptoe around and walk on eggshells all the time, but we have to [also] make sure that we create safe spaces in the classroom.”

Ostrau noted that the German FLOW initiative also extends to drill sessions — an additional series of classes in which students practice language pronunciation and grammar in small groups. In the fall, drill instructors experimented with a five-minute mindfulness exercise to reduce anxiety. Now, they lead the exercise at the end of the session rather than the beginning to avoid making students calm to the point of sleepiness.

Despite its small sample size, the majority of students surveyed after the pilot program participants stated their belief in the benefits of these wellbeing practices, according to Barthelmes.

“We know from the literature that incorporating these practices in the classroom can create a supportive classroom environment and can enhance learning,” Barthelmes said. “But it was really exciting to see that that was in fact the experience of the students in this class.”

Ostrau added that the introductory language classes are “perfectly positioned” for addressing subjects that relate to personal wellbeing since the topics addressed in the classes can easily be geared toward wellness. For example, Ostrau said he led a discussion with his students on nutrition, interspersing expert interviews and his own experiences.

“All of us on campus want to feel better,” Ostrau said. “The question is how and what [we can] do on a daily basis. And it’s really more about ‘the practical’ at the end of the day when we talk about beginning language classes.”

According to Barthelmes, the initiative capitalizes on students’ dedication to their academic success and addresses the lack of time they would normally have to devote to out-of-class wellbeing practices.

“We know that these practices have so many benefits for our emotional health, and we also know that not every student has the time or interest to walk into one of our mindfulness drop-ins or explore the Headspace app or go to a program in which they could learn these skills,” Barthelmes said. “So, we can bring these wellbeing practices to them where they are learning.”

Barthelmes noted the bidirectional relationship between academic success and emotional health, and said that the initiative works to improve both simultaneously.

“[For] students who aren’t feeling well, it is very difficult to perform their best in the classroom,” Barthelmes said. “And we also know [that] when students are struggling academically [it] can really have a negative impact on their mental and emotional health. To find ways to introduce these skills can have this elevating effect … [an] opportunity for benefit across the board.”

As the initiative continues to expand, Barthelmes said she hopes it will find its way to other language departments insofar as it can meet the students’ and the professors’ needs.

“We just always believe in starting small and growing up so that we can learn and refine,” Barthelmes said.

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