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FOCUS ON EDUCATION (JULY 2016): Student project to help shape curriculum on mental health

July 25th, 2016 · No Comments

Warrior Within driven by students, staff, and mentors

By Marielle Torrefranca

A student-driven short film project is being used to inspire a school curriculum regarding positive mental health for youth.

The initiative, titled Warrior Within, is run mostly by students and alumni of the University of Toronto Schools (UTS). The project involves using art, metaphor, and imagery to engage students in understanding stress and anxiety, as well as developing their own resilience.

“There simply aren’t enough mental health resources for adolescents in Ontario”—Deanna Kim, student, UTS

Currently, the team consists of about a dozen students and is still open to growth. Students are taking on roles like acting, cinematography, directing, and musical scoring, and have access to a handful of professional mentors for one-on-one guidance. Mentors come from a variety of schools, and specialize in drama, dance, English, art, and photography.

The film and its facets will go on to inspire a curriculum based on creativity and art.

It will be a curriculum made by students for students, said Catherine Wachter, a guidance counsellor at UTS who is spearheading the initiative.

Wachter was inspired by her work as a guidance counsellor, which involves looking for engaging material to help her teach social, emotional, and mental health in the classroom.

“I really struggle at finding that sort of thing,” she said. “So I wanted to do a couple of things: use art to engage students’ emotions in the classroom, because then they can really relate to their own experience, but also use the student voice, because peers, I find, really, really listen to peers.”

Deanna Kim, a grade 11 student at UTS, will work alongside filmmakers and create art of her own that is related to the film, which will be used in conjunction with the curriculum.

“I have actually fought with mental illness myself,” said Kim, who sought treatment in Boston.

“There simply aren’t enough mental health resources for adolescents in Ontario,” she said. “I’m very very, lucky and privileged to have parents who were able to pay for that. But I know that definitely not all adolescents can afford to have that experience.

“I really want to help work with Warrior Within in order to communicate these sorts of strategies to people who might need them the most and might be facing barriers toward treatment.”

Mia Sanders, who graduated from UTS this year and is also creating visual art for the initiative, said the usual recommended coping techniques, such as trying to relax, don’t quite match the reality of what treatment is needed.

“We learn about or experience things like yoga and breathing in relation to mindfulness in school, which are really important parts of it…but there is so much more beyond that in terms of being able to observe your emotions and create this distance between feeling something and reacting to it,” said Sanders. “It can be quite a difficult and rigorous process.”

This is just some of the background that will drive the curriculum, which will be developed starting in January. With the guidance of Wachter and other students, Ben Swadron, a University of Toronto student, UTS alum, and aspiring teacher, will assist in the development of educational materials that can accompany the film in the classroom.

“We’re going to use everything,” said Wachter. “For example, it might be like ‘Okay, let’s look at this photograph series that Naomi [a student on the team] took of her response to the stress that we were talking about…. Let’s use that in conjunction with this little scene, plus this creative writing piece from Jonah, plus this art piece from Deanna.’”

So far, Warrior Within has been warmly received. At press time, the initiative’s Indiegogo campaign has raised $15,400, with donors from as far as California.

There’s still a long way to go, though, especially since Wachter hopes to renew the project every year. The campaign has set a fundraising goal of $45,000 to cover shooting costs, workshops for students, post-production, and educational mentors.

Leftover funds will be used to organize a celebratory gala and exhibition, where the film is expected to premiere next spring.

Shooting of the short film begins this month.

Listen to Marielle Torrefranca’s full interview with Catherine Wachter.

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