Warrior Within – Innovating Mental Health Curriculum

Smiling woman with long blonde hair in olive green top and denim jeans

Guest Post by: Catherine Wachter, Guidance Counselor at University of Toronto Schools

The Innovation Hub envisions a seamless student experience, one where students feel well prepared for their future academically and personally. Unfortunately, poor mental health is an overwhelming barrier to student success. Students report feeling stressed and anxious about school work, and often struggle to find a healthy balance between academics and their personal life. 

Warrior Within (www.warriorwithin.ca) is a project that centres around the creation of a fictional short film (shot in July, 2016) that uses metaphor and imagery to help engage students in their understanding of stress, anxiety and resilience. This film has inspired a student-created curriculum that will be an open source resource for educators. 

Group photo of students smiling and holding hands out in "W" sign

As a guidance counsellor, I’m continually looking for resources to use for teaching lessons on social and emotional learning. While I start my search with optimism, I soon become frustrated at what, I believe, are the lack of creative and emotionally stimulating available resources. I know that if I put up a video that isn’t engaging, I lose my students in 30 seconds, or if I don’t find creative ways to deliver a lesson, or ignite the emotions of youth in my classroom, I don’t have as much success with delivering an impactful learning experience. So, last summer I decided that I would create a resource for myself and other educators that could be used in the classroom. My idea was simple: to make a short film that was heavy in imagery and metaphor, reflecting the themes of stress, anxiety and resilience. From my experience as a drama teacher and counsellor, using art to evoke emotions in the classroom is incredibly efficacious in engaging students in their learning to a heightened level.

Student being filmedStudents setting up in front of a pool

And the project evolved from there. After speaking to a couple of students about perhaps working on the short film, I realized that there was potential for others to gain catharsis and empowerment through working in other chosen mediums of art. And what a powerful four-day retreat that would become, having students all working individually to make sense of their struggles, yet acting as empaths and inspirations for one another. So, what started as simply making a professional short film for the classroom, quickly turned into a creative retreat where 11 students, all working under the mentorship of educators or professionals in their field, connected their mental health experiences to their artistic expressions. We had students working in the areas of: directing, cinematography, photography, painting, music composition, documentary, social media and creative writing.

Now onto the last phase – curriculum building. This is where this project gets really exciting. Rather than taking this short film and working alone, creating lesson plans that I believed would really hit home, I thought – we need students to take the lead on this.  Why? Because students want to hear from their peers. They want to understand that what they are going through is normal. They want their own voices to be validated and heard.  So, what better way to do this than having students creating the curriculum to go alongside this film? I also have done research in the past two years that truly indicated that the peer-to-peer experience in ‘teaching’ holds incredible weight.

So, that is where we are at right now. The film was cut into 13 minutes of imagery and music (no dialogue, one actor) and since the New Year, our student curriculum-building team has met weekly. By the end of this school year, 6 lesson plans will have been created by students and packaged by students on an interactive, open source website.  

I attend these sessions each week and am amazed at how these students are so invested in this process. Their desire to help other students like themselves is admirable. Their desire to have their voices heard is loud and clear.They are becoming empowered change makers of their own futures and of the lives of other teenagers like themselves. I am truly humbled to be a part of their story.

A Toronto Star Article on Warrior Within: https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2017/03/20/teens-draw-on-experience-to-create-mental-health-program-for-high-schools.html

An interview with students on Global News: http://globalnews.ca/video/3059214/how-youth-can-awaken-the-warrior-within

To celebrate the work of Warrior Within, from inception to completion, we are hosting a Gala for our student contributors on Wednesday, May 17th at the Isabel Bader Theatre!  Tickets are $20 and can be bought at the door or on our website www.warriorwithin.ca


A poster that says "Warrior Within" and lists event information

Please help us spread the word!

We would like as many in attendance as possible, so that our students’ contributions to positive mental health resources for youth are fully validated.

Catherine is passionate about art and education – and the intersection between the two. She completed a theatre degree at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (NYC) and then pursued acting in New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto. While Catherine has pursued many artistic endeavours over the years, she also completed an Undergraduate and Masters’ degree in history, as well as a Bachelor of Education at OISE, University of Toronto (U of T).

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