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An innovative pilot project combines language learning with wellness practice.
This fall, students in professor Heidi Denzel's introductory German class began each session with a guided meditation.
Denzel or a student volunteer would recite a short poem by mindfulness guru Thich Nhat Hanh translated into German and then lead a guided meditation on pronunciation, word order, listening comprehension, and breathing.
"For me it was important to let students know that if they don't want to focus on mindfulness, they can use this exercise to work on pronunciation and grammar," Denzel says. "Most students said that the meditations helped them calm down and switch from English to German."
As the phrases of the poem became shorter and shorter, participants turned their attention to their breathing. Students were then invited to open their eyes to indicate to Denzel when they wanted to start class.
The gentle combination of language learning and wellness practice is part of a new pilot project led by Denzel, a visiting associate professor of German studies, and Nicolay Ostrau, director of Dartmouth's German language program. Coined the German FLOW Initiative, the project integrates health and wellness activities into German language learning, with guidance and resources from Dartmouth's Student Wellness Center. ("FLOW" stands for "Foreign Language Offering Well-being.")
This month the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning awarded the project a grant to expand its wellness curriculum to all introductory German classes (German 1, 2, and 3). "Your project brings an innovative approach to language learning through students' own experiences," DCAL's award letter stated, "and promotes the overall wellness of the Dartmouth community."
"The increase in mental health crises across college campuses nationwide calls for collaborative and holistic ways of supporting students and faculty," says Department of German Studies chair Klaus Mladek. "I'm thrilled that more students will benefit from Heidi and Nick's innovative and accessible wellness curriculum."
"In their course evaluations our students reported that they viewed their German classes as a 'safe haven' where they can talk openly," Ostrau says. "We don't want or claim to be mental health professionals, but we can continue to educate ourselves and raise awareness of how mental health affects our sense of personal and communal well-being and our academic success in language learning."
Responding to Stressful Times
In the spring of 2021, when she was still teaching on Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Denzel noticed that her students increasingly struggled with stress. The pandemic challenged their sense of community, and for many students, exacerbated mental health problems.
"The topic of mental health came up very often in class and some of the students even chose to write their papers on it," she recalls. "As language instructors we easily flip into the role of nurturing parents because we talk about routines, feelings, and problems in a foreign language, according to the curriculum. I felt that we had to take a more active role in supporting our students' mental health."
Denzel wrote a letter to Dean of the College Scott C. Brown in July about a potential collaboration with the Student Wellness Center, and he connected her and Ostrau with Caitlin Barthelmes, director of the Wellness Center, and Laura Beth (LB) White, assistant director for well-being, who joined them for planning meetings last summer. The group collaborated on an updated curriculum for Denzel's fall German 3 class.
Through activities such as meditation, journaling, and conversation of wellness topics like time management and nutrition—all in German—the curriculum encourages healthy habits that do not require the presence of a mental health professional.
In one session, for example, students practiced a mindfulness exercise from the Student Wellness Center that involved savoring chocolate, in German.
In another class session, Barthelmes and White met with the class at the Bema, the picturesque amphitheater behind Dartmouth Hall, and led students in mindfulness exercises, including a "Stop to Recenter" practice to foster feelings of centeredness and calm.
"We are so excited about this collaboration because we know that integrating well-being practices into course curricula has the mutual benefit of creating a supportive environment that enhances students' ability to learn, while also exposing them to lifelong skills that support their mental and emotional health," says Barthelmes, who with other Dartmouth colleagues, has written about the relationship between learning and well-being.
Students were also offered many opportunities to practice wellness activities in German outside of class. They learned how to set German as their language on the Headspace app, a mindfulness app that Dartmouth provides to all students, faculty, and staff. And they were invited to listen to poems in German by Rainer Maria Rilke accompanied by music. Students were also took part in the department's "Mittagstisch," conversation in German over lunch at the '53 Commons Dining Hall.
A New Model for Language Learning
Barthelmes says that based on preliminary evaluation of the collaboration, students agreed that the integration of mindfulness and well-being practices helped mentally prepare them for class, focus better, be present, and enhanced their learning of German.
"Hearing this positive feedback from students motivates us to continue working with interested faculty to refine and expand these supportive practices in the classroom environment," Barthelmes says.
Denzel and Ostrau believe that language learning lends itself seamlessly to wellness activities.
All undergraduate students at Dartmouth have a language requirement, and language instructors see their students four times a week—"making it a perfect environment to introduce and practice healthy routines," Denzel says.
Additionally, language learning naturally fosters conversations about personal experiences. "Our students are regularly invited to talk about their personal lives and emotions," Ostrau says. "From how they slept and what they ate for breakfast to how they spent their afternoon and their weekend plans. These conversations offer regular opportunities to address matters of self-care such as maintaining food and sleep hygiene and setting personal boundaries."
Denzel also believes that learning a new language "may call up experiences from the time when we learned our first language. We cannot communicate fluently yet and that can bring up many emotions. So we invite students to leave self-conscious tendencies behind; they don't have to be perfect right away, they just have to practice until they get it right."
Denzel adds that "many of the language professors at Dartmouth grew up outside of the U.S., which can give us the special role of allies for our international and BIPOC students."
This month Denzel and Ostrau will take part in DCAL's Course Design Institute, where they'll finetune their approach to supporting students with learning accommodations.
As they expand the wellness curriculum to German 1 and 2 this winter and spring, Denzel and Ostrau plan to create new resources for German studies students and faculty. Denzel will lead the creation of an online resource on traditional and current wellness initiatives, strategies, and products in Germany, and Ostrau hopes to integrate wellness topics into the virtual chat application for beginning learners of German that he created, German Chatterbox 1.0.
Ultimately, they hope the German FLOW Initiative will inspire fellow language instructors at Dartmouth and beyond to integrate wellness into their curricula.
"We think this can be a model that will benefit both faculty and students," Denzel says.
Mental health support is available through Dartmouth 24/7 for students, faculty, and staff. Any Dartmouth student experiencing a mental health crisis can call the Counseling Center at 603-646-9442.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or use the online chat at 988.lifeline.org.