The Neglected Heart – A Letter to Myself

This week’s guest blog post comes from my good friend, and fellow National Health Teacher of the Year, Andy Horne, aka The Scholarly Rapper. Working along side Andy gives me the opportunity to see a passionate and innovative educator at first hand. His drive to be awesome on a daily basis motivates me to continue improving my teaching.

Background Story

When I was a senior in high school, I remember my English teacher having us write a letter to ourselves and he mailed it to us nearly four years later to our home address. Looking back, I do not recall much of what was in that letter, but I do remember the feeling of surprise and gratitude when I opened it up and read it.  I was close to college graduation and I remember thinking to myself how much I had changed and grown as a person during the last four years.  It was another chance for me to reflect on my life, to see where I had been, where I was, and where I wanted to go.

The Hook or Provocation

As health teachers, we want our students to become health literate by developing the skills necessary to make consistently “more healthy” than “less healthy” decisions over their lifetime. I wanted my students to think about the influence peer pressure has on their decision-making and whether or not they truly do (or will do) what is “most healthy” for them despite pressure to do something that could harm their health.  So, I created a Scholarly Rap called “Healthy Conscience” (music and theme based on Eminem and Dr. Dre’s song “Guilty Conscience”) that I performed in class using three scenarios to depict risky health behavior moments that could present themselves to high school and college students.

  1. Being offered your first beer at a party
  2. Thinking about ‘hooking up’ with a risk of not having consent
  3. Being offered your first “hit” of marijuana

You know those moments we still have as adults, where that internal “good” voice tells you what you should do, but it’s not always so easy because of the tempting internal “bad” voice and the pressure from peers. Yes, adults often succumb to peer pressure too! Check out the live video (above) captured in class of my Healthy Conscience performance and view the lyrics here.

What My Students Do

In today’s fast-paced world in which we live and all the “noise” that we consume each day, I wanted to recreate a similar experience for my students so that they could have at least one moment where they could slow down and do an honest “self-check-in.” – in a safe environment while they were in a clear state of mind and felt no peer pressure.  So, at the end of each semester, I do an activity in health class called “The Neglected Heart – A Letter To Myself.”  It is a chance for students to self-reflect and it gives them a chance to take a moment, pause, and think about their current life, beliefs, and values as it particularly relates to many of the topics we have discussed in health class. I tell students this is a letter for you. I say something to the effect of, “This letter is not an assignment, there is no grade attached, and I will never know what you write because you will seal it in an envelope and I will give it back to you as you get ready to graduate high school.”  

Self-Reflection Writing Prompts

I try to provide some structure to the activity and give students various writing prompts that they could think about and reflect on.  Some of the prompts include:

  • What values are most important to you?
  • What areas of your life do you never want to change?
  • Evaluate the current state of any component(s) of your own health (physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual, etc.)
  • What are some big decisions that you might have to make in the next few years?
  • What kind of role do your peers have in influencing your decisions, particularly on health-enhancing behaviors and/or risky health-behaviors?
  • What are the most important things to remember in a dating relationship?
  • What goals (health, academic, personal, etc.) do you have for yourself?
  • These are my 3 best friends…and this is why they are my friends today…
  • Things your are looking forward to about being in high school…  Things you are dreading…
  • These are two qualities I like about myself…
  • These are two things I would like to change about myself…
  • These are my views on tobacco and alcohol…
  • This is my view on being abstinent before marriage…
  • What kind of reputation do you want to have among your friends?
  • What kind of relationship do you want to have with your parents?
  • Which person has had the most influence on your life to this point?  (Tell why)
  • What kind of music do you enjoy listening to?  Top 3 songs right now?
  • What advice would you give to your future self that seems wise now?
  • If I could make a change to improve the quality of my present health, it would be…

Fun Twists

In addition to the letter, students can also include…

  • A small item or token that will make them smile when they open the envelope
  • A small amount of money or gift card (yes, they love getting a surprise letter in addition to money they totally forgot about!)
  • Other fun predictions about the future pertaining to their own life or current events

Feedback from Students

While I do not hear from the majority of my former students, every year I have at least 5-10 students who stop me in the hallway informing me they got the letter and telling me what their letter meant to them.  There is always a smile on their face and they typically cannot believe how much they have changed and grown during the last few years.  Some students express a bit of disappointment because they wish they would have taken the activity more seriously and written more.  I always try to emphasize this with students when they write their letter.  If they take the activity seriously and put some honest thought into it, they will be glad they did when they open it 2-3 years later.  Those students who breeze through it, tend to regret their decision years later.  

Some students even email me their reactions.  Below are a some responses from students.

“It’s ________! I just received my letter from myself from 2015! I want to say thank you so much for having this assignment for us! I just read it and my day is starting off so well because it’s great to read back at on the things of the past, and see how at least for me they have stayed the same since. Thank you so much again for the assignment! I very much support and encourage this letter assignment to be given every year!  Thank you!”

“I just wanted to say thank you for sending me my sophomore year health letter!  It was really interesting to look back and see how I thought about my life and my future at that time. I have changed a lot over the years for the better and it is great to see the ways that I have changed.  Thanks again for sending the letter and all of the things you taught me in your class!

P.S. I really enjoyed getting a $5 bill that I put in the envelope also!”

Try this Twist!

I was fortunate enough to see Chad Dauphin and Tom Loew (two great health teachers at Stevenson HS in Lincolnshire, IL) present an activity at an IAHPERD Conference (Illinois) called “Giving Your Best Advice.”  It is a great summative assessment and extremely powerful reflection tool.  Essentially, they have their students video record themselves giving advice to a family member or close friend about important things to remember when it comes to mental/emotional health.  They make a 3 minute PSA video that they could share with important people in their life.

An excerpt from their assignment…

“Imagine an individual very close to you (parent, friend, sibling, cousin, etc…) is dealing with a stressful situation. Using what you have learned throughout this first unit on Wellness, what are some positive strategies you can suggest they use to cope? What can and should they do to maintain mental wellness and happiness? Investigate different coping strategies; stress relief methods; and self-help strategies using your school and outside resources. Health is a skill, it’s time to help by giving them the best advice you have to offer.”

Here’s the best part…once the students submit the video, Chad and Tom tell them that this video is for them.  It is a tool they can use and watch when their mental/emotional health needs a “power up”.  How powerful is that!?  Yes, they can still share the video with a family member or friend, but what a great way to stimulate self-reflection.  It will always be there for them and the content will live outside the walls of the classroom.

Reflection Questions for You to Consider

Q1. How do you get your students to self-reflect in your health class?

Q2. What is one “go-to” reflection assessment or activity you have students do?

Q3. What strategies do you use to reflect on your own teaching?  How often do you do it?

Q4. How does self-reflection develop our self-efficacy?

Q5. When was the last time you honestly had a “self-check-in” and paused to see where you were in your life?

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