A little history. The Franciscan School wanted change in the 2017/18 school year. Students in middle school would traditionally rotate through music, art, and drama classes by trimester as their electives. However, the principal at the time, Mike Watson, proposed faculty-led electives covering a variety of interests that the students could self-select. The faculty embraced the effort, and classes like acrylic painting, band, creative writing, yoga, and more became new options for middle school students.
Now fast forward to this year. One of the new electives offered this school year at TFS is Girl’s F.I.R.E. What exactly is FIRE? Friendship, Independence, Respect, and Empowerment are the characteristics found in the acronym and are the goals of the elective. “The focus,” as instructors Melissa Bulick (Walsh) and Beth Gaudette convey, “is social-emotional learning; we will empower the girls to grow in leadership, confidence, and self-compassion. We will complete various activities, including guest speakers, journaling, and service projects. As a group, we will learn about self-care and how to use our strengths to give back to our TFS community.” Beth is a licensed clinical social worker and obtained her Master’s in Social Work at NC State. She recently held the Director of Parish Life role at St. Francis of Assisi but has moved on to an outside position, yet she remains an integral part of the community. Melissa is the 7th grade English/Language Arts teacher at TFS and is an alumnus of the school. Both jumped at the chance to offer a girls’ empowerment and leadership elective when the opportunity arose this past summer. However, how and why would it be focused on girls? Why it would focus on girls would be because there was a cohort of girls who lost the yoga elective. The yoga teacher left, and although yoga was not limited to girls, it was an elective taken solely by girls. This change meant that the class could be all girls and allowed for creating a girl-focused elective.
The elective was popular with students, and the teachers were excited about how things went through the first two trimesters. “They’ve bought in,” says Melissa when she reflects on the student’s attitude. Beth agreed, saying, “I worried about buy-in, but they are usually very engaged.” They have invited speakers into class to discuss wellness-holistic fitness and joyful movement, and body positivity through the lens of faith, including the concept of ‘Imago Dei.’ This term, ‘Imago Dei,’ refers most fundamentally to two things, according to Christianity.com: first, God’s self-actualization through humankind, and second, God’s care for humanity. Melissa summarizes, “You are the image of Christ, and what does that look like?” In this concept, Melissa and Beth can have conversations with the girls during middle school, which is a time when often “they don’t like themselves.” This Imago Dei concept allowed discussions that covered all four characteristics outlined in the class acronym, F.I.R.E. “How do others benefit by each being your best self and respecting others? What are methods to flip negative thoughts to neutral or positive?” Both teachers mentioned that these questions allowed for the growth of friendship and respect among the students. They teach them how to frame messages respectfully, not be emotional, handle things maturely, and teach respect to peers and adults. They do this through games and exercises, such as the ‘Kind or Trash’ game or the ‘I don’t want to be your friend anymore’ conflict resolution exercise. “It isn’t always easy, and conflict resolution was tough,” said Melissa, “We gave them scenarios that didn’t always have an easy answer.” But, she continued, “They want to have the opportunity to rise to the occasion. They take it seriously if we tell them it’s a mature topic. I wouldn’t say that any activity they tried didn’t work.”
This independence and empowerment led directly to the student’s interest in impacting communities inside and outside the school. One speaker from “A Place at The Table” [ https://tableraleigh.org/ ] discussed concepts found in Catholic Social Teaching. The discussion of human dignity during the talk inspired some girls to volunteer on the weekend, providing an example of their ‘faith in action.’ When the speaker from “Saving Grace” [ https://savinggracenc.org/ ] came, it was, as Melissa says, “the highlight of care for creation…with dogs.” The class then took it upon themselves to do a fundraiser for the dog rescue organization. The girls completely ran the fundraiser and did all the logistical planning, which according to Melissa, “frustrated us constantly because we wanted to do something. But they did a great job and were writing personal narratives on flyers and all sorts of stuff.” These service projects were incredibly impactful for the girls, and they did others as well. They did teacher appreciation for Catholic Schools Week and decorated doors, wrote cards for breast cancer month in October for people who had breast cancer, and did an art project for the homebound through the Homebound Ministry at the parish. The ‘faith’ aspect is important, but not as ‘up front’ as you may believe. Faith is exemplified in ‘Imago Dei,’ as discussed above, and through their hands-on service. The girls embraced it all!
When asked how they see the elective going forward, both want to continue the elective going into next year. When Beth and Melissa discussed the class in a presentation at the Home and School Association meeting, some suggested that it could become a club at school for all grades in an age-appropriate way. That thought intrigued Beth and Melissa. This year’s first trimester was mainly 6th graders, who were ‘high energy,’ said Beth. The 2nd trimester was mainly 7/8th graders. An after-school FIRE club could allow 7th and 8th graders to ‘peer lead’ and help students across all grades. Another potential proposal is intriguing as well. TFS is hiring another student counselor with a middle school focus; perhaps the 6th graders could take a counselor elective. Maybe this would allow the new counselor to build relationships with Middle School students starting in 6th grade each year and make “FIRE” a 7/8th grade elective. Many options exist, but Beth and Melissa want the ‘FIRE’ to keep burning!
Whatever shape it takes going forward, the thoughtfulness and engagement of this unique elective have proven to be a confidence builder for the girls and a great addition to the electives schedule in the TFS middle school. “Even the quiet ones, by the end of it because it’s a different structure, are very verbal and confident,” said Melissa. Demonstrating through example and experience to girls that they can also be capable and independent leaders will benefit them and all of us in the long run!
Author: Mike Watson