Ana Orozco’s Lynwood High School students had been feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and bored in the midst of quarantine and distance learning. She knows this because she has been checking in with them about their social, emotional, and mental health through regular class assignments that she designed to promote self-awareness. Orozco’s approach centers on a sentipensante, which she explained “originates from the words sentir/feel or sense and pensar/thoughts where the goal is to connect the two.”
While Orozco, a world history and cultural studies teacher, had been intentionally supporting her students’ social and emotional health before the pandemic, now that Californians are sheltering in place, she has ramped up this focus considerably. To check in with her students, Orozco began asking them to report on their feelings about being in quarantine. Discovering that her students’ stress levels are especially high right now, Orozco developed a list of self-care activities for her them to practice. Each week she assigns students to choose two ways to practice self-care and to write about their experiences, or to create a video or photographs and describe them.
Orozco’s student’s sentipensantes are authentic, vulnerable, emotional, and contain joy. “They are practicing new things, they have never done in the past” Orozco reflected, “and are enjoying them.” One student who painted a picture of a sunset reported: “I love sunsets and while doing this painting it made me feel very calm and collect[ed]. I also did a sunset in a beach because it expresses how open and free one can feel on a beach. No rules, no being locked up in the house, breeze on your face while your mind follows the wind.” Another student photographed skin-care products and explained the multi-step face masks that they apply in an attempt to clear their acne. Dancing, movie watching, video-game playing, meditating, walking pets, baking (one student made a beautiful strawberry cake), and exercising have taken on a new level of importance for these teens who are gaining reassurance that their ways of practicing self-care are valid and appropriate as ways to cope with this era of uncertainty.
While some students expressed frustration about being cooped up with many relatives under one small roof, others found happiness in the closeness by doing small things like braiding their siblings’ hair. Explaining the creativity and calm in braiding hair, the student remarked, “I just follow my instincts, I guess, and just follow the flow. I enjoy seeing what the finishing style turns out.” Orozco’s students are finding their voices and identities in new ways right now.
Using their voices to reflect on their feelings and daily life is an especially appropriate use of time in the midst of the pandemic, according to Orozco. It’s made all the more possible “because we do not have as much rush when it comes to covering everything in the curriculum and teach to the test.” A silver lining to distance learning is certainly having the ability to slow down and try Sentipensante, which she learned from the Latin American Studies program at CSULA. Moreover, given the uneven access to technology, internet, and learning resources, Orozco explained that her school district initially discouraged teachers from covering new content because not all students would have access to it. These activities provide a lifeline for students to connect with their teacher, see their peers in new ways, and ask for help.
Daniel Diaz, the UCLA History Project Director, explained the special connections that Orozco has found with her students. In this uncertain time in life, now more than ever is it essential for teachers to be “considerate of their students’ well-being beyond teaching the content.” Ultimately, Orozco hopes that her students’ sentipensantes are not just personal records of how they experienced the pandemic. She hopes to expand this into a broader digital project so that their reflections will be collectively recorded and memorialized. More than anything, Orozco hopes that through this assignment, and through the kind of personal discovery that the pandemic could foster “a better support for our students and our community at a human level, where we care for each other.” Attending to her students’ senses of self is a powerful way to make meaning and find connection right now.