New last fall, Ronen Habib's course in Positive Psychology is a popular elective in its inaugural year.
At Palo Alto High School, English teacher Lucy Filppu's new class in the Literature of Comedy has attracted students from across the academic spectrum.
Though they launched their classes independently of one another, both Habib at Gunn and Filppu at Paly said they were motivated at least in part by a desire to elevate the mood on their campuses — to make high school a happier place.
"We're both heading in the same direction here," said Filppu, a former journalist now in her fifth year of teaching English at Paly.
"We're looking toward the brighter side and realizing that there's a lot of curriculum we can access. I didn't know Roni Habib well, but I felt a kindred spirit with him."
Both teachers conceived and proposed the new courses on their own — an option that a handful of Palo Alto teachers typically take advantage of each year.
In Gunn's Positive Psych class, students draw from texts with names like "Happier" and "The Happiness Advantage" and practice exercises from a 1992 book called "The Art and Practice of Loving." They discuss the life lessons imparted by a dying man in the 1997 best seller "Tuesdays with Morrie."
They begin class with three-minute mindfulness exercises, closing their eyes and focusing on breathing, for example. They write "gratitude letters" to people who have inspired them and learn to recognize — and challenge — the self-deprecating voices inside their own heads.
"A lot of Gunn kids focus so much on the future — college, graduate school — that we don't take the time to really think about our present happiness," said Gunn senior Jennifer Ekholm, who took the semester-long class last fall.
Studying Positive Psych, she said, helped her understand that "happiness is not something that we need to procrastinate or view as a future goal, but it is rather something that we can have right now.
"It was really inspiring to view happiness this way, and it is something that I think about whenever I'm stressed about the future."
Habib, who is guiding about 100 Gunn students through the curriculum this year, believes schools should teach skills to build emotional intelligence just as they teach math and literature.
"We assume that kids will know how to cheer themselves up or know how to be resilient, but I don't know why we assume that," said Habib, who in his decade-long career — most of it at Gunn — has taught math, accounting, social studies and economics.
"We don't assume, for example, that students will know how to solve trigonometric equations and so we teach that to them. Just as we teach them math, I think we need to teach them the skills that require emotional intelligence."
Indeed, Habib suggests that such skills could be even more important than the academic ones, citing research that links emotional intelligence with professional and personal success.
Habib's class in Positive Psychology was born out of tragedy at Gunn.
In May 2009 a student, Jean-Paul Blanchard, died by suicide, devastating the school and the entire Palo Alto community. Habib was asked to speak at his memorial service.
While feeling honored to be chosen, Habib said, delivering the eulogy was the "hardest thing I've ever had to do, personally or professionally." The ordeal also proved to be a catalyst for him as a teacher.
In shock and mourning himself, he thought, "'I want to do something to help kids at Gunn feel happier,'" he recalled.
"I fully understood that the situation was a lot more complex than kids just feeling stressed or feeling unhappy, but I figured: 'I'm not a therapist, and I'm not going to stop kids from doing (tragic) things to themselves, but I've got to do something.
"'Whatever I can do to help, I want to do it. I want to create a course that will really get kids to learn to love themselves, to learn to gain skills on how to become happier.'"
In the realm of "skills" for happiness, Habib had some personal history to draw from.
As an undergraduate economics major at the University of California at Santa Cruz a decade before, he'd taken a popular class called Personal Empowerment, still taught at Santa Cruz by retired chemistry professor Frank Andrews.
The class and professor had changed his life.
"I learned how important it is to be proactive about the mental space you're in," he recalled of the class. "I essentially learned how to be more optimistic, how to kind of snap out of episodes of being down for quite a long time."
Moreover, Andrews, author of "The Art and Practice of Loving" — which Habib now uses in his own class — became a mentor and friend.
Later, while Habib was studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he learned of the work of lecturer and writer Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches Harvard's immensely popular Positive Psychology class. Ben-Shahar was away from campus that year, but Habib audited the class on YouTube.
"What was powerful was that Ben-Shahar took sort of all the hippie fluff I learned at Santa Cruz — I actually believe it's really powerful stuff — and grounded it in academic research," Habib said. "That was powerful because all of a sudden I could say, 'Oh, this is an academic discipline, it's not just touchy-feely stuff.'"
Ben-Shahar and other writers on the "science of happiness" draw on research in psychology, organizational behavior, sociology, education and other fields.
The research proved especially useful years later, when Habib decided to propose a Positive Psych course at Gunn. He had to build a curriculum and get the requisite permissions — a process that took several years.
Administrators at Gunn, Superintendent Kevin Skelly and the Board of Education were "very supportive," he said, "but that was kind of the easy part."
A far larger challenge was securing recognition from the University of California so Gunn would be able to offer Positive Psych for credit toward UC's social studies entrance requirement.
"I was praying that somebody had gotten it UC-approved before, so I could just kind of take their ideas — but, no, it didn't exist, at least that I could find," Habib said. "I've talked with a lot of professors, and none of them knew of high schools that have had this as a class."
In the 30-page document Habib ultimately submitted to UC, he outlined the course purpose, a unit-by-unit explanation, a list of books, a long list of prospective projects and "instructional methods and strategies" that include class discussion, "think pair share," experiments, readings, note-taking, presentations and games.
He borrowed ideas from everywhere — including Rio Hondo Community College in Southern California, Harvard and a class offered to Google employees by engineer Chade-Meng Tan called Search Inside Yourself. The result, he said, is a course at Gunn similar to Google's — and quite like the class he took at Santa Cruz so many years ago.
"A huge piece of the course is giving self-permission to be human and really increasing your self-esteem," he said. "We talk about that a lot. A huge pillar of self-esteem is self-compassion. For some kids that's really, really hard, and for others it's a lot easier."
In one exercise, students are asked to work in pairs to examine the repetitive negative voices and all-or-nothing thinking that goes on inside their heads. For example, "I'm so fat; I look horrible" or "If I get a C on this math test I'm not going to go to college."
They write a 3-to 5-page paper in "the voice" and read it and reread it to their partners, who simply listen. Then readers and listeners reverse roles.
The exercise, says Habib, "has a powerful effect because it really diminishes the power of the voices, plus when the other person reads their letter they realize they're not crazy, that other people are dealing with (negative voices) too, and they feel supported and that's huge.
"Now, instead of having the cognitive distortions ruminate in their heads subconsciously or consciously ... they're able to actually observe it and make a choice whether they're going to buy into it, or say, 'This is crazy. I don't have to believe it.' That skill is huge."
Gunn students who have taken Positive Psych said the risk of confiding their self-doubts to classmates was daunting but paid off in unexpected ways.
"The most challenging part of the class for me was getting over the fear of being vulnerable in front of my classmates and being able to talk openly and honestly about personal things in my life," said senior David Dias, who took Positive Psychology last fall.
"One of the most unexpected parts ... was how close and comfortable I got with the other students."
Amy Chen, a Gunn junior, said keeping up with the daily journal requirement and opening up to classmates were tough, "but having others who were very open was helpful.
"There were many lessons I can take and apply to my own life, such as communicating better with others," Chen said. "I didn't expect to do so much meditation in the class and being driven out of my comfort zone — in a good way."
Among the activities that had a "great impact" on her, Chen said, "was when we had to share our 'inner voices' with a partner, which I felt was a really eye-opening experience."
Another highlight — and surprise — for Chen was the "gratitude letter" exercise.
"I thought my friends knew how much they really meant to me, but when I put it into words they were really affected," she said.
"Gunn desperately needed a course like Positive Psychology," senior Sally Yilma said.
"I am thankful that Mr. Habib took the risk and made it happen. He was totally open and real with us, and his passion for what he was teaching made us pay attention.
"By the end of the semester it felt like we had created an environment that was safe and nurturing, and I really hadn't expected to make these friendships and connections."
Habib had been working for many months to develop his new class at Gunn when Filppu, at Paly, stumbled on the thought of creating a Literature of Comedy class.
"The epiphany moment" for her, she said, came in 2012 as her sophomore English students were analyzing "The Night," Elie Wiesel's recounting of his horrific experience as a teenager in the Nazi death camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
"I thought: 'This is getting so heavy — we need a balance,'" Filppu said. "We'd read 'Macbeth,' 'Lord of the Flies' and 'The Night' and I thought: 'Everything we do is so dark. Teenagers, like all of us, need to see the lighter side.'"
Filppu tells students that "comedy and tragedy live much more closely together than we realize, and it's the human condition to look at both sides. That's why we laugh at funerals and cry at weddings."
Filppu views herself as "a person who likes to start things," having worked in New York on the startup team for TIME's magazine for kids as well as on the launch of a children's website.
She began searching the musty storage shelves of the English Department for lighter fare, finding some old Greek texts, Shakespeare comedies, Mark Twain and Flannery O'Connor.
She trolled the Web for ideas and stumbled across syllabuses from MIT, Northern Kentucky University, Southern New Hampshire University and Yale.
"I was thrilled when I started finding comedy literature at the university level — that was a huge break," she said. "I thought: 'They're doing what I want to do.' I started to think about what a Comedy Literature class at Paly could look like."
Filppu, who already taught Plato in her humanities class, wanted to start with the classics.
"Our earliest Stephen Colberts go back to the Greeks, this kind of flourishing world where comedians saw their opportunity to critique the societal and political norms and powers that be," she said.
Borrowing from everywhere, she devised a syllabus that contains more than 30 writers, including Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Twain, Palo Alto author Firoozeh Dumas ("Funny in Farsi"), David Sedaris, Chris Rock, Alice Walker, Steve Martin and Anne Lamott.
Students must write four essays, including an original satire as well as an original stand-up-comedy script or story. The course begins with students watching a segment of the TV show "Modern Family." Students must memorize and perform a monologue from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." The final exam is a performance of an original stand-up script.
"I'm a huge Shakespeare freak, and I think the power of having to memorize something challenging and difficult and do it in front of their peers gives (students) a boost and a sense of confidence," Filppu said.
With about 140 students this year, she said Comedy Lit has attracted "the wits of the campus — a lot of risk-taking, give-it-a-go kids willing to be playful in their learning."
The diversity of athletes, theater kids, academic stars and special-education students "feeds the comedy because you get all these different points of view," she said.
Student Katherine Craig took the class last fall, hoping it might add a touch of levity to her otherwise arduous junior-year course load.
"I thought I might need the funniness of Comedy Lit to keep me going," Craig said.
Until the class, she said, "The last time that I can truly remember a really uplifting book I read for school was probably "By the Great Horn Spoon!" in fourth grade."
Craig felt particularly challenged by the stand-up project since "typically I am not a hilariously funny person," she said. She was delighted when people laughed at her routine: a comparison of finals to bulimia — "because you binge on information and purge it out on a piece of paper, and the stress of finals is insanely unhealthy.
"That was a very good moment for me. This class (has) proven to me that I am not a totally serious stick-in-the-mud and that I am actually a funny person."
Paly senior Jessica Feinberg said the class helped her see comedy as a tool for "much more direct, canny and often more captivating" jabs at the establishment than the serious and "tedious" critiques she was accustomed to.
"It forced me to learn a new way to analyze and new terminology for how authors are able to express ideas," Feinberg said. "I was also exposed to some great contemporary comedians and have gained a better appreciation for their craft."
When she went to the Paly library for a book on Greek playwrights in connection with the class, she noticed it had not been checked out since 1986.
Paly senior Will Mendenhall said he appreciated Filppu's "alternative teaching methods," with heavy emphasis on performance.
"We had tons of opportunities to create our own comedies. It really taught me how clever and intelligent comedy can be," he said.
In gaining approvals to offer Literature of Comedy for credit, Filppu said she got strong backing from English Department chair Shirley Tokheim, then-Principal Phil Winston and school district officials. But earning the blessing of UC proved a stumbling block, and her initial application was rejected.
"They came back and said it needed more specificity," she recalled. She huddled with colleagues, took a look at Habib's successful UC proposal, and started over, writing "straight for four days," with Tokheim proofreading.
"That really helped me plan the class," she said.
She submitted it over last July Fourth weekend and secured quick approval the second time.
"I felt like a 'teacher-preneur,'" Filppu said.
"When so many teachers are scripted and forced into boxes based on standards and high-stakes testing and finances, I'm so grateful to the school district for treating its teachers almost like artists, and trusting us to create something fantastic that will serve our students."