Two students at the front of a classroom balance on one leg and hold their hands above their head. Students with their backs to the camera do the same in the foreground.
VCU Honors College students Arya Kalathil (left) and Simrah Ansari (right) lead students in the WHAM (Wellness, Happiness and Mindfulness) class at Open High School in some yoga moves. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

In VCU Honors College, students get teaching and tutoring experience through partnership with Richmond public high school

Now in its eighth year, the Open-Honors Connect program enhances undergraduate learning while expanding course offerings for the city school system.

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Each week, Arya Kalathil looks forward to Thursday. For one hour that day, she’s not an undergraduate student: She’s a teacher.

Kalathil, a junior in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Honors College, helps high school students learn about well-being and mindfulness through Open-Honors Connect, a partnership with Open High School in Richmond. Now in its eight year, the program places Honors students in the city school system’s alternative high school to lead enrichment elective courses and tutoring services. 

Open-Honors Connect was developed in 2017 by associate professor Mary Boyes to engage with local schools through education, and in the current semester, Honors students are teaching six electives at Open High. The courses, taught once a week for one hour in person, cover medical ethics, sports statistics, arts, computers and health, as well as WHAM – well-being, happiness and mindfulness.  

Kalathil, who is double-majoring in psychology and sociology in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, co-teaches the WHAM course with fellow Honors junior Simrah Ansari. WHAM is supervised by Christy Tyndall, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Honors College and student well-being program coordinator. The curriculum for the WHAM Open-Honors Connect course is based on Tyndall's HONORS 150 course. For Kalathil and Ansari, their class’s engagement with the subject is one of the biggest rewards. 

“It makes me really happy to see our students get excited over an activity,” Kalathil said. “Some of the topics we cover in WHAM are not the most comfortable ones. Some deal with mental health, and students can at first be deflective and not want to engage. But when I get to see our students get excited about an assignment or activity in WHAM, I really can see that they are interested in learning healthful skills for their current and future selves.”   

WHAM focuses on mental health and how to improve personal well-being while discussing elements of positive psychology, physical health, nutrition, personal values and goal-setting. Activities include a nature walk in Hollywood Cemetery, which borders the high school’s Oregon Hill neighborhood, and weekly meditation sessions that start each class. 

Lojy Hozyen, a sophomore Honors student majoring in bioinformatics in VCU Life Sciences, is teaching  the elective Art, Computers and Global Health. She said Open-Honors Connect has strongly complemented her own VCU classes on subjects such as biology, statistics and computer science. 

“Teaching this course really offers me the opportunity to really understand what it is that I am doing in terms of my major,” Hozyen said. “I apply concepts in my VCU coursework every day, but when you teach it, you have to get a deeper understanding of it to be able to simplify it. It engages me with my major and helps me understand it in a different sense. I think the best way to learn is to teach.” 

She aims to engage her Open High students in ways that other more traditional classes might not. One example was a recent assignment that asked students to graph diseases using marshmallows and construction paper to teach data visualization as an art form. Each class ends with an exercise where students are asked, through an art form, to detail what they have learned that day.  

“I hope that my class can excite these students – through learning some technical skills and also engaging through creative projects – about being inquisitive and about research,” Hozyen said.  

Saskia Price, the electives coordinator at Open High, said the courses taught by Honors students allow the high-schoolers to explore academic interests that might not be covered in depth in their core coursework. 

“A lot of the elective courses that are offered through the program connect and cater to our student body’s interests already,” Price said. “Students are excited to engage in these courses’ offerings because the courses are so complementary to what we are already offering them in their other courses. It helps them take courses that cover their more niche academic interests.”  

Open-Honors Connect initially focused on meeting a need for tutoring among Open High students. Eventually, the idea for Honors students to student-teach elective courses and plan the curriculum in collaboration with Open High instructors and administration was folded into the program, which continues to offer tutoring in disciplines such as math, biology, chemistry, English, computer science and Spanish. 

Elizabeth Fewell, an Honors junior majoring in psychology, said serving as a tutor through Open-Honors Connect over the past five semesters has helped her as well as her students. 

“This program really is one of my favorite things I have been able to volunteer with while at VCU,” she said. “It allows me to build relationships with Open students and help them through assignments, and it helps me gain a better understanding of the Richmond community outside of VCU.” 

Boyes, who established Open-Honors Connect, said seeing the program grow over eight years in a long-standing partnership between Honors students and Open High has been rewarding.

“Open-Honors Connect allows for a great deal of autonomy and lets our students operate as professionals,” Boyes said. “I am wowed by the variety and complexity of the courses our students invent, design and deliver. I love how much excitement and energy VCU students bring to the table.”