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Personal safety is 'Power

The Power workshop at St. Helens Middle School educates students about self defense


SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Molly James, an eighth-grader, and Wendy VanWinkle, Autumn Bush and Keleigh Thomas, all seventh-graders sit around a table during the workshop on Tuesday, Oct. 27. Bush shared a journal entry that she wrote with the group. The school library at St. Helens Middle School is usually a quiet place. But, for the last month on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, it has been filled with excited conversations, group laughter and the occasional thud of a foam pad being hit by six students learning basic self defense and personal safety.

Led by school counselor Jill Griffin and language arts teacher Danielle Speiser, students enrolled in a girls empowerment workshop, called “Power,” spent the month of October learning about personal safety.

The students were instructed in everything from knowing how to be assertive and setting personal boundaries to trusting intuition and using verbal defense.

This is the second year Griffin and Speiser have been teaching the Power workshop to students at St. Helens Middle School. Both were trained by the Portland Police Bureau to teach a program called “Girl Strength,” but decided last year to write their own curriculum for the students to create a more tailored program.

The class lasts about one month, with students attending eight one-hour sessions over that time.

The goal, Griffin and Speiser said, is to teach girls about personal safety, which includes teaching skills in verbal confidence, establishing personal boundaries and basic self defense.

“In that short month, they gain a while new toolbox of skills they didn’t have before,” Griffin said.

Each class is usually broken down into three sections — a journaling and conversation session, a few group activities, and a physical skills lesson.

Griffin said the physical skills aspect is only one portion of the instruction. Many of the girls gain confidence by not only learning self defense, but how to use their voices and verbal skills to defend themselves in all aspects.

Autumn Bush, a seventh-grader, said she took the class initially because learning self defense sounded cool. She said she has learned that fighting to get out of a bad situation should be the last resort. She is, however, glad to know some basic skills now.

“[I learned] only fight if it’s your last choice and you’re ready to do it,” Bush said.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Danielle Speiser, language arts teacher, and Jill Griffin, school counselor, demonstrate how to break free from a wrist grab. During the workshop, students learned various self-defense techniques and practiced them each session.Speiser said she enjoys seeing just how much the students transform coming out of the workshop. Watching the students learn to become more confident and trust themselves is one of the rewarding aspects of the class.

“The voice and strength and power they [have] is so different from what they had in the beginning,” Speiser said. “It’s neat to see them grow.”

One of the overall lessons Griffin tries to instill in the students who participate in the workshop is to always trust their intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, they should know various ways to get out of an uncomfortable situation.

“I think they build a reserve within themselves they didn’t have before,” Griffin said. “They find their voice.”

Griffin and Speiser said the program is also a great way for students to make new friends and meet other girls in school and become more involved in extracurricular activities.

Wendy VanWinkle, a seventh-grader, described the after school workshop as a “new way to experience middle school” for her.

Griffin and Speiser plan to offer two more Power workshops during the school year.