Mr. Health Teacher

Real Education for the Real World

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Serving Up Food Justice At School

The latest issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine has a great article about teaching food justice in schools. It features two of my students and an interview with me about trying to incorporate “big ideas” about food into nutrition education. Here’s a preview:

Introducing students to food justice principles begins in the classroom. Take Balboa High School health teacher Chris Pepper. His ninth-grade health curriculum couples nutrition basics with the study of food origins and preparation. He shows Food, Inc., which gets students talking about animal welfare, industrial agriculture and food workers’ rights. His students also research prominent food justice leaders and organizations.

“Teaching about food justice helps make nutrition classes more engaging,” says Pepper. “Learning the story of where our food comes from is really interesting, and it involves some real critical thinking about how our world works,” he adds.

Read the whole story here:

Serving Up Food Justice At School,” by Michele Israel

It’s Time to Talk About Rape and Consent

Here’s a great post from another teacher about how important it is to have conversations with our teens about what rape really is and what “enthusiastic consent” is all about. As this teacher relates, it can be confusing and awkward to talk about these issues with teenagers, but they are listening. If we want to prevent terrible incidents like the one in Stubenville, they are topics we have to talk about and address frankly.

The Day I Taught How Not to Rape” by Abby Norman

Help Students De-Stress for Success

Drug addiction, pregnancy prevention, and eating disorders are all part of the curriculum in the high school health education class I teach. As attention-getting as those topics may be, I like to start the semester by focusing on a health issue that affects almost all teens in high school today: stress.

I’ve always taught about positive communication, the value of solid friendships, and the importance of preventing depression, but it took me a few years to develop a solid curriculum around stress reduction and relaxation. Over time, however, I’ve come to think of it as one of the most valuable skills I teach, with a tremendous potential to improve people’s lives.

There is a great deal of research showing that unremitting stress leads to increased levels of illness and infection, cuts years off of people’s lives, and generally cuts down on people’s happiness. If students can learn to deal with stress effectively in high school, and can carry those skills into adulthood, it can have ripple effects throughout their entire lives.

To emphasize just how big a health risk unmanaged stress represents for people, I like to show sections of the National Geographic film “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.” (Here’s a clip.)

The film focuses on the work of Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who has spent his life studying how stress impacts the brain. He explains how unmitigated stress manifests in the body in both mental and physical ways, causing irritability, insomnia, clogging arteries and increasing the risk of a heart attack.

The film’s website features Sapolsky answering questions about why psychological stress triggers the stress response and how using stress reduction techniques may improve a person’s health. After hearing what Sapolsky has to say, it would be hard to deny the intense effects stress can induce in people.

After showing my students how harmful chronic stress can be, I take some time to teach a few basic stress reduction techniques. A few of my students attended Visitacion Valley Middle School, a school that has a well-established, in-school meditation program, and a few of them have done yoga, but most of them have never done any focused, intentional stress reduction.

When I first introduce this topic, I remind students that everyone’s body is different, and that they should try a number of different stress-reduction techniques to see what works best for them. I also remind them that the environment they’re in — a small, crowded classroom surrounded by lots of teenagers — is a very difficult place to fully relax. I encourage them to try these techniques in the classroom, and then repeat them at home, which may provide a more relaxing place to learn.

I start by asking students about the techniques they already use to relax. Common answers include watching TV, taking a nap, and listening to music. (Sometimes students suggest quiet or instrumental music, but a significant number endorse the stress-reducing qualities of blasting loud, aggressive rock or rap.) We go through other simple suggestions, like laughing with a friend or playing with a pet. And of course, being health class, we talk about how exercise can be a great stress reducer, and how they should make time for physical fitness every day.

We then practice other simple stress-reduction techniques, with the idea that they can learn and practice them in class and then pull them out later when they need them.

One technique is deep breathing — simply breathing in slowly for a count of four and out slowly for a count of four. It’s amazing how much this simple act of mindfulness can slow things down and create a sense of calm and ease.

We also try visualization. I ask students to think about a place that’s relaxing to them, and imagine themselves there. Often people think about a quiet redwood forest or a warm beach, and they can use this technique to transport themselves there any time they feel stressed.

To teach a technique called “progressive relaxation,” I ask students to clear off their desk and sit or rest as comfortably as they can in their desks. I dim the classroom lights, and then play a recording from the University of Wisconsin’s Health Services office that guides students as they try to relax their bodies from head to toe. It’s important to set the tone while introducing the technique, because it’s easy for one student to disrupt the whole room with a loud laugh.

Once they give it a try, there are always some students who find it highly effective. In just a few minutes, they look rested and relaxed, and they regularly request that we “do that relaxation thing” again.

Sometimes teaching about positive mental and emotional health is seen as an extravagance or a luxury, but UC-Berkeley’s Vicki Zakrzewski argues that it’s increasingly clear that teaching young people to manage stress can help them in a multitude of ways. “Simply making a daily effort to cultivate mindfulness and a caring classroom can do wonders for students’ emotional well-being,” she writes.

With so much clear evidence of the harmful effects of stress, it seems clear to me that stress reduction should be part of every school’s curriculum. It’s a skill that can really help improve — and maybe even save — the lives of our students.

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original.

Students Deserve Real Sex Ed

Health education includes a lot of topics — nutrition, fitness, substance use, mental health, violence prevention and communication skills, to name a few — but the one that always gets the most attention is sex ed. And lately it’s not just getting attention in class.

It’s been all over the news.

My state, California, expects us to teach comprehensive sexuality lessons. That means we provide young people with medically accurate information about human anatomy and talk frankly about birth control options, sexually transmitted infections, safer sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choices (including, but not limited to, abstinence).

When I started teaching 11 years ago, we were right in the middle of the “abstinence-only” years, and most students in the United States were getting very little in the way of real sex education in schools. Thankfully, in the wake of the overwhelming evidence that abstinence-only programs fail to keep anyone abstinent or safe, more states are now offering at least some real sexuality education.

I have to admit the first time I met parents at a back-to-school night and told them that I would soon be teaching their 14- and 15-year-olds about condoms and pregnancy prevention, I expected some might be upset.

I didn’t expect what actually happened, which is that a bunch of parents came up to shake my hand, saying things like, “Thank you so much for teaching my daughter about that stuff. I know she needs to learn it, but I just don’t know what to say.”

The truth is that most parents in our country want their kids to learn about abstinence and birth control in the classroom, as shown in this new reportfrom the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Furthermore, from the same report, seven in 10 adults believe that teen pregnancy prevention programs that are federally funded should primarily support those programs that have been “proven to change behavior related to teen pregnancy” — just the opposite of the abstinence-only programs, which have been repeatedly proven not to work.

Some parents aren’t waiting around for things to get better. Mica Ghimenti, a parent in the Clovis Unified school district, joined two other parents and the ACLU in filing a lawsuit to change the district’s sex education curriculum. Ghimenti says that her daughter received no information about condoms, birth control or preventing STIs in health class and that lack of information presented a health risk for students.

She told the L.A. Times, “I want there to be medically accurate, scientifically based education for all youth in Clovis Unified. If we don’t give them the information, they won’t be able to make good, healthy decisions.”

When I first introduce myself to students, I make a pledge to them — I will never lie to them; I won’t exaggerate things to make them seem worse than they are; and if they ask about something I don’t know about, I will do my best to get them a real answer.

Like Ghimenti, I don’t think it’s fair to expect students to make responsible decisions unless they have truthful, reliable information on which to base those decisions.

Resources for Teaching Sex Ed

  • Scarleteen A frank and terrific information and advice site aimed at people in their teens and 20s.
  • Future of Sex Education An organization dedicated to “creating a national dialogue about the future of sex education and to promote the institutionalization of comprehensive sexuality education in public schools.” They recently released their “National Sexuality Education Standards.”
  • Sex, Etc. A great sexuality information site from Rutgers University written “by teens, for teens.” They also publish a print magazine that can be used in classrooms.
  • SexEdLibrary A library of downloadable sex ed lessons, including lessons on human development, sexual anatomy, puberty, sexual orientation, body image, dating, abstinence, and more.
  • Planned Parenthood’s “Different is Normal” video, designed to reduce anxiety and body image issues among teenagers.

What sex ed policies does your district have? Do you think they are effective?

edutopialogo_smallThis post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. Please take a look and share a comment there!

The Smoking Fry

I love the movie Super Size Me, and my students always respond well to this story of a man who eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month — and the horrible things that happen to his body because of it. Two of the most affecting scenes in the movie, however, don’t revolve around Morgan Spurlock‘s growing midsection.

In this first clip (included as a bonus feature on the DVD of the film), Spurlock shows what happens to a selection of McDonald’s sandwiches and fries when he leaves them out, unrefrigerated, for several weeks. The results are pretty incredible.

In the next clip, Spurlock uses animation to show how Chicken McNuggets make their way to a fast food tray. It’s a great distillation of the problems with industrial agriculture and processed food in less than 90 seconds.

Tips for Vegetarian Teens

When I teach about nutrition, I inevitably get questions from some teenagers about becoming vegetarian or vegan. I think it’s great that students are thinking about their own diets enough to even consider this switch, and I like to have some resources close at hand to help steer them toward healthy choices. After all, if they’re avoiding meat but gorging on Pringles and Pepsi, they won’t be doing their bodies any favors. In honor of Vegetarian Awareness Month, here are some great places for meat-free teens to find support and ideas.

KidsHealth has a great article on its site all about becoming a vegetarian. They do a great job of explaining the different types of veggie-centered diets and give some advice about how to deal with different health concerns people might face as they move away from meat.

Veggie Teens is a terrific site written by a teenager for other teens. Elyse May, the 17-year-old who created the site, has a whole cookbook full of recipes and suggestions, and she blogs regularly with new recipes and tips.

Harvard University has a meatless version of the Healthy Eating Plate complete with recipes created by esteemed cookbook writer Molly Katzen. The selections include delicious-sounding meals like Thai Eggplant Salad with Coconut Tofu Strips, Garlic-Braised Greens, and Roasted Squash with Pomegranate.

Teens who are vegetarians and athletes sometimes have some special concerns about how to get enough protein and calories, or what to eat for pre- and post-game snacks. Those concerns are addressed well in this article from the Vegetarian Resource Group.

If those sites aren’t quite enough, take a look at this 8-page guide to being a vegetarian teen from the California Department of Public Health, or head to your local library or bookstore and check out one of the many fabulous books on this subject.

Why We Need Sex Ed Now

Reproductive Health Education

Teen Depression and Suicide

I spend the first four weeks of health education class teaching about mental and emotional health. We cover a lot of topics, but they’re all geared around helping the students get to know one another, clarify their own values and look out for one another. One of the big things we address in this unit is teen suicide. I always tell students to take any warning signs of suicide seriously, and to tell an adult if they notice that someone around them is struggling.

One resource I like to use for teaching about depression and suicide is a video called “More Than Sad” produced by the American Society for Suicide Prevention. As you can see from the clips below, it provides a realistic look at this serious issue, and it encourages young people to seek help if they’re feeling depressed or anxious. It also puts a strong emphasis on the fact that depression is treatable, but that it doesn’t usually go away on its own.

In the fact sheet for teens that accompanies the film, the organization spells out the facts:

“Depression is more than sadness.

Depression is an illness with a biological basis. People who are depressed feel “down in the dumps” and are not interested in the activities they usually enjoy.

Other symptoms that a depressed teen may experience include:
• feeling more irritable or angry than usual
• losing or gaining a significant amount of weight (not due to diet) or dramatic
change in appetite
• having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
• physical feelings of either restlessness or being slow, sluggish
• not having any energy
• feeling worthless or guilty (with no clear cause)
• not being able to concentrate or make decisions
• thinking about wanting to end your life

If you experience at least five of these symptoms most of the day for at least two weeks, you may be depressed.
Talk to your parent(s), a trusted adult, or your doctor immediately — don’t wait!!”

Teachers, be sure you know your resources before showing this to students. I’ve had more than one student burst into tears when they recognized themselves in this film. I like to follow it up by sharing some information about our local suicide prevention organization, and then doing some activities designed to build up students’ self esteem and their sense of connection to the people who love them.

Teachers Need Coaches, Too

Several times a year, I get asked to introduce new lessons or to talk about class planning with the health teachers in my school district. Meeting with them is always a blast. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things to do as an educator. Talking about my work and how I structure my class helps me clarify my thoughts, and exchanging ideas with others helps make me a better teacher.

Thanks to a friend in San Francisco’s School Health Programs Department, I recently connected with a new teacher who’s taking on his very first health class ever. We talked for almost two hours, and I gave him every resource I could. I explained how tricky this class can be to teach, because to do a good job the teacher really has to become an expert on a whole slate of topics — nutrition, fitness, body image, sexuality, mental health, stress reduction, alcohol and drugs — and then has to figure out the best way to teach about all of those topics within a tight one-semester schedule.

Of course there’s also the added burden of knowing that if some of those messages don’t get through, students might become pregnant, face drug addiction or contract a fatal disease. That adds just a little bit of pressure!

When I was hired to teach my first high school course 11 years ago, I was on “Emergency Credential,” which meant that I started out with little formal training on the ins and outs of how to run a classroom. I taught during the day and headed to the university at night to finish out my education coursework.

Because I’d worked for several years as an health reporter and editor, I knew the class content pretty well. However, I definitely could have used some more advice about how to best deliver that content to young people.

Now that I have enough experience and knowledge to be a mentor for new teachers, I gladly take on those opportunities when they come. It feels good to help others, and it’s an important part of building a community of expert health educators. With a group of smart, dedicated peers, we can support each other, keep up on the latest information, and advocate for health education to be recognized as a subject that’s crucial for students’ lives that should be taught excellently in every school.

Who’s Your Teacher?

One of the choices teachers have to make is just how much information about themselves they want to share with students. It’s always a judgment call. For the past few years, I’ve been sharing the briefest of biographies during the first days of class and then pulling in stories from my life when I think they might be useful.

This year, however, I decided to try something different. I made a PowerPoint about my life.

Now, you may be thinking “How arrogant – why does this guy think the students care about his life?” That’s a valid question. The truth is, though, that students always ask about my life – they are curious, and they want to know if they can trust me. I thought that sharing a little more information about myself right away would help me build credibility with students, and if I got the tone right, would help me seem approachable, like someone they could relate to and trust.

I put up slides showing Wisconsin, where I grew up, and the University of Missouri, where I got my undergraduate degree. I talked about moving out to California and working as a journalist writing about science and health. I told them about volunteering at the San Francisco Sex Information hotline. It was there, answering calls from teens who were sometimes in real crisis (and sometimes just needed reliable information about their own bodies) that I first started thinking about becoming a teacher.

I also shared some details from my home life. I showed a picture of my 9-year-old son from our summer vacation, and talked a little bit about raising him. I showed a photo of my mother, and talked about how she’d worked as a college counselor her whole life.

I mentioned how excited I am that two women in my family are about to have babies, and showed photos of my sister and her husband, and my sister-in-law and her wife. At this point, a couple of students asked, with genuine curiosity, how a lesbian could get pregnant. I answered with a quick “Well, they used a sperm donor. We’ll be going over the details of pregnancy in a few weeks, and we can talk more about how it works then.”

I also showed some pictures from the 545-mile AIDS/Lifecycle bike ride I finished in June. I talked how I trained for months to get ready, how the students I taught last year helped with fundraising, and how good it felt to meet a personal athletic goal and raise money for such a good cause.

I was a little nervous to try this presentation out, but so far it seems like it was a successful strategy. I’m quickly developing rapport with the students, and before the week was out I’d already had two boys pull me aside to ask for help with personal issues. In my line of work, when a teen trusts you enough to ask for help, it’s a sign you’re doing something right.

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