By Kelsey Casselbury 2016-09-09 06:01:56
Innovative initiatives raise the bar That’ll Teach ’Em! “NUTRITION EDUCATION,” YOU SCOFF. “If I wanted to teach, I would have become a teacher! Plus, let’s face it—even if I wanted to offer some sort of nutrition class, when would I have time? Who would even want to be involved? And, really, the principal would probably put the kibosh on it before I even got it off the ground.” Stop. Wait. Think again. Even if you don’t have a teaching certificate or a Registered Dietitian credential—or, for that matter, an SNS credential—you do possess the know-how to expand a child’s education about food and making healthy choices. And, even though it seems like there aren’t enough minutes in the day, it truly is worthwhile to make the time to plan and implement classroom-based nutrition education activities. Take a lesson from three school nutrition professionals who, despite initial hesitations, powered through the doubts and obstacles to implement a successful nutrition education program. Spoiler alert: It’s not as difficult as you might expect. Step 1: Develop Your Proposal. In some districts, a teacher or an administrator might approach you or a member of your school nutrition staff about taking the lead on a nutrition education class, activity or program. In other cases, you might need to be the one to pitch the idea and get approval first. No matter which way the process begins, there are a few logistics to figure out before you truly get the ball rolling. • What age range will you teach? • Where and when will you conduct lessons or activities? • What specific topics will you cover? What learning objectives have you set? • Are there any associated expenses that you can anticipate? At Desert Sands Unified School District, La Quinta, Calif., Site Manager of Nutrition Services Marta Shand experienced some trial and error when it came to identifying the appropriate target age group for her nutrition education efforts. She planned to work in the elementary school, but when teaching second and third-graders, Shand found that they were too easily distracted for this type of program. Therefore, Shand and her colleagues—which include a new director, Daniel Cappello, who is also very involved with the program—ultimately settled on fourth-graders, who “gave me the most energy back,” Shand explains. “They like to question everything! They’ll take a topic and run with it.” She also notes that this is often the age when kids start to be aware of health trends and “seem to be empowered by them.” It’s a good idea to have an idea of what you want to teach before you make a pitch—or accept an opportunity. “I try to look at the food trends/health topics that everyone is talking about, as well as squeeze in a few basic nutrition concepts,” notes Shand. “My goal is to get them thinking about their own health and give them enough knowledge to start asking questions and making good choices.” In Brazosport Independent School District (ISD), Clute, Texas, Lisa Beck, RD, LDN, assistant director of child nutrition, goes into classrooms at the request of specific teachers who give her an idea of particular topics they want to cover. It all started with one of the district’s alternative schools, which contacted the child nutrition department five years ago. “The first request I received was a standing invitation from our Alternative Campus for their Project Grow class [of] elementary-age students,” she recalls. Beck’s director encouraged her to “step outside the box” to try and make it happen, she recalls. Step 2: Get Past Your Doubts. Beck’s biggest hesitation was simply fitting the request into her busy schedule. When days are booked solid, whether it’s with planning in her office or checking production in the schools, when could she fit in such an “extracurricular” activity? Beck figured out a way to manage it by offering the department’s nutrition education services to the staff only at the beginning of the year. “We only actually go do the lessons when they request it,” she adds, rather than trying to make in-class activities a regular occurrence on her calendar. She also spreads the commitment among her coworkers. “I personally visit [classrooms] four times a year total, but our director does lessons, as well. As a department, we are on campuses interacting with students multiple times each semester,” she notes. Beck’s not alone in having hesitations about conducting in-class nutrition education, though others may be concerned for different reasons. Shand says that while she’s always wanted to teach and truly enjoys the prep that goes into it, her biggest concern was that students would walk away with a negative connotation about nutrition. “I spent a good deal of time creating a plan that wouldn’t make them feel bad about their weight or what they eat,” she reports. “My goal is to get them thinking and help them make healthy lifestyle choices.” Step 3: Find Partners and Seek Approval. If a school colleague hasn’t come to you, requesting your expertise, and you are motivated to take the initiative, you will have to identify and persuade a partner willing to incorporate your idea into their busy curriculum. You also may need to get approval from your supervisor, as well as from principals or other administrators. Don’t let this deter you! As the saying goes, the worst they can say is “no” when you propose a classroom-based nutrition ed activity. In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised at the reactions of teachers to your offer, as well as from directors and administrators to the idea of your taking on this out-of-the-box educational role. Since kids tend to respond to novelty and variety in the classroom, your proposal may be embraced with open arms! Be creative and flexible about how you might deliver your program—you want it to be seen as a helpful solution, not an added headache. Shand pitched the concept of an eight-week class to the director of Afterschool Programs, knowing that the probability of fitting any sort of extra nutrition curriculum into the standard school day would be nearly impossible. “I cannot say enough about the support and continued positive relationship we have with Afterschool Programs,” she notes. “We got a big thumbs up.” She found that the class is a win-win-win for principals, students and parents, and now, they’re getting so many nutrition education requests that her team finds it hard to meet them all! Daniel Cappello, who is now the director of nutrition at Desert Sands (working as Shand’s supervisor), previously implemented a classroom-based nutrition education program at Fallbrook (Calif.) Union High School District. He didn’t have to make much of a persuasive pitch—a health class mandated for ninth-grade students called upon Cappello and his nutrition services staff to provide a real-world understanding of how nutrition labels can be used to develop balanced meals. He worked closely with the health teacher to create a specific lesson plan that fit well within the already-established classroom curriculum. Step 4: Create Lesson Plans. We won’t mislead you—this is one of the most intimidating aspects of such programs for the novice school nutrition educator. One great thing is that you don’t have to start from scratch! Take advantage of ideas and programs developed by districts around the country. Start by reviewing a few of the activities described in the boxes throughout this article. In addition, a little web research will reveal numerous resources you can apply without reinventing the wheel. Start with USDA’s National Agriculture Library, http://tinyurl.com/USDANutritionplans-sn, which is a treasure trove of nutrition education ideas, specific activities and lesson plans. Be sure to check also with the 19 regional dairy councils across the country. You can find links to all of them at www.nationaldairycouncil.org/our-story. Some, such as the Dairy Council of California (www.healthy eating.org/Schools), feature curricula that align with specific state education standards. Another source is a site called Nourish Interactive, www.nourishinteractive.com/nutrition-education/teachers-lesson-plans, which offers free printable nutrition lesson plans and dozens of kid-friendly recipes. In Brazosport, Beck typically devotes about 25% of the class time to a lecture before she starts activities. In the elementary school, she relies heavily on the federal MyPlate guidance to introduce the concept of balanced food groups, proper portion sizes and the benefits of this approach. She then reviews creative ways to prep meals and snacks. “Our favorite activity is to use a white paper plate and ask them to draw sections on it and then fill those in with their favorite foods [in each food group],” Beck explains. “To conclude my lessons and pull it all together, we allow students to build their own yogurt parfait. We provide yogurt, granola and various fruits for the students to try. This is by far the best part for students, and they are usually asking for seconds. It is a great way to leave a ‘good taste’ in their mouth.” Beck works with the cafeteria managers at each school to ensure they have the materials, keeping the principal abreast of related costs. When it comes to high schoolers, she gets a little more technical. “Lessons include how to read a nutrition label, how many calories should be consumed for their age group and the types of physical activities that should be done each day to burn calories,” Beck says. Whenever possible, she tries to incorporate Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) guidance into her lessons. For example, Beck designed a lesson about reading labels and calorie counting so that it fit into a math class. When teaching teens, Cappello incorporates a brief history of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), as well as reviewing the NSLP’s specific nutrition requirements for high school students. “Many students seem to think our team puts little thought into the items we serve,” he says. “It’s eye-opening for them to see the detail that goes into menu planning.” No matter how simplistic or complicated you make your classroom-based activities, try to engage your audience through their sense of taste, smell, sight and touch. Shand enjoys building lessons around taste-testing activities, and so do the students, she finds. “Some of my students have never had a fresh blueberry or raspberry, because of how expensive they are in the stores,” she notes. “Their reactions are so cool to watch.” In fact, Shand doesn’t limit her afterschool program lessons to the classroom. Last year, she took a group to a local organic grocery store, where the manager gave a tour, explained the definition of organic foods and highlighted various products. Step 5: Do It—and Have Fun! Perhaps one of the reasons you went into the operations side of school nutrition instead of education was a fear of standing in front of a crowd—no matter how young—or thinking that you simply don’t have the skills to pass on knowledge. Here’s a tip: For the kids to be engaged, they need to have fun—and you need to be having fun, too, suggests Shand. “Children will pick up if you’re not having fun. I always enjoy the first class when I confess some of my favorite not-so-healthy foods, like Tootsie Rolls, and they laugh and start telling me theirs.” Some other tips for new educators: • Ask for help. Reach out to peers in your district at other school sites or at neighboring districts or someone you met at a state or national conference. What tips can they offer? Seek out their advice for success. • Manage expectations. If you’re going into a classroom for the first time, ask the teacher for some insights about her or his class. What works best with this group of students? What should you expect? Will students give you their undivided attention, or are some distractions OK? • Work together with the professional educator about the best way to engage the kids: Should there be orderly rows of desks, should everyone pull their chairs up to the front of your demo area or perhaps youngsters will sit in a circle on the floor? How should you regain their attention if they become excited or distracted? Will it be a series of claps, raised hands or a bell? • Engage all students. Don’t let anyone, even those in the back who don’t seem to be paying attention, feel as though they’re not involved. Move around the room, vary your delivery and continually call on different students to answer questions, provide individual opinions or otherwise engage. “One of the biggest lessons I learned early on was that if students aren’t actively participating in the lesson, they begin talking and interacting with each other,” advises Cappello. “It then became very difficult for me to keep control of the class and keep the lesson on track.” For more classroom tips, visit the National Education Association’s website at www.nea.org/tools/management-tips-for-new-teachers.html. Step 6: Review and Retool. Each group of students is different, so you will have to regularly tweak your lesson plans to make them work over and over again. “Some are very fast-paced,” Shand notes. “Some, we need to move at a slower pace.” Luckily, she adds, she’s been given the freedom to extend the class if necessary. The key is to be flexible in taking different approaches, thinking outside the box when your planned approach doesn’t work the way you hoped. Don’t give up. “Once you make the connection and the results are seen, the sky is the limit,” she says. Beck found that her first approach was not a home run, recalling that she used a projector to give a slide-show presentation. The kids quickly lost attention. Review and retool: Beck now always includes an activity as she’s teaching, keeping the students engaged and helping them to retain the information she’s sharing. It might not always be the students, either, who make the process challenging. In Cappello’s case, he received a bit of a reality check from an administrator who came to review the program. “The classes I taught were held in the school cafeteria. Kids were spread out at tables,” he recalls. “During one class, a vice principal came in and did a classroom evaluation on performance and gave some good feedback that was a little painful at the time. Education nowadays is [about] student-teacher interaction, not lecture-style, like it was when I was a student. I changed up future lecture plans to incorporate learning activities so students were more involved in the lessons.” Grade-A Results. “When I hear parents tell me that their child is giving them shopping advice or that their children are asking if they can have more salad, I know we are doing something right,” says Shand, advocating for the value of making time to pass along your nutrition expertise through classroom-based activities. Cappello notes that he values the opportunity that teaching provides in allowing him to get to know students one-on-one. When working in a central office, such occasions can be rare. “I also can’t tell you how much respect it gave me for teachers,” he adds. “Their job can be exhausting!” Plus, these efforts might have one more somewhat unexpected result—better understanding and appreciation for school lunches. “Many school lunch rules and regulations seem arbitrary to students,” Cappello muses. “Spending time with students allows me to explain complex regulations to them in a way they can understand.” Talk about a winwin situation. Put your nutrition knowledge to work by heading out of the cafeteria and into the classroom. I CAN TEACH… Food Bingo Create Bingo cards, in which each square has a picture of various fruits and/or vegetables. Use unfamiliar produce in some of them—such as jicama or kiwi—so you can include a discussion about these. When a student fills up a row, they call out “Bingo!” Healthy or Junk? Particularly effective for the younger kids, who recognize pictures but can’t read yet, “Healthy or Junk?” requires photos of various food items. Ask the students to classify each picture as either a “healthy food” or a “junk food.” Students should sort the photos into virtual or physical piles. While teaching youngsters to sort, classify and distinguish among a wide variety of items, this activity also can lead to good discussions about how to make healthy choices and how all foods can fit when consumed in balanced portions. Regional Differences Give each student a blank U.S. map and access to print or digital resources such as encyclopedias and other references. Ask them to fill in food products associated with each particular state. Then, discuss why the state is known for that food, whether it’s because that’s where it’s grown (a good way to open up a discussion about farmers) or because it’s a regional culinary favorite based on immigration trends or other factors. Make sure to put specific emphasis on your state’s signature items! Menu Math Once students have a solid grasp of basic addition and subtraction, invite them to create a balanced menu for the day based on federal guidance for the minimum and maximum calorie intakes for their age group. Provide them with a prescribed list of food items, including appropriate portion sizes and corresponding calorie counts. Instruct them to keep a tally of the calories as they develop their menus. You can vary this activity to promote discussion. For example, hold back the calorie counts initially. Ask students to select the items and portion sizes they think would be an appropriate meal and then count up the calories to see the impact of their choices. Food Ads: Truth or Fiction? This activity uses critical thinking skills. Show advertisements in magazines for food products, and ask the students to describe what words first pop into their heads when they see the ads. Talk about whether their first impressions match up to what the food actually offers in terms of nutrition and in terms of the advantages the company is trying to promote. Discuss if it’s a food one should be eating often. Next, ask the students to create an advertisement for a nutritious food product, using their own drawings and words that really “sell” the product. Kelsey Casselbury is a contributing editor for School Nutrition. Based in Odenton, Md., she is a former managing editor of this publication.
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