First Person

P.E. teachers learning to link nutrition, fitness, teen angst

Susan Bertelsen, professor of human performance and sports at Metro State College of Denver, is a proponent of P.E. teachers inserting nutrition education into their curriculum.

P.E. teachers already do a lot to alleviate the obesity epidemic plaguing American youngsters, but in all the guidelines and recommendations about how schools can improve physical activity and health, Susan Bertelsen discovered what she sees as a  gaping hole: nutrition education.

Colorado law doesn’t require it, virtually no school district requires it, and when it is included in a standard one-semester Health Education class, it’s likely to get no more than two weeks’ of attention, if any, says Bertelsen, professor of human performance and sports at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Yet nutrition education is vital to physical fitness, and Bertelsen believes middle and high school P.E. teachers are perfectly positioned to add some nutrition education into their classes in ways that make the subject interesting and relevant to students.

“Do you agree self-confidence and self-esteem are correlated to body image? Do you think teens care about how they look?” she asked at a recent gathering of P.E. teachers from around the state. “Would you like to empower them to make smart choices that increase their self-esteem?”

“We can’t do everything,” she said. “But we can do something. Adolescents want ownership. They want to make their own decisions. Knowing that nutrition is the main culprit in weight gain or weight loss, how vital is it that we include it in the curriculum? Physical activity is only one piece of the pie.”

Not all PE teachers are trained in nutrition

Bertelsen recognizes that not all physical education teachers feel competent to teach in-depth nutrition classes. But to help them, she has devised a step-by-step plan to implement nutrition education into a physical education class. If teachers can carve out 20 minutes of time, one day a week, they can draw teens into important discussions about caloric needs, reading labels, balanced diets, dangers of fast foods, weight management, and lifelong eating disciplines.

“I don’t want to take away activity time, but if I were teaching high school again, I would definitely try to do this,” Bertelsen said. “These are things that resonate with teenagers. Yes, they should start learning these things when they’re younger, and there’s a lot of good nutrition education curricula out there. But what do they remember that they learned in third grade? By high school, they need to hear these things again.”

A step-by-step guide

Bertelsen says the first step for a P.E. teacher interested in adding nutrition education into the class is to talk to the school’s health teacher. In some schools, the P.E. teacher IS the health teacher, but not always. Find out how much nutrition is being taught in the health course, then ask about collaborating on some nutrition and physical activity topics.

Mypyramid.gov is an excellent online resource for teaching about the food pyramid.

Step Two is compiling resources. Find five to seven legitimate resources that provide teachers with guidance on making complex topics simple. Supplement that with two or three places – either online or in journals – where students can log their food intake and physical activity levels.

Next, develop a list of the top seven or eight nutrition-related topics that you think are most important for students to know. Reading food labels? Assessing the legitimacy of weight loss or dietary supplement products? Understanding the food pyramid? Once you’ve determined the topics to study, figure out ways to make those topics interactive. Find projects the students can do to reinforce these lessons.

Then develop a timeline. Figure out where you could find 20 minutes a week. “If you’re on block days, and you’ve got 90 minutes, are your students active all 90 minutes? Probably not,” Bertelsen said. “You can make good use of that time, and not cut into their physical activity time.”

Determine how much time each topic needs, then create a series of brief lesson plans that involve in-class discussion and out-of-class assignments.

Bertelsen has come up with a suggested sequence of topics and possible activities, but she emphasizes that others may prefer different topics, different sequences and different activities. Above all, the topics should address things happening in the students’ lives.

“I still think PE ought to be a requirement for seniors rather than freshmen, because as seniors they’re more ready to accept it as a responsibility for a lifetime,” Bertelsen said. “Connect with them about nutrition being what makes them look good and feel good.”

Nutrition resources online

Susan Bertelsen has compiled an annotated list of trusted and reliable online resources where teachers can turn to get information as well as ideas for classroom assignments and hands-on student projects related to nutrition. Among them:

Food and Nutrition Information Center, USDA – This is the official information center website of the Agricultural Network from the Agricultural Research Service that deals with food and nutrition. FNIC is a broad-based site that is a good jumping-off point for other sources of nutrition information. The Center contains food and human nutrition materials such as books, journals and audiovisuals encompassing a wide range of topics.

USDA Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service – This service was established to ensure access to nutritious and healthful diets for all Americans. This unit administers the 15 food assistance programs of the USDA.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – Economic and Social Department – Highlights include methods by which the Food and Nutrition Division is working toward improving nutritional status worldwide and ensuring the quality and safety of the food supply. Included are links to resources on food quality, food safety, food fortification and nutrition programs.

Center for Science in the Public Interest – This nonprofit education and advocacy organization is devoted to improving the safety and nutritional quality of the food supply. Links are provided to information for youth, and reports about specific nutrition issues. A unique feature is access to the Nutrition Action Healthletter, an online publication.

Yahoo! – Health: Nutrition – A broad-based site that is useful as a starting point for surfers who are not yet focused on a specific nutrition topic or issue. This site can serve as a good resource for the beginning browser.

NutritionData – Nutrition Facts Calorie Counter – This site provides facts, in a simplified manner, about nutritional analyses for foods and recipes. It includes a searchable database by food name and information on foods from fast food restaurants.

Nutrient Data Laboratory – Food Composition Data – The place to look for food composition data provided by the Agricultural Research Service. Includes a search tool that enables the user to look up the nutrient content of more than 5,600 foods.

Nutrition.gov – An authoritative gateway to reliable information on nutrition, healthy eating, physical activity and food safety for consumers, educators and health professionals.

National Academies Press: Food and Nutrition Collection – This link provides access to the many free online reports provided by the National Academies in the subject areas of food and nutrition.

SPARK (Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids) – Physical Education and Wellness program provides some nutrition curriculum ideas and resources. Focuses mainly on school health awareness and behavior change.

Dietetics Online – Billed as the networking organization of nutrition and dietetic professionals, this site links to specialized search engines, a marketplace for related products and services, summaries of professional meetings and exhibitions and to computer and software information.

American Dietetic Association – The home page of this organization provides member service, nutrition resources, FAQs, and a “hot topics” link.

MayoClinic.com – A searchable site including such information as current health news, answers to queries from Mayo specialists, access to specific disease centers and health with other healthy lifestyle planning.

FruitsandVeggies Matter.gov – A site with tips and recipes, including easy ways to add more fruits and vegetables into daily dating patterns.

Mypyramid.gov – The new USDA food pyramid replaces “one size fits all” with a customizable eating plan.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.