Whole Food, Whole Student


When I was a student teacher, the school I was assigned to had received a large chunk of cash as the result of scoring in the top ranks on a state assessment.  There was quite a bit of controversy happening in the school over which employees should receive bonuses as a result of this influx of cash.  The teachers, by and large, felt that they should be the sole recipients of the merit pay; after all, their jobs were the “front lines” positions, involving working directly with students on a variety of academic skills.

There was, however, a vocal opposition from the custodians, the lunchroom workers, and other support staff.  They argued that their roles in the school were contributing to a healthy school environment, which also had an impact on students’ success.  I’m inclined to agree with them, with one exception; the lunches.  Oh, how horrible these lunches were.  Without exception, every single school where I have worked, volunteered, collected data, or observed has served its students food that I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole.

At the school I taught at in Los Angeles, for example, students routinely would get a styrofoam tray covered with a scoop of dubious looking ground beef, a bag of tortilla chips, some seriously gray looking green beans, and an apple or orange, along with either strawberry or chocolate milk.  Plain milk was available, but of course none of the students chose it when given an alternative.  I would watch each time a lunch like this was served.  The fruit almost always went in the trash, along with the beef and the green beans.  The students would instead eat the tortilla chips, and then walk over to the parent center to spend $1.00 to buy “nachos,” which consisted of more tortilla chips and some bright yellow “cheez” sauce.  It was nauseating.  The even worse part was that, for some kids, the food they got at school would be the only food they got all day.

Los Angeles, it seems (from perusing online menus), has made some strides in this area.  Perhaps the public shaming had something to do with it.  Steps are being taken in the right direction, at least, but we’re far from there.  We still have schools full of terrible food, and we can’t ignore this as a factor that affects student learning.  We know a few things about nutrition and learning.

1. Kids who eat breakfast tend to learn better.
2. When kids get proper nutrition and physical activity, behavior improves and trips to the nurse and counselor decrease.
3. Better nutrition and more physical activity may actually increase test scores.
4. In preschoolers, food insecurity is a contributing factor for being “developmentally at risk.”
5. A nutritionally poor diet may contribute to a decrease in IQ scores.  On the converse, a nutritionally rich diet may contribute to an increase in IQ scores.
6. Iron deficiency (generally resulting from a poor diet), can cause cognitive delays and lower math scores.
7. Malnourished children tend to have less energy and a harder time concentrating.

There has been a lot of focus lately on the problem of rampant obesity among young people in America.  Yes, this is clearly a problem.  However, I am concerned that we sometimes conflate average body weight with health.  It is completely possible (dare I even say common), for a young person to be at a normal body weight, but be undernourished.

We can’t just look at our students and say they’re healthy and getting proper nutrition.  They might be, as many of my students used to do, barely eating lunch and then walking after school to the corner store to buy a large bag of Hot Cheetos instead.

So what is a concerned society to do?  Granted, improvements have been made in school lunches, but getting rid of chocolate milk isn’t enough.  We need a comprehensive system of healthy, APPEALING school lunches (after all, the apple is no good if it just ends up in the trash), along with education for both students and parents on proper nutrition.  Many of the kids that are undernourished have no clue what a “whole” food is, and their parents also may have no idea that dry beans and rice are vastly healthier than a box of Hamburger Helper.  This, of course, would involve actually giving teachers enough time to teach health and wellness to their students, and funding dietitians to work IN SCHOOLS, not just to design district wide meal plans.

What has your experience been with school food?  Have you been in a school where this is working (students are eating healthy, school-provided meals)? Are these changes (to be enacted soon) enough?

Teaching New Media Literacy Skills without Technology

Let me start this post by saying, “I LOVE TECHNOLOGY!” I do; I love how it makes the world smaller and larger simultaneously.  I love that I have all of human knowledge at my fingertips, available within an instant.  I love that, when someone says, “Hey, that’s that guy from that movie!  You know, the one where Keanu Reeves pretends he can act!” I can have an answer for them in 10 seconds (the answer is Gary Oldman, by the way).

However, as much as those of us with ready access might feel that smartphones, laptops, and tablets are ubiquitous, the fact is that they’re not.  Just a few short years ago, before I made the transition to my new life as a professor, I was a classroom teacher.  The last school I was at was a high need school near East Los Angeles.  Our technological resources were, in a word, sad.  Just sad.  My classroom had 3 old iMacs in the back of the room.  You know, the ones with that annoying round mouse? Yep, these:

image from 512Pixels.net

I hated those damn computers with a passion.  They occasionally worked.  We often had to take the mice apart to get them to track properly, and the only really useful thing they’d do was run the AR tests.    I brought my personal laptop from home, because the teacher laptop I could have checked out was equally as bad.  Unfortunately, there were only a couple of digital projectors for the entire school (1500 students).  Once a teacher snagged one at the beginning of the year, it was very hard for anyone else to get a hold of them.  If you got one, you didn’t tell any other teachers you had it, you packed it up when you left the room and hid it, and you hoped it would still be there when you got back.  Otherwise, you’d be using the overhead projector.  We did have access to the computer lab occasionally, but it was ONE computer lab of around 35 computers for the whole school.  I tell you all this to say, I understand.  I understand that when someone tells you, a seasoned educator, or a new, and overwhelmed teacher, that you need to teach your students technology, and new media literacies, what you’re thinking is, “Have you been in my school? Have you seen the resources I have to work with?”

I hear your frustrations, because I have been there myself, but I promise you that if you can consider what I’m about to tell you with an open mind, both you and your students will greatly benefit.  You’ll also go a long way towards closing the ever widening gap between the haves and the have nots in terms of education.

First, we need to shift the conversation away from talking about teaching technology.  It’s not about teaching technology. Sure, knowing how to use Word is helpful, but that’s not the point.

If you’re spending your time in the computer lab teaching keyboarding, you’re doing it wrong. 

Instead, you need to be teaching new media literacy. New media literacy, according to Jenkins, involves a set of 11 skills that are critical to being able to function successfully right now and in the future world:

“Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation
and discovery
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand
mental capacities
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with
others toward a common goal
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information
across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting
multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.” (Jenkins, 2006, p.3)

The beauty of these skills is that you don’t need to have access to technology to teach them.

Let’s look at play first.  There are numerous ways, in every single subject area, to engage students in experimentation with their surroundings without having to be on a computer.  Could you maybe, in a math or physics class, have students determine the proper angle at which to throw a super ball to get maximum bounce?

How about performance?  This one lends itself easily to an English class, or a social studies class, where students can act out roles and improvise based on the character or historical figure they’re representing.

Simulation certainly seems like it would require a computer, but with some basic materials like old cereal boxes, plastic wrap, paper towel rolls, scissors, and tape, students can create aqueducts to track water movement and volume.

Appropriation seems like a tricky one.  After all, how can you remix and sample media when you don’t have a working computer, or when your district blocks access to websites like YouTube?  Simple. Media doesn’t have to mean video or audio files.  Media can be magazine images, tape recordings of students’ own voices, student artwork, etc.  Use what you do have to encourage the same kind of skill.

Multitasking is probably one of the most critical skills on this list.  Being able to monitor a phone, a computer, and the real world simultaneously, for example, is a very important skill for professionals.  However, we can still teach the skill of multitasking in the classroom.  Perhaps we can have several different related activities happening in the classroom, and let students choose where to focus attention and when.

We could encourage the skill of distributed cognition in our students by allowing students free access to tools like calculators, formula sheets, dictionaries and encyclopedias, other students, and ourselves when trying to solve a problem.

This also lends itself to developing the skill of collective intelligence.  Allowing students to work together in collaborative groups to create products and solve problems encourages this skill; no computer is necessary.

Now, judgment is a bit different.  You can certainly teach judgment without a computer.  You can bring in various print resources, and talk with students about how they know which sources are reliable.  But this is the one instance where I’m going to encourage, nay insist that you bring in technology as well.  Why?  Well, because telling fact from fiction on the Internet is a challenge, and the only way to learn it is to interact with it.  You can start by making “screen shots” of websites on chart paper, for when you can’t get everyone on a computer.  Make some different kinds of websites, with different indicators of trustworthiness, for example, and talk to students about how they know which sites are legitimate.  Once you, hopefully, have the opportunity to take them to a computer lab, or give them turns on a computer, engage them in the process of exploring various websites and online sources of information (Twitter and Facebook are excellent for this, if they’re not blocked by your district).

Transmedia navigation, however, is able to be taught without computer access.  When you teach a unit of information, instead of giving a lecture, provide all of the important information in pieces across a variety of sources.  For example, put some information in a poster-type image.  Put some in an article they need to read (including extraneous information is important here).  Have another teacher or volunteer come in, and tell students that they can interview this person to get information, but that they need to know which questions to ask, and that only certain answers will be available.

To teach the skill of networking, you can create a print- and image-based network across multiple classes.  Have a blank bulletin board in each room, or in hallways, and have students search for and synthesize information in a visual format, and then share their work with other classes by posting it on the boards.  Allow students to comment on each other’s posts (productive feedback only, of course).

Finally, we have the skill of negotiation.  This one involves getting students out of the classroom.  Take them places, either in person, or virtually, if possible, and have them be in control of managing their assimilation or adaptation to new situations.  Coach an encourage them, but let them take the lead.

Obviously, the above are only a few of the many possible ways you could approach teaching these skills without technology.  The specific approaches you choose to use aren’t important.  What’s important, instead, is that you are teaching these skills.  Your students may have very limited access to advanced technology right now, but you can prepare them to be able to interact in meaningful and productive ways once they do have access to the technology.  These skills will transfer, so that one day, when they are, hopefully, sitting down to write their first blog post (or whatever the equivalent of that is in 5 years, 10 years, etc.), they will have the skills they need to work through the technology.

Have you had experience teaching new media literacy skills in a high need school? What challenges have you faced? What successes have you experienced?