By: Scott Brown, Middle School PE Educator
Like countless teachers across the country, I knew this school year was going to be hard. Teaching middle school during a normal year already takes resilience and strong student relationships, but teaching middle school PE during a pandemic and remotely via an online platform has taken creative thinking and innovation to a whole new level.
I have been teaching physical education for over a decade and have included nutrition as part of the curriculum for nearly as long. People think I’m crazy, but I love working with middle school students. I believe people are either destined to teach this age or they’re not—it definitely requires a seemingly endless supply of patience and empathy. And human connection. For me, the benefits far outweigh the challenges, and I feel blessed to have developed magical relationships with my students. I have witnessed firsthand many examples of positive change in both my students and their families from learning about health and nutrition. Watching my students learn how to include physical activity in their daily lives in a fun, positive and healthy way and pay attention to what they are eating—specifically making nutrition-based, healthier eating decisions—has been a gratifying journey for me.
Why I Teach Nutrition
My own interest in nutrition started at a young age and stemmed from need, not want. I was diagnosed with epilepsy in the 4th grade. At the time I was very sick and on many medications. It’s hard to even remember that period of my life. Over time, my parents found a new doctor, which was a turning point for me because my new doctor diagnosed me with various food allergies. As it turned out, I didn’t have epilepsy; I had food allergies. With that new knowledge, I was able to change my diet to remove triggering foods, stop taking medication and become a healthy young kid once again. The experience changed me and showed me the impact food has on health and wellness, a belief that I carry with me to this day. It is why I teach nutrition and physical education.
I have found that using real-life examples helps middle school students better understand nutrition. I love to use demonstrations to help students visualize information, such as translating the amount of sugar in a can of soda by showing them what 10 teaspoons of sugar looks like in a cup. Their reactions are priceless, and I am able to see the light of understanding shine bright in their eyes. Seeing the sugar in a cup makes so much more sense, giving students a clear, visual example of what they are drinking every time they finish a can.
For many years, Dairy Council of California’s Exercise Your Options curriculum has been the foundation of my nutrition lessons. It is a free resource for California educators that focuses on nutrition and physical activity for 6th-8th graders, making it the perfect resource for educators like me. Additionally, it
is a complete curriculum, providing me with everything I need, including a teacher guide, student workbooks, evaluations and educational videos. The videos follow different characters as they encounter real-life eating challenges common to middle
school children. My students especially enjoy the interactive lesson on what to eat in a food court—it really resonates with them and their actual experiences. After each lesson, my students have practical tools they can lean on to help them
make healthier eating decisions in the real world.
It has been an amazing experience to see how learning about nutrition and physical activity has changed the lives of my students and their families. One student who sticks out in my mind was able to lose close to 30 pounds. Her wellness journey inspired the entire family to take on a healthier, more active lifestyle together. The family ate better and took up sports on the weekend, enabling some family members to reduce the amount of medications they were previously taking. To see students take the information they learn in class and use it at home to drive positive change for themselves and their family is truly fulfilling, inspiring me to continue to do what I do.
The Upside to Distance Learning
Then came the pandemic. While I was initially nervous about changing to distance learning, it has given me the chance to try out new teaching tools that have led to more participation from my students. To my surprise, students cognitive retention was happening at a higher rate online vs in person. Here is how I was able to make that happen.
I took the Exercise Your Options curriculum and uploaded it to a teaching platform called Nearpod. It allows for real-time interactions and assessments with the students. With Nearpod I can track each student’s participation and understanding of the material. With each question in Nearpod, all students must answer on their computers before we move on to the next page. This keeps the class engaged, and I know right away if I need to spend more time covering a topic. As a result, I’m confident my students are learning even more than they used to about nutrition and physical activity.
Most PE teachers will agree, it is a challenge to teach nutrition in a PE class. In-person learning requires creativity and careful planning for when and how to integrate nutrition into the day. The distance learning model has made teaching nutrition easier by allowing me more time to cover the basics of nutrition.
The keys to educating online are empathy and relationship-building, which are very time consuming and hard to do well. It’s really up to individual teachers to initiate that process. The format of learning online challenges teachers to dive into the kids’ lives and find out who they are and how they learn. Educators can’t just go through the motions. I believe success comes from teachers challenging themselves to have a growth mindset, to always want to get better and learn more. Taking the extra steps to really get to know students can be life-altering.
Nutrition Education can Help with Access to Food
Once I had a handle on distance education, I decided to try an experiment to determine which families may be experiencing food insecurity. In California, roughly 24% of children under age 18 are food insecure—lacking reliable access to a reasonable amount of nutritious, affordable food—a problem that continues to increase as a result of COVID-19. My district is considered a Community Eligibility Provision district, which means that all of the students receive free lunch regardless of income. Though located in the Central Valley where a considerable portion of food is produced for the nation at large, the district is home to a large population of food-insecure families. In fact, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, 1 in 3 kids in the Central Valley was already at risk for hunger.
I know most of the kids at my school are getting a high percentage of their nutrition needs for the day met at school, which is important because healthy food helps students to learn better, and also leads to normal growth and development. Access to healthy food has become much more of a challenge now that schools are closed across the state, even with the free resources that are still available.
My students have a lot of pride, and I knew the only way to find out about their access to healthy foods was to gather information in a non-direct way. I started making interactive online lessons from the Exercise Your Options workbooks that included questions about food access. Delivering these questions through Nearpod allowed me to privately see each of the student responses in real time. It created a very safe environment for the kids to share their home circumstances even though the information was hard-hitting.
I tried to keep the questions casual so that the students wouldn’t be embarrassed to answer them. Specifically, I asked if they had access to foods from the five food groups at home, whether they would be able to get those foods if they asked for them, and whether they had transportation available to access free meals available from the school or other community centers.
Here is an example of a question set up:
A picture of the five food groups is shown on the screen.
I would ask the students to pick the answer below that best describes their situation.
Of the five food groups shown on this screen:
a) I have foods from all five of these food groups at home.
b) I have foods from 2-3 of these food groups at home.
c) I don’t have foods from all the food groups at home but could get them if I asked for them.
d) I don’t have foods from all the food groups at home, and I don’t see a way to have access to them.
Over the course of a couple of weeks, different questions were asked to determine the students’ access to healthy foods. From the students’ answers I was able to create a list of students that I believed to be living with food insecurity. As a result, the school partnered with a local church as well as the districts food services to provide free groceries for 13 of my students’ families, and the groceries were delivered directly to their homes. This was in addition to 42 students who began to pick up their daily food provided to them from the school.
The response from these families has been life-changing. They are overwhelmed with gratitude. As a teacher, my goal is always to teach my students something new, but to have the chance to help change their circumstances is something I never would have dreamed I’d be able to do.
I would encourage other teachers, especially those who are teaching subjects like nutrition and health, to adopt a similar approach to determining food access. What good does it do to teach students about healthy foods if it’s not possible for them to eat healthy food at home? Educators are in unique positions to not only teach but also help students on a path toward lifelong health and success.
For more information on food access resources available in your community and school environment, visit our Food Access and Materials Resources page.
Interested in helping to support children and families build healthier communities in California and beyond? Join the Let’s Eat Healthy movement today! Four outstanding educators were recognized for their passion and their efforts in elevating the health of their students and school community by incorporating nutrition education in their curriculum. Learn more about the Let's Eat Healthy Educator Recognition Program and the 2020-21 award winners.
To access the Exercise Your Options curriculum discussed in this post, along with online and in-person curriculum for all ages, visit the Let’s Eat Healthy curriculum page from the Dairy Council of California.
Physical Education provides an opportunity to implement nutrition ed aimed at teaching children how to make healthy food choices.
Watch the latest episode of Ask A Nutritionist and learn how nutrition education can benefit your child, school and community.