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Middle School Health: How Parents Can Help Kids Make Better Choices

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Editor’s note: Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith is a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teachers Guide each month.

 

Last week, my principal had a great idea. Rather than scramble to help parents deal with issues as they pop up throughout the year, he decided we should take a preventative approach. Our student health program has always followed that model, but parents are often left to navigate this new world of middle school on their own.

So we had a mandatory parent night. All of the students were required to come and bring at least one parent to rotate through three workshops—one on balanced technology use, one on managing academic pressure, and one on making healthy choices (taught by me and a counselor).

Since I teach students in grades six through eight, I enlisted the help of my eighth graders—seasoned middle school vets that they are—and asked what they wish they would have known when starting sixth grade and how their parents could have given them extra support. Their thoughtful responses can offer some insight for parents who might need some tips.

 

 Issue #1: Sleep and Time Management 

 

What the kids had to say:

“When I was a sixth grader, I would sleep really late, thinking I was cool because I was staying up late gaming or texting. I think that a strategy for parents is to take technology out of the room when it's bedtime. However, I think you should eventually give technology back as they grow older and explain to them why you shouldn't stay up all night.”

 

What parents can do to help:

  •  Set healthy boundaries. (A tech curfew can help!)
  • Have kids charge their devices outside of their room at night.
  • Give them a little free time. Try the 45/15 rule: Kids work on things from their "have to do" list for 45 minutes and then take a 15 minute break to relax and do whatever they want.

 

 Issue #2: Friend Drama and Social Changes 

 

What the kids had to say:

“When entering middle school, you get a new look at everyone. It's like you snap out of the trance and realize how 'uncool' you are. You start to do stupid stuff to try and become popular/liked but it only makes you look worse. Sometimes it gets you in trouble with the teachers, and other times your peers get mad or annoyed at you and leave. I wish my parents could've not pestered me about my social life all the time, as it made me more aware about how disappointing it was and made me feel even worse.”

 

What parents can do to help:

  • Model good friend behaviors. Avoid gossip and be inclusive!
  • Help your teen explore and develop new friendships, but don’t put too much pressure on them.
  • Expect friendships to change and to go through some challenges. This is normal, natural, and necessary.
  • When issues arise, try to listen, stay calm, help your teen process the situation, and help find solutions.

 

 Issue 3: Body Changes and Healthy Choices 

 

What the kids had to say:

“I struggled with my parents comparing me to my older siblings and my friends too much. They expect me to be as intelligent/tall/thin as them, but I wish they would have known that sometimes people have different strengths, and during middle school, we all grow at different rates. How fast I grow isn’t something I can control, so it’s always super frustrating to hear about it.”

 

What parents can do to help:

  • Understand that puberty doesn't affect everyone in the same way.
  • Make healthy choices at home and send nutritious snacks to school.
  • Encourage play and physical activity.
  • Model positive body image and a healthy relationship with food.

 

 Issue 4: Stress and Overscheduling 

 

What the kids say:

I struggled with stress and overscheduling the most as a sixth grader because of how busy I was and all the things that I had to remember to do. I was often stressing out because of homework and tutors and extra classes that I had to take. I wish I could have known to manage my time better but also have had more time to play outside.”

 

What parents can do to help:

  • Help your teen manage their time and plan a realistic week. Ask questions and work together to set goals.
  • Encourage them to make choices that include their passions and give them opportunities to grow and explore.
  • Respect their needs and differences. Check in regularly to adjust their schedules if necessary.

 

Making the shift from elementary to middle school can be exciting and scary at the same time. With increased freedom and a longing for independence, young teens are still learning how to control their impulses and make good decisions on their own—but it's still crucial that they have the support of their parents along the way!

 

 

 

Nutrition: This Fun Research Project Will Help Your Class Tackle Dietary Guidelines

Editor's Note: Our October feature, How Do You Say "Yum" Around the World?will encourage students to carefully examine their food choices and habits. Use this engaging activity from Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith to expand on international nutrition rules while you're at it!

 

About four years ago, the American international school I work at in Shanghai, China, switched cafeteria providers. After several years of working with Eurest—a huge multinational food service company—we switched to Sodexo, an even bigger one. The switch came rather abruptly and was frustrating for us health teachers, as we had been working with the Eurest staff over the years to adapt their menu to provide our kids with consistently healthy choices. 

While the new Sodexo staff were more than willing to work with us, it felt like we would need to start all over again. And with Chinese chefs working for a French company in an American school, things were inevitably going to get complicated.

When we approached their manager about healthy food options, we wanted to know what set of dietary guidelines they were using to plan and prepare the meals. Turns out, with so many competing influences, they hadn’t settled on one. However, the manager was happy to meet with us, so we set off gathering recommendations. 

As it turns out, it wasn’t so easy for us either. The U.S. guidelines that we had traditionally used in class were wordy and complicated, with recommendations for specific sodium milligrams that would be difficult for our staff to measure. So we broadened our search. Australia had recently released new school food guidelines, and the red/yellow/green system they were using seemed like it would be easy for our Mandarin-speaking chefs to follow. 

But we had another issue. With the multicultural background of our students, one set of dietary guidelines wasn’t necessarily going to work. It’s difficult to mandate brown rice for all students when many come from Asian countries—including some with a particularly healthy diet, like Japan. So we dug deeper. 

At the time, we were using Michael Pollan’s Food Rules in class, and his guidelines (eat food, not too much, mostly plants) are built around basic messages about real food, not specific recommendations about what exactly you should eat. Since he was always sharing new information about food that we could trust, I was following him closely on social media. Just before our meeting, he tweeted out a link to an article about the “revolutionary guidelines built around foods, food patterns, and meals, not nutrients” that had just come from Brazil.

The reason why Brazil had chosen to go in this direction is that they are a multicultural country with citizens hailing from all over the world, and with different cultures finding different ways to balance their nutrients, a “one-size-fits-all” approach was never going to work. This really struck a chord with me, because at our school—with 3,000 students from over 40 countries—we were finding ourselves in a similar boat. 

Going through this process and learning about the ways different countries guided their citizens to eat inspired me to learn more. I discovered a page from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations that supplied links to the dietary guidelines from countries all over the world. I was excited to share it with my multicultural seventh graders and get their feedback. Did the countries they came from stick to the guidelines suggested from their governments? And after all they had learned about eating real food, which specific guidelines did they think were the best?

We decided to solve our multicultural cafeteria dilemma by getting the kids involved. After researching the guidelines, they brainstormed, voted, and decided which ones they would present to our chefs. During the process, they not only learned about different cultures and their diets, but also got to have a say in the food they’re served now.

 

While turning this into an extension activity to go along with How Do You Say "Yum" Around the World?, I asked some of my former students what they remembered about their research. Here's what two of them had to say:

“Before the dietary unit, I thought every country used the same guidelines as the United States, the standard food plate. However after the dietary unit, I learned that each country based their guidelines of what they had available to them.”

“It was interesting how the location of a country could so heavily impact the diet of its inhabitants. However, the overall diet guidelines were all similar in its overall rules; limit the amount of salt or sugar you eat, don't eat too much fat, incorporate veggies and fruits into your diet.”
 
To try this activity with your students, check out How Do You Say "Yum" Around the World? and download our Global Dietary Guidelines worksheet below. Enjoy! 

Image courtesy of Amy Lauren Smith

Teen Sleep: This Lesson Plan Will Encourage Students to Get More Rest

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Several years ago, I started noticing an alarming trend: students nodding off in class. Now, this wouldn’t be as surprising of an issue if I was still teaching high school, but these were only seventh graders.   

I asked the students what was going on—but of course I already knew that technology was keeping them awake. Sensing that time management and distraction were becoming bigger problems and that parents weren’t stepping in to intervene, I created a project for the students instead.

Over the course of the last few years, this project has changed and morphed, as is often the case with project-based learning. Feel free to adapt it to fit your class! Use the instructions and PDF below to try out this quick and effective project with students in grades 6 to 12.

 

Step 1: Journal Topic

Have students reflect on the writing prompt, "Younger teens often brag about a lack of sleep, but that usually stops when they get older. Why do you think that is?"

 

Step 2: Research

I usually begin this section of the unit by showing the students a TED Talk by Russell Foster, "Why Do We Sleep?"

After that, I set them free to do some additional research on the benefits of rest. Depending on the age of your students, you can set them free on their devices or give them some articles and links to help guide the way. Personally, I provide some links on the different benefits—improved academics, athletics, and creativity, along with the impact on physical appearance—to get them started. You want every student to be able to find a benefit that most resonates with them.

This year, I plan on having the kids read the cover story from our September issue, Generation Zzzzzzzz, as it’s jam-packed with all sorts of stats and information. If you’re working at a school without many tech resources, this will provide your students with more than enough information to advocate for their cause.

 

Step 3: Advocacy

Then it's time for a class discussion about young teens thinking it's cool to miss out on sleep, circling back to the journal topic from Step 1. At this point, the students have done their research and have solid information as to why this isn’t good.  We then begin the process of advocating for a good night's sleep for their classmates.

This component of the project can change—I've done both posters and songs, and sometimes I've let students pick their own medium. This year, we used Canva, a free online design software, where the kids each picked a template for a social media platform of their choice. They were then able to design a meme or a post that they thought would appeal to middle school students. After, they printed and cut out their work, and we pieced them all together on a used canvas to create a collage.

The end product was colorful, eye-catching, and full of great information. Plus, it was fun seeing some of my students who struggle the most with technology and sleep jumping in to take control of the placement of everything on the canvas. That’s one of the most important reasons to do activism projects in health class: often, students end up advocating for themselves the most.

 

Sleep Advocacy PDF

Photo courtesy of Amy Lauren Smith

Why You Should Bring Your Teenage Students Outside to Play

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Editors note: In this months debate, Do Teens Need Recess?, we tackle the importance of physical activity during the school day. This activity from Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith—a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teachers Guide each month—will help you get your students moving.

 

Earlier this year, I had my seventh graders researching the benefits of play. They were online, digging around for all of the ways that playing can benefit their physical, social, and emotional health. I find this method of information gathering an effective way of delivering content, as the students process it in an immediate and personal way. Sure enough, it was only a few minutes before they began calling out some of the things that they found.

 

“Playing outside can help your mental health because being in nature reduces stress.”

 

“It can also make you a better student since it improves focus and reasoning.”

 

“Oh! It's super important for your social health because it’s when you develop relationships.”

 

“Physically, there are like, so many. Do I have to write them all?”

 

And then, a voice from the back of the room…

 

“Is anybody else in here seeing the irony? We’re sitting inside, researching the benefits of play.”

 

He was right, of course, so there was only one thing to do. We’d need to go outside and do some hands-on research as well. I knew the risks of taking a group of seventh graders outside without some direction—a group of kids would play basketball, a few would hang out on the swings, one or two would ask me what they were supposed to do—so I decided to set some parameters.

 

Since we were looking at the benefits of free play, I didn’t want to overprescribe, so I came up with some simple guidelines. They needed to find a game that would involve everyone and they couldn't pick an organized sport. I guided them to start thinking about some of their favorite games growing up, and soon they had generated a big list of ideas—Infection Tag, Cops and Robbers, Red Light/Green Light, Capture the Flag. I told them I was going to be hands-off, but if I felt like they weren’t all into it, we’d have to come back inside.

 

As soon as we got outside, a few students naturally became the leaders and they all decided who was it. I think they were playing Cops and Robbers, but the game quickly developed rules of its own. Kids who are normally too self-conscious to run in PE were booking it like their lives depended on it, laughing hysterically. One of my most introverted students even became the focus of the class when she was so fast that she was the last to get caught.

 

It was really special to see these middle school students dropping their armor and taking the time to be kids. Their laughter was absolutely contagious, and other teachers walking across campus stopped just to take it all in. My class kept playing right up until the time I had to drag them back in.

 

When we got back into the room and I asked them who felt better than they had 20 minutes before, every single hand shot up.

 

“See,” said my observant student from before, “hands-on research is the best.”

 

To try this activity with your class, check out this month’s debate, Do Teens Need Recess?

 

 

Health Education: 2 Free Resources to Check Out Over the Summer

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Editors note: Already thinking about next year? Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith—a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher’s Guide each month—has got the scoop on new online tools that'll make planning lessons so much easier.

 

We’re extremely lucky to be teachers in the digital age. Gone are the days of outdated textbooks and those painfully awkward videos. We don’t need to be tied to content that’s irrelevant to our students as we can easily find completely free resources online.

 

That being said, teaching with all these options can also be overwhelming. With seemingly endless possibilities, there is always something better around the bend. I find that I often go through phases—either devouring all that I can and revamping my curriculum with gusto, or slowing down to calibrate and focus on fine-tuning what I know already works. Right now, I'm in a much-needed period of calibration, but over the summer break, I hope to find some time to dig into these new programs and see how we might make them fit.

 

1. Dove Confident Me: School Workshops for Body Confidence

 

From the Dove Self-Esteem Project, this five-session unit plan is full of current, ready to go lessons. Many of the best body image lesson starters over the past few years have been videos produced by Dove, so it’s exciting to see that they’ve compiled them into lessons that are classroom-ready.

 

According to the website, the lessons aim to focus on topics that are relevant to todays’ students:

 

·       Challenging unrealistic sociocultural ideals of appearance

·       Media literacy with respect to these ideals

·       Reducing appearance comparisons and appearance conversations

·       Encouraging body activism and positive behavior change

 

The lessons are designed mainly for 11-14 year-olds, but can be used with older students as well. There's also a single lesson for teachers or youth group leaders who might not have time to deliver the whole unit plan. Everything is completely free and downloadable, the lessons all come with presentation slides, and there’s even a YouTube playlist of accompanying videos to show in class.

 

2. Be Internet Awesome from Google 

 

This new program is designed to help teach kids about online safety in an updated and tech-friendly way. Covering current topics such as trolling, fake news, and digital citizenship, this classroom-ready curriculum was written with the help of educators and is aligned to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards.

 

The learning modules are filled with activities and an online game. While designed for younger students, I can imagine that a few of the modules and activities—especially the ones on positive online behavior and spotting fake news—will be useful for middle school health classes.

 

In addition to teaming up with educators, Google enlisted the help of popular YouTubers, including The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, to create videos that support the program. Considering the huge influence he has on adolescents (he’s often been referred to as “the teen whisperer”), this seven-minute video is great for class.

 

For more on helping kids filter online content, check out our May 2017 cover story, Which One is #FakeNews?

 

Photo courtesy of Amy Lauren Smith

What Students Have to Say About Skills-Based Health Education

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Editors note: Still teaching a content-based health curriculum? Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith—a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teachers Guide each month—makes the case for why you should switch to skills-based education.

 

Almost nine years ago, I packed up everything and left my small town in Southern California to teach middle school health in Shanghai, China. Though I’d be teaching in a foreign country, it was an American school with international expat students, so I figured my go-to lessons and projects would transfer well.

 

But the reality was very different from what I expected. The health concerns of my middle school students who were living abroad and attending a high-pressure prep school differed drastically from the concerns of the high school students living in my hometown. I was going to need a whole new curriculum.

 

Without official content standards to work off of, I was able to survey the students to find out what their top health concerns were and adapt my lessons accordingly. The beauty of the National Health Education Standards is that they’re skill-based and adaptable to meet the needs of any student population.

 

This is key for so many reasons, especially since health concerns shift dramatically between students from state to state, school to school, and even from year to year. If you get tied to content you’ve been teaching for several years, you’re missing an opportunity to truly help your students by equipping them with the health literacy skills they’ll need to make the right choices both now and well into the future.

 

As skills-based health education is still in the early stages, we don’t yet have solid proof that this common sense, adaptable approach is the best way to reach all of our students. Luckily, teaching at a PK-12 school gives me a chance to check back in with former students to ask for their opinion on skills-based health. How does it work, why is it important, and what exactly do they remember about the skills that they’ve learned?

 

Here’s what they had to say:

 

The old version of health is more like you get the scenario, and they tell you what to do. Whereas now we learn it in a way that’s opposite from before, where the scenarios are varied and you don’t know what’s going to come, but you have these ways you can think critically about what you’re going to do, which is more like how it happens in real life.  

-Zini, ninth grade

 

The benefit of skills-based health education is that it can be applied to many different areas of learning and life, not just health class. For example, we are making a Shark Tank presentation in Social Studies class. We can use our decision-making skills we learned in health to make the right decision for our business plan. Also, health concerns are constantly changing and everybody is unique, so content-based learning may not be applicable in a few years and it may not be applicable to everyone. On the other hand, skills-based learning can help everyone in any situation. 

-Laurel, eighth grade

 

I’m not sure I could have put it any better.

 

Ready to make the switch? Start with these seminal texts by the top experts in the field: The Essentials of Teaching Health Education by Sarah Benes and Holly Alperin, and Skills-Based Health Education by Mary Connolly

 

Related: Switching From Content-Based to Skills-Based Health Ed

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A Reading and Writing Lesson Plan That Will Inspire Your Whole Class

By
Tracy Potash

Editor’s note: In the April 2017 issue of Choices, we told the story of Lexi Brock, a multiracial teen who discovered a new sense of purpose while working on a school assignment. Tracy Potash—one of our fantastic teacher advisers and a language arts intervention teacher from Pennington, New Jersey—shares how she used the article to inspire her own students. 

 

Have you ever had an “Aha!" moment that was so powerful it touched your very soul, turned your world upside down, and propelled you into action? That is exactly what happened to 18-year-old Lexi Brock, who's featured in the Choices article, What Are You?

My middle school students and I were inspired by this young lady’s spirit. As an English teacher, I was elated that my students connected with the article and wanted to search for quotes that reflected who they are, just like Lexi did. So I developed the following lesson, which includes a modified version of the assignment given to Lexi as a tenth grade student.

 

Common Core standards:

RI.7.1, RI.7.2, RI.7.3, RI.7.4

 

The Steps:

Step 1: Student participated in the pre-reading activity Skim – Scan – Preview, which is a quick and effective method for increasing comprehension. First, they complete a visual scan of all the graphic information presented, including photographs, headings, subheadings, graphs/tables, and attention-grabbing fonts. Next, they'll scan and find specific information, such as boldface words, subheadings, numbers, maps, timelines, and specific facts. And finally, they'll read the first sentence or two of each section to grasp the overall picture of the piece.

For another pre-reading strategy: Why You Should Try Text Mapping With Your Class

 

Step 2: After the pre-reading activity, we read the article together. While we read, I asked them to consider: What are the big ideas in the article?

 

Step 3: Students considered the following prompt:

What is the topic(s) of the article? Think of it as the Author’s Purpose for writing the article. What are the big ideas that stand out?

Possible answers:

  • Racial discrimination
  • Experiences being multiracial in the USA
  • Your worth is not determined by the color of your skin
  • When bad things happen, you rise above it and turn it into a positive

 

Step 4: Now for the inspiring part! Students were given the task to find a quote that in some way represented them or that they felt a connection to. Then, they had to write a five to eight sentence paragraph about why they choose it. I shared a quote of my own with the students as an example.

 

 

Step 5: Students perused the gallery of inspirational quotes chosen by their peers. As they focused on the quotes/paragraphs, they were instructed to comment in writing on as many as possible, using a friendly letter format. Believe it or not, there was not one duplicate quote!

      

Conclusion: In all my years of teaching, I’ve never before had my students write for an entire period without complaining, but my students were mesmerized by the gallery. In fact, this activity was so enjoyable, they actually requested to continue reading and responding for another class period! Plus, they developed stronger connections to their classmates and learned things about them that they did not know beforehand. What a moving experience!

Netflix's '13 Reasons Why' may bring up difficult conversations in class. Here's what you need to know to be prepared. Photo credit: Netflix

What Health Teachers Can Learn From ‘13 Reasons Why’

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: The hit Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, has both teens and adults talking right now, and since the show was just renewed for a second season, it's likely these discussions won't be going away anytime soon. Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith—a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month—explores what she learned from the show and what you need to know if it comes up in class.

 

By now, we've all heard about 13 Reasons Why. A large number of teens have watched it, and an even larger number of adults are concerned. In fact, this new drama depicting teen suicide has garnered warnings from school psychologists, district administrators, and government officials alike.

 

There are many reasons to be concerned about the content featured on 13 Reasons Why, especially the graphic how-to style depiction of the main character’s suicide. The story—which plays out like a revenge fantasy for a teen who has dealt with bullying, stress, and sexual assault—has experts rightfully speaking out about the risk for suicide contagion.

 

But we can’t ignore that the show is hugely popular with our students, and as health teachers, students are most likely to bring it up in our classes. The show offers a large amount of teachable moments for students and adults alike. But while we certainly don’t want to stigmatize mental health issues or sweep things under the rug, it’s important to remember that the majority of us teachers are not licensed counselors. We need to make sure we’re listening to the experts and going about these discussions in the right way.

 

Here are the main messages I took from the show.

 

1. Health curriculum needs to be more comprehensive, and it needs to happen past ninth grade.

 

I think we can all agree that our kids need comprehensive health education as they get into the upper grades and actually start facing many of the risk behaviors we teach them about when they’re younger. College prep shouldn’t only be academic, and a skill-based health education that teaches kids about important life skills—like decision-making, communication, and healthy behaviors—should take a priority in all of the grades.

 

Many of the articles written by experts about the show have brought up the importance of health education, so we should be using this as an opportunity to advocate for a more comprehensive curriculum in all of our schools.

 

2. Mental health and well-being needs to play a key role in health education.

 

Mental health has taken on a more prominent role in health education over the last several years, and it’s helped break down stigma. However, we need to make sure the lessons go even further than mental illness and focus on helping all kids maintain good mental health.

 

Many of the risk behaviors the kids in the show engage in before and after Hannah’s suicide are unhealthy coping skills they’re using to deal with high levels of stress. Rather than focus on a reactionary curriculum that just warns students about these risky behaviors—drug use, bullying, fighting, alcohol abuse—we should focus on prevention, helping them identify healthy ways of dealing with stress instead.

 

3. Sexual assault, consent, and bystander responsibility need to have a central role in sex education.

 

If you’re still spending two weeks going through the gory details of different STIs and not addressing consent, you’re missing an important opportunity and doing a disservice to your students. They need to understand the signs of sexual assault and they need to learn the communication skills needed to step in and stop it when they see it happen.

 

4. We need to pay more attention to kids that "fly under the radar"—and those who fly over it as well.

 

Hannah often says that she feels invisible. As teachers, we have an opportunity to make sure that doesn’t happen on our watch, as the kids who don’t draw attention to themselves are often the most in need.

 

On the flip side, students who are extremely visible in school—the star athletes, the class presidents—might develop a sense of entitlement that can lead them to commit crimes, including sexual assault.

       

5. Schools need to make social/emotional counseling as big a part of their program as college counseling.

 

When Hannah tries to go to her counselor for help, he’s distracted and gives her very little time and some terrible advice. As a teacher, I found this part of the show the most infuriating, as it gives kids the wrong message about coming to us for help.

 

We have to see what we can learn from that though, and acknowledge that many guidance counselors are overwhelmed with college admissions and just don’t have enough time to be open to students in need.

 

This year, our high school hired new social/emotional counselors who have nothing to do with college admissions, and they've been helping students around the clock. Just the simple fact that kids know they have someone to go to who can help them with their stress has been beneficial beyond belief. This shift to a separate counseling model is happening in schools all over, and can be especially important in communities and cultures where mental health can still carry a stigma and parents are reluctant to get their children help.

 

 

For more on how educators should handle 13 Reasons Why discussions, check out this comprehensive guide from the National Association of School Psychologists.

Amy Lauren Smith

4 Surprising Ways Teens Can Practice Mindfulness

By
Amy Lauren Smith

Amy Lauren Smith is a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, as well as a Choices teacher-adviser and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher’s Guide each month.

 

As I’m writing this, I’m on a high-speed train headed through the Chinese countyside. Seated next to me are two seventh graders who are involved in a particularly heated game of Uno. We’re returning to our international school in Shanghai after a “Week Without Walls” trip to Wuyishan, a beautiful mountainside town deep in the Fujian province. It’s best known for its culture of tea and pottery, so naturally I was worried about how my smartphone-dependent students would handle four full days there.

 

As it turns out, I didn’t need to be.

 

On our first day, during an extremely slow and quiet tea ceremony, I looked around anxiously at the kids. While one of the tea masters played an ancient Chinese instrument and the other demonstrated the many steps involved in the traditional ceremony, the kids were all fixated and completely tuned in. Not a small feat for these kids—especially since it was conducted entirely in Mandarin, a language many of them can’t quite fully understand.

 

Even with my limited grasp of the language, I found myself completely transfixed. After it was done, the tour guide explained to me that the ceremony was considered a Chinese form of meditation, and I could fully understand why.

 

With the hyper-connected lives of our students, mindfulness is rightfully a big buzzword in education. It’s become an integral part of our health program, with the kids doing guided meditation most days of the week. But this experience made me think about the other ways they can experience mindfulness and pay attention to those opportunities throughout the week. 

 

Here are just four of the times I saw them connect with the present moment and fully disconnect from their phones. Perhaps you can adapt these techniques to fit your own school communities!

 

Farming

Before the kids learned how to seep and pour the tea, they had to get out into the field to pick it themselves. Working in teams to gather a kilo and a half of nothing but hand-selected leaves, they were physically and mentally switched on, and I didn’t see a single one of them reach for their phones. (Can't take your students to an actual farm? Gardening would likely have a similar effect!) 

 

Making Pottery

The next day, we went to a pottery workshop. For all of the kids, this was the first time they were able to use a pottery wheel and experience the joy of getting their hands dirty while concentrating on forming the perfect bowl. While not all of them were able to get it just right, each one of them enjoyed the opportunity to try.

 

Riding Bikes

Yesterday, as we were riding through the tea plantations on bicycles, one of the students in front of me shouted out that he felt so free with the wind in his face. Even though he rides a bike to school everyday, it’s much different when you’re out on the open road, rather than on the crowded streets of the big city. 

 

Being Surrounded by Nature

Studies show that giving kids access to nature can help improve their mental health and well-being. And whether we were hiking through tea fields, skipping rocks, or floating down the river in a bamboo raft, these city kids were in awe of their surroundings and fully appreciative of where they were.

 

So many of the experiences we took for granted as kids—playing in the dirt, learning cultural traditions, making things with our hands—are rarely experienced by today’s overscheduled teens.  If we want our students to practice mindfulness and connect with the present moment as much as they do their devices, we might have to go back to basics—and just give them a chance to be kids.

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Teaching Teens to Be Conscious Consumers

Editor's note: In this month's debate, Is It OK to Buy Cheap Clothes?, we tackle fast fashion and its impact on our world. Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--did a little digging to make sure she thoroughly understood the subject before teaching it to her students.

 

I haven't always been the most conscious consumer. I'll admit that up until about ten years ago, I didn't even know what corporate social responsibility (CSR) was. (For those of you who still don't know, it's a company's sense of responsibility toward the community and environment in which it operates.) It wasn't until I moved to China that I began to understand how important it is to become familiar with the supply chain of my favorite brands.

 

One of the first friends I made here is now a rock star in the field.  After studying Mandarin in college, she came to Shanghai absolutely determined to save the world. Over the years, she has taught me countless lessons about the environmental and social responsibility of corporations and the individuals who buy from them. Now back in the States, she's working as the "Green Chief" for JetBlue, where she spearheaded a program to recycle 18.5 tons of old uniforms when the company updated to new ones in 2014.

 

When it came time to write an activity to go along with this month's debate, Is It OK to Buy Cheap Clothes?, I knew I had to consult her first.

 

Right away, she told me to check out the CSR sections on the websites of a few of the more popular brands. I started with Forever 21. There was very little in the way of information, no images, and just black text on white background. Pretty strange for such a massive and popular brand.

 

Then she told me to check out H&M, as the Swedish company is known for their environmental and social efforts. I discovered a CSR site that was updated, full of links, and that clearly outlined their company values and goals. There were also separate sections detailing their efforts to minimize their environmental impact and to ensure better working conditions for all.

 

 

She told me to dig around a little more, and I discovered that--like with many other products and services--all brands were not created equal. Some expensive brands don't do a great job of looking out for the workers manufacturing their products, while some other less expensive clothing brands are making an effort. This came a relief to me, as I believe (and suspect that many of our students will too) that cheap clothes can "level the playing field" and increase the self-confidence of teens who can't afford higher-priced trends and fashion.

 

Eventually, my friend sent me the link to a study out of Australia, which gave global fashion brands a letter grade for their approach to worker welfare.  Sure enough, H&M had received a B+, and Forever 21, a D-. She also pointed out that some of the more expensive designer brands also ranked pretty low.

 

She could have told me all of this right away, but like a good teacher, my friend knew that I needed to find the information out for myself. And just like that, she helped me create the perfect activity to go along with our debate.

 

Conscious consumerism isn't something that can be directly pushed on someone. Just like with the other skills we teach, it's something our students need to practice and develop on their own.

 

After reading the debate and picking a side, have your students use the activity sheet below to have to conduct their own research and share their findings with the class.