Genius Teacher Idea

Amy Lauren Smith

A Creative Way to Teach Healthy Hygiene Habits

Editor's note: In the classroom, when one student get sick, it seems like they all follow. How can you encourage healthy habits? This fun activity from Choices teacher advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a 6th-8th grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--presents a great way to get teens involved in staying healthy, which serves as a companion to our January article, Sick Season Survival Guide.

Last winter, my school had a bad case of the flu going around, and even with my super-strengthened teacher immune system, I still managed to get hit. Kids were dropping like flies, and the nurse told me the experience felt like a zombie apocalypse.

I realized I needed to beef up my hygiene lessons with the kids. We do a unit in sixth grade, but the focus is mainly on hygiene needs during and after puberty--deodorant, pimples, oily hair. We needed to go back to the basics, like remembering to always wash your hands. Since it's a message that's been told a million times, I wanted a fresh approach. Inspired by some mysterious signs I had seen in the bathroom ("Wash your hands, dude. It's gross if you don't."), I decided to have my students continue the campaign on their own.

Want to join in the fun? Here's exactly what I did:

1. Review the basics.
Kids know they need to wash their hands, cough into their elbow, and avoid sharing water bottles--but that doesn't mean they couldn't use a reminder. I split them into groups of two and gave them ten minutes to find as much information as they could about protecting themselves from germs. After that initial blitz, they had to narrow it down to one tip they wanted to focus on.

2. Create a catchy slogan.
The sign in the bathroom stood out because it was humorous and perfectly geared for a middle school audience. A sign that simply says, "Wash your hands" wouldn't resonate nearly as much with a 12-year-old, but something about putting it in tween-friendly language makes the message stick that much more. I told the students that it didn't need to be long and it didn't need to be complicated, but it did need to make people smile and feel like they were in on the joke.

3. Make a sign or a poster.
The beauty of this quick formative assessment is that it gives the kids a chance to practice their research and their advocacy skills, and doesn't require more than one class to complete. It also has the power to make an impact on the health of the school community. Some kids might choose to use graphics or pictures, but even just plain text will do. Regardless of their graphic design skills, all students have the opportunity to knock this one out of the park.

4. Find the right spot to hang it up.
Whether it's next to the bathroom sink, by the water dispenser, or on the back of the bathroom stall door, place your messages where people need to see them the most.  After all, a big part of advocacy is knowing where to place your message so that you can reach your target audience.

For more information on teen hygeine, be sure to check out our Sick Season Survival Guide in the January issue of Choices, as well as the ADVOCACY IN ACTION idea on page T6 of the January Teacher's Guide--which will help guide you in a similar activity!

Photo: Shutterstock

5 Tips for Bringing Project-Based Learning (PBL) to Health Class

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: Project-based learning is vital, but can feel overwhelming. That's why Choices Teacher-Advisor Amy Lauren Smith--a 6th-8th grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our monthly Teacher's Guide--has put together a few simple tips on bringing project-based learning to the classroom.

When I became a health teacher 15 years ago, my resources were limited. I was handed a stack of textbooks, a teacher's guide full of worksheets, and a box of outdated videos. Not wanting my students to suffer the same awkward and tedious experience I had, I set out on a mission to create other opportunities for them to demonstrate what they were learning.

Without access to the Internet or student devices, I had to get creative, but interestingly enough, many of the projects I had them do back then--such as videos, skits, and poster campaigns--are still a big part of my classes today. While technology has improved the quality of my students' research and work, the ideas behind the projects remain the same.

Teachers had been creating projects for their students long before we made the big educational shift to PBL. What's great is that we now have the tools and experience to take our projects to the next level. These five tips helped me advance my projects along the way.

Tip 1: Set up the classroom for interactive learning.

In my first health class, with 36 high school juniors crammed into rows of desks, I found this extremely difficult. So when the weather allowed it, I took them outside to work on skits, engage in small group discussions, or walk around the track while project planning. I took advantage of any chance I could get to put them together in groups.

Now at a school with smaller class sizes and more resources, I'm able to set my classroom up for collaboration, with tables instead of desks, soft furnishings, and plenty of floor space for the kids to get down on the ground and work.

For more ideas on how to the most of your space regardless of budget: 3 Tips for Designing a Healthy and Inviting Classroom

Tip 2: Keep your content current and relevant by getting students' input.

One of my main reasons for creating projects all those years ago is that the resources I was given didn't align with the current health concerns of my students. I got their input on what they wanted to learn and built my curriculum around that. With true PBL, there's more student voice and choice, so they have the freedom to create projects based on their interests and passions, which allows for customizable and adaptable learning.

For projects created by and for today's students: 12 Grab and Go Projects for Health

Tip 3: Hook students with a powerful 'entry event.'

Every good project kicks off with something to hook the students and spark a passion for deeper inquiry, such as a current event, guest speaker, or video clip. Gone are the days of entire class sessions spent watching classroom DVDs. Often a quick news clip of a teenager doing awesome things is all it takes to spur students on to do the same.

Tip 4: Stay on top of student learning with check-ins along the way.

It can be tempting to set your students free and let them work on their own, but continual conferences and check-ins help ensure that they're on the right track, and will help you when it's time to give them a grade. If there have been ample chances for formative assessments, no grade will be a surprise.

There are a myriad of formative assessment ideas to help your students stay on track, such as exit tickets, online discussion boards, and fun apps like Kahoot. I've been using journaling in my classes since the beginning--I find it useful not only as a formative assessment, but also for getting to know my students on a personal level.

Tip 5: Don't go it alone.

Health teachers often exist in a bubble on their campus, with no one to collaborate with. That's why social media can be such a useful tool. Hop online and follow the #HealthEd hashtag to share ideas with health teachers around the globe.

And if you don't have time to launch a full project in your class, team up with another teacher at your school for a cross-curricular project. Health is universal, which gives us the opportunity to connect our content and skills to almost every other subject on campus.

For more ideas for collaboration: 4 Ideas for Cross-Curricular Learning and 6 Online Resources for Planning a Health Curriculum

Additional resources:

Photo: Shutterstock.

3 Teens Who Have Bounced Back to Fight Bullying

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: October is National Bullying Prevention Month, so Choices Teacher-Adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a 6th-8th grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our monthly Teacher's Guide--has some wonderful examples of resilient teens who have faced bullying and come out stronger.


October is National Bullying Prevention Month, so my 8th graders are working on their campaigns to spread positivity around the school. Research shows that initiatives have a much better chance of sticking when started by the kids, so we try and do this project at least one time per year.

I always try to show the kids examples of other teens who've gained a reputation for being nice, and this month one of my students pointed out a common thread: Many of these kids were sparked into action because they have been targets themselves.

My students were impressed that rather than let the experience push them to unhealthy coping skills, like becoming a bully themselves, they fought back, but on a much bigger--and healthier--scale.

Here are three examples of teens who have demonstrated resilience in the face of bullying and inspired my students along the way: 


1. Natalie Hampton

After being targeted for being the new girl in 7th grade, Natalie Hampton experienced a very dark time in her life. She ended up transferring to a new school, but she kept that time in her thoughts, never wanting other kids to experience the same. She realized that lunch was usually a tricky time for new kids, so she had the idea of creating an app, Sit With Us, that would allow students a safe and rejection-free way to find somewhere to sit.

In this article from the Washington Post, she shares that she'd like to study psychology when she's older. This connection is what prompted one of my students to remark on her growth mindset and her passion to inspire and help other kids.


2. Jeremiah Anthony and The West High Bros

As an entry point for our project, I show my students a video clip of Jeremiah and the Twitter group he started at his school to spread positivity. In the video, you see Jeremiah's classmates talking about the work that he's done, and how much of a difference he's made. There are examples of his posts and photos of him hanging out with a large group of friends.

As a freshman, Jeremiah didn't really have many friends at all, but he remembers the one student who took the time to be nice to him, and that was the motivation behind his viral social media campaign.


3. Caitlin Prater-Haacke

After someone snuck into Caitlin's locker to steal her tablet and post a negative message on Facebook, Caitlin decided she wanted to fight back with love, rather than more hate. She wrote compliments on over 800 post-it notes and put one on each locker in the school.

Word of her awesome deed spread fast, and she was asked to speak at the TEDx Teen event and was featured in a story in Choices Magazine.

It's awesome to see positive behavior getting national attention, and these teens serve as a great example for our students. Not just for the work they're doing, but also for the way they've all bounced back... stronger, more passionate, and driven to make a difference for everyone else.

For instructions and a rubric to introduce this project in your school, check out Positive Peer Pressure to Help Combat Cyberbullying.


More Choices stories for your anti-bullying curriculum:


Amy Lauren Smith, used with permission

You'll Love This Mood-Tracking Activity!

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor's note: Sometimes teens have trouble understanding the moods and emotions that are going through their growing brains. This mood-tracking activity from Choices Teacher-Adviser Amy Lauren Smith--a 6th-8th grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teacher's Guide each month--presents a therapeutic, activity-based approach to teen mental health.  


Trackers have long been a part of health education. We use them for nutrition, water intake, exercise, sleep--all behaviors directly related to our physical health. They can be a useful tool for people of all ages as they look at their habits and recognize patterns and behaviors in need of a change. For this month's story on the teenage brain, we decided to have the students use a tracker for their moods, so they could apply this self-awareness to their mental health as well.

While I was tweaking the instructions, I had my students (or as they like to say, my guinea pigs) try out the activity first. Here is one student's rather insightful responses.


Student Instructions:

As you're going through the week, jot down (or draw) how you're feeling during the following times each day. Use the questions to help you expand on your thoughts!



Current feeling: Anxious

  • Is there a clear reason why I'm feeling this way, or is it hard to put a finger on? I'm pretty sure I forgot about a homework assignment that I had due. That happens a lot. Also, I texted my friend last night about the homework, and when I woke up they still hadn't responded, so now I'm worried about that too. Like maybe they're mad at me.  
  • Was I with anyone else at the time? What effect did they have on my mood? No, I was in my room. But then when I went into the kitchen, my mom was there, and she was bugging me about some stuff, so that made me even more upset.
  • For negative moods, how can I respond next time that might help me? I could write down the homework so I don't freak out about what I missed. I can also tell my mom if I'm feeling stressed so she doesn't make it worse. That probably won't work though.


After school

Current mood: Pumped

  • Is there a clear reason why I'm feeling this way, or is it hard to put a finger on? I had soccer practice, and we were doing some pretty good drills. I feel like we're ready for the game on Wednesday. Plus, while we were practicing, I wasn't worried about homework or stuff with my mom.
  • Was I with anyone else at the time? What effect did they have on my mood? The other guys on my team were there, and they were making me try harder. Plus we have a bunch of inside jokes, so we were having some LOL's.
  • For positive moods, how can I replicate the experience again so I can ensure I have more positive emotions than negative ones? Next time I'm stressed, I can go outside to play soccer with some friends, or do something else active, like bottle flipping.*

*If you're a middle school teacher, you totally now what this is


Now, I'm not sure if this student actually followed the instructions or filled in the tracker right before it was due, but either way, it was a great chance for reflection. He was able to recognize that disorganization causes him anxiety, and running around with his friends can help it go away... a pretty valuable lesson for a 7th grader.


Bring this mood-tracking activity to your classroom with our Mood Tracker Worksheet, a great resource to help foster positive mental health in your classroom.


Using Traditions To Teach Teens About MyPlate

Editor's Note: In the November/December issue of Choices, our story "What's For Dinner?" offers teens some delicious and healthy recipes that they can easily make for themselves. Here, Lauren DeViney, who is a Project Manager for the New Balance Foundation Billion Mile Race and former high school health teacher in Waltham, MA, shares her lesson plan that will gets students interested in cooking nutritious meals.

Part 1
Cultural traditions play an important role in our daily lives, especially when it comes to food. Get kids thinking about how their meals reflect their families or community by having them answer the following questions:

1. What foods does your family eat on holidays or at celebrations?
2. What foods does your family eat on a regular basis?
3. How are your answers to #1 and #2 different? Why might that be?

Then, have the students read "What's For Dinner?" in the November/December issue of Choices. After, they should partner up and share their answers. Together, they should spend about 10 minutes brainstorming answers to the following questions.

4. Why is it important to learn to cook for yourself?
5. What kind of food would you want to serve to the people you love? Why?
6. Why should you follow the MyPlate guidelines at mealtime?
7. Is it easy or challenging to eat more fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains? Why?

If time allows, you can call on volunteers to share the results of the brainstorm questions.

Part 2
Once you've got the class thinking about the importance of eating healthy, hand out the Choices MyPlate Meal Planner worksheet. Students will choose one of the meal styles from our story (bowl, pitza, or stir-fry) and customize it to reflect their own traditions or favorites. The worksheet will help them make sure they cover all the necessary food groups. Bonus points to anyone who actually goes home and makes the meal!


Help High School Seniors Deal With Stress

Amy Lauren Smith

This past weekend, our seniors came to school on Saturday for a full day retreat, where they attended workshops designed to help them navigate the growing list of requirements for their college applications.

Knowing the stress that often appears this time of year, their counselors asked us to offer some workshops on stress management and healthy coping skills. Between applications, essays, portfolios, classes, sports, and social commitments, high school seniors need to be reminded to unwind in healthy ways so they can enjoy their last year of high school.

Here’s the agenda we followed, as well as links and resources for further learning. Feel free to use any or all of these with your students, as these are valuable tools for teens (and adults!) of any age.

Healthy Coping Skill #1: Journaling

Activity: Give students a slip of paper or a small notebook and have them reflect on the following:

  • How are you feeling about all that’s needed for your college applications?
  • What are some concerns you have going into your senior year?

Learn More: 7 Reasons to Use Journaling in Your Classroom

Healthy Coping Skill #2: Practicing Gratitude

Activity: Have students quickly jot down five things they’re grateful for. Doing this simple activity just once a week has been proven to increase happiness in college students.

Learn more: 10 Reasons Why Gratitude is Healthy

Healthy Coping Skill #3: Effective Time-Management

Activity: Have students read the Choices article Why Can't I Stop Procrastinating? and figure out what type of procrastinator they are. Then, have them form groups with people who have each of the different procrastination styles, and then read and discuss How Can I Get It All Done? You can also have them watch this video on how to deal.

Learn More: 20 Quick Tips For Better Time Management

Healthy Coping Skill #4: Mindfulness and Meditation

If there’s time, show the TED Talk Andy Puddicombe, All It Takes is Ten Mindful Minutes. (If you don't have enough time, the animation intro from Headspace will work as well!)

Activity: Try the guided meditation, Smiling Mind, Level 1.

It might be tempting to skip this part, as it can be tricky getting buy-in from the kids. It’s just five minutes though, and after the workshop was over, my teaching partner and I got an email from a very thankful senior who appreciated the the meditation most of all. She said she would be using the program we shared on her own, so it was definitely worth the time.

Learn More: Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress

Healthy Coping Skill #5: Talk it Out

Remember, reaching out to others is a great way to prevent stress. Students need to realize that they’re not going through this alone!

Activity: Stand Up - Hand Up - Pair Up

This is a great discussion protocol, and also a nice way to end a lesson. Give students a list with the following questions (or something similar). They need to find someone to talk to about the first question. When they’re done discussing, they put their hand up and find someone else who needs a new partner. They high five their new partner, talk about question two, and then put their hand up again when they’re ready to move on. They cycle through five different partners, and avoid that whole awkward thing that can happen when they wait for the teacher to tell them to rotate.

Possible questions:

  • What are you most nervous or apprehensive about this year?
  • Are you and your parents seeing eye to eye for your plan after high school?
  • Is there anything you don’t have time for that you would like to do?
  • ​What can you take off your plate so you can find time to do this?
  • What are you most excited about going into your senior year?

Even more on healthy coping skills

10 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Incredibly Happy

The 33 Best Online Resources for Teen Health


Use the Olympics to Teach Kids About Goals

Amy Lauren Smith

It’s just about the beginning of the school year, which means that many kids are starting to set goals about their academics, health, or even their social behaviors. Because of this, teachers often start out the year by talking about the goal-setting process—and this year, the Olympic games give us the perfect opportunity to help these lessons come alive.

Athletic goals are often easy for students to wrap their heads around, because they easily match up with the SMART descriptors of goal setting:

Specific: These athletes are getting ready for a specific race, match, or event.

Measurable: Athletic goals are almost always measurable with medals, times, victories, and losses.

Attainable: By virtue of the fact that they qualified, these athletes are all in the position to achieve victory.

Realistic: For these special athletes, winning a medal is a realistic goal.

Timely: Absolutely! That event is scheduled, set in stone, and not happening again for another four years.

I’ll have my students research a specific athlete or team and answer the following questions. (If time allows, I might have them share their findings with the class.)

1. Which Olympic athlete (or team) would you like to learn more about?
2. What made you want to pick them?
3. How is their goal a SMART goal?
4. Goals are rarely achieved without help. Who helped your athlete along the way, and what did they do?
5. What were some of the checkpoints along the way that the athlete experienced to know they were making progress?
6. What roadblocks or obstacles did your athlete face while working towards their goal?

You can always set the kids free to research individually, but for those who need some help, here are two suggestions to get them started.

The Olympic refugee team
For the first time in Olympic history, there is a team made up entirely of refugees. These are athletes without a country, a national anthem, or a permanent home. After the warm welcome they received during the opening ceremonies, it’s clear that they're inspiring people all over the world. For more info on this amazing team, watch this quick video from ABC News: Meet the Olympics’ First Refugee Team.

Dartanyon Crockett
One of the most popular videos in my seventh grade health class is an ESPN documentary called Carry On, about Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton, two disabled high school wrestlers who formed an unbreakable bond and achieved remarkable goals by working together. Dartanyon—who is legally blind—went on to compete in London with the Paralympic judo team and ended up winning a bronze medal. He’s ready for this year’s games, and after being so inspired by him in the past, my students can’t wait to see what he’ll do in Rio. To get the project started, have your students watch Part 2 of Carry On, which focuses on Dartanyon’s road to the Paralympic games in 2012.

Finally, for more ideas on goal-setting: 5 Tips for Teaching Kids How to Set Goals

Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

5 Tips for Making the Most of Professional Development Days

Amy Lauren Smith

Summer is winding down, which means teachers are gearing up to head back to school. Before the first bell rings, most of us have a few days of professional development, or in-service days, to attend first. In addition to classroom prep, these days are often filled with meetings meant to get everyone back on the same page.

I’ve sat on both sides of these meetings over the course of my career, and have found that when done right, they are a great way to kick off the year. Whether you’re a department chair, an administrator, or a consultant, here are four tips that will help your school’s professional development days go smoothly.

Encourage collaboration.

Having been the new kid at more than a couple schools, I’ve learned from personal experience that letting people collaborate on something is a good way to ease nerves and get them in the mood for learning. When possible, give teachers time to work on a project with their departments and teams—but also switch up the groups occasionally, so people can get fresh ideas from colleagues they might not normally work with.

Learn more: 4 Essential Ingredients for Successful Teacher Collaboration

Get people moving.

After being away from school for some time, it’s hard to get back into work-mode—and nothing will make teachers (or students!) tune out faster than sitting in the same spot for too long. Keep your teachers engaged by scheduling regular program changes and breaks. (Bonus points if you plan activities they can use with their students at the start of the year!)

Learn more: 4 Starter Activities for the First Day of a New Semester

Give teachers something to be excited about.

I work at a school that is all about initiatives, so we’re often overloaded with acronyms at the beginning of the year (SEL, SBG, PLC, and so on). Luckily, our passionate administrators make this work. When we see that they’re excited to kick off a new project, we’re more eager to get on board.

Let teachers prep.

One of the biggest complaints I hear during professional development days is that there isn’t enough time to just get settled. This is especially important in elementary schools, where teachers need to have an inviting environment ready to go on the first day. With so much important business to attend to, it’s easy to overschedule—but don’t forget do set aside a reasonable amount of time for teachers to work on their own.

Learn more: 3 Tips for Designing a Healthy, Inviting Classroom

Bring snacks!

It’s no secret that teachers love coffee, and meetings always go better when people are well fed. In fact, a principal once told me that this tip was the first thing he learned during his training. A full staff is a happy staff, so make sure there are some healthy options for us to munch on. (Just please… no more donuts!)