The Healthy Classroom

Share These Wise Words on Group Projects!

Editor's Note: In our back-page advice column called Life Skills Made Easy, we tackle a different question each month, sourced straight from our Teen Advisory Board members--or your students! (They can go here to submit their question.) The goal is to provide teens with the simple, doable strategies that will help them succeed in school and in life.


Ah, group projects--as a teacher, they offer incomparable opportunities for learning, cooperation, and teamwork. But what happens when some students don't pull their weight, or when entire groups devolve into a state of chaos and frustration?

That's why we love this month's Life Skills Made Easy question, from Liza, a high school freshman in Florida.



We also adore the resulting advice (read the full column here) from big-time media project manager and career empowerment expert, Julie Hochheiser Ilkovich, which will help your students stay organized and accountable. We urge you download this Wise Words poster, hang it up in your classroom, and share it with colleagues. It's a crucial reminder we all need!

P.S.! Check out these other great Ideabook posts:

Shutterstock / Pinkyone

3 Healthy School Food Programs to Watch

Amy Lauren Smith

Last spring, my seventh grade students had a chance to present their nutrition projects to a group of visiting executives from Sodexo, our school’s cafeteria provider. The regional manager and chef were excited to hear from the students and made promises to implement their suggestions for healthier and tastier food.

And they have, to an extent—just maybe not as fast as my students would like. Sodexo is a massive company, and we’re a big school. Changes of this scale have to roll out in phases, but I don’t want my students to get frustrated in the process or feel like their efforts have fallen flat.

To encourage their spirit of advocacy, we’re having them form a student “task force” that can help the Sodexo chefs as they implement the healthier new menu items. As I've been looking for inspiration for this project, I’ve found that there are many districts that are offering delicious and nutritious food, as well as sharing it on social media to encourage other schools to do the same.

If you’re looking to make healthy changes in your cafeteria, here are three Twitter accounts to check out.

1. Austin Independent School District (AISD), Texas: @AustinISDFood

Since the city is known for its vibrant foodie culture, it’s no surprise that their school food program is top notch, featuring fresh local food, ethnic variety, and of course, a fleet of super cool food trucks. Leave it to the fine folks of Austin to make cafeteria food tasty, healthy, and hip. Plus, last year at SXSWEdu, I had a chance to attend a two-hour workshop from AISD on their Whole Child program. Their focus on the social, emotional, and physical needs of their students was truly inspirational, and left me buzzing with ideas that I’ve been implementing in my classroom and my school community ever since.

2. Greenville County School District, South Carolina: @SchoolFoodRocks

Joe Urban is the director of the Food and Nutrition Services for Greenville County Schools, and his Twitter feed would rival that of some of the best food bloggers out there. Every school day, he’s posting pictures of cafeteria meals that are fresh, colorful, and guaranteed to make you hungry. He also posts tips for getting students excited about new veggies, involved in menu selection, and enjoying all sorts of food. According to his Twitter account, his district is the 44th largest in the U.S., disproving the argument that big districts can't implement healthy changes.

3. Windham Raymond Schools, Maine: @chefsamRSU14

There are so many great school food programs out there, but the creative and colorful dishes from Chef Sam particularly grabbed my attention. I love the idea of a chef taking ownership over school food, and the time and passion she puts into her work are apparent in all her posts. It’s exciting to see school food being used as an opportunity to teach the community about the importance of cooking and eating whole foods.

For more inspirational cafeterias, check out my growing Twitter list: School Food Programs to Watch.

How Meditation Helped My Middle School Classes

Amy Lauren Smith

At first they were resistant. Ask a sixth grader to do something, and they might put up a fight. Ask them to sit there and do nothing, and they’ll look at you like you’ve lost your mind.

I tried all of the different methods of coercion: reasoning, scientific research, videos of meditation in the NBA. Finally, they started settling in. When I tried to read a script and guide them through the meditations myself, they giggled and accused me of using my “hippie voice," so we turned to Smiling Mind, an app that has free guided meditation programs broken down by age group and designed specifically for the classroom. My students decided that the guy’s cool Australian accent was much more soothing than mine (and I didn't mind, because it meant I got to meditate right along with them!)

We began this regular meditation practice in all of my middle school classes three years ago. For five minutes or so at the beginning of every other class, we dim the lights, find a comfortable seat, and just unwind for a bit. The shift in the classroom dynamics could almost be felt immediately, and over the years, my students and I have become more focused, centered, and engaged.

This year’s eighth graders are now in their third year of a regular meditation practice, so when it came time to write a column about how meditation has benefitted my students, I figured I should just go ahead and ask them. Rather than share their thoughts only with me, I had them use our class’s online discussion board, and their responses—as well as the corresponding ‘likes’ they received from each other—confirmed what I already knew; this seemingly small shift had become one of the most important of my teaching career.

Here’s what they had to say:

"When I'm feeling stressed out, meditation helps me calm down, take a step back, and look at the situation with more perspective." -Christine

"The benefits of meditation is that you can get super calm, you won’t get angry, you will calm down and you will forgive people, and lastly, you will be more creative." -Leo

"It's a way to get out of technology, social media, etc. Some time to spend with yourself." -Rachel

"To me, meditation is an escape from the world and I can focus on me instead of things that are worrying me." -Elena

Not only have they become more self-aware, but they’ve also become advocates for themselves, requesting meditation on days when they have big tests or presentations in other classes. I feel confident in knowing that they now have a healthy coping skill they can use even after they leave my classroom at the end of the year. In fact, as they were scrolling through each other’s comments and thoughts, one of them shut his laptop, turned to the rest of us and said, “Maybe we should give this to the high school principal. I hear they don’t have meditation up there, and I think we’re going to need it.”

For ideas on getting meditation into your class, check out How Can I Keep My Cool?

Share These Wise Words on Stress Management!

Editor's Note: In our September issue, we kicked off our brand new back-page advice column called Life Skills Made Easy. In it, we tackle a different question each month, sourced straight from our Teen Advisory Board members—or your students! (They can go here to submit their question.) The goal is to provide teens with the simple, doable strategies that will help them succeed in school and in life.


Teachers, I know you've been there, and so have your students: That moment when a list of seemingly small stressors—the pile of work, next period's exam, the fact that you forgot your lunch (again)—all compound to suddently send you straight into meltdown mode. Surely you've got your go-to coping strategies by now, but are your students equipped to stop a stress-storm in its tracks? Here at Choices, we believe having a stay-calm tactic is among the most essential of the essential life skills. (After all, it's the thing you have to be able to do before you can move on to other problem-solving strategies!)  That's why we were thrilled when Luis, a high school senior in Texas, was brave enough to ask us for help as part of our October Life Skills Made Easy column.  



Brainstorming the best experts for these columns has become a much anticipated activity for Team Choices, and this month, we couldn't stop thinking about all of the high-pressure situations that top-tier athletes encounter in competition. What do they do to snap back from anxiety? What's their secret weapon for staying calm and focused? These questions eventually led us to George Mumford, who many call the NBA's "mindfulness guru." His fantastic explanation of stress—and the easy mindfulness exercise that accompanies it—will give your students a brand new choice every time they feel overwhelmed!


P.S. We also whipped up this little sign featuring Mumford's Wise Words, which you can download for your classroom wall. (Visit this Ideabook post to also add our September poster—featuring Wise Words on Time Management—to your Gallery of Life Skills insight!)




Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

4 Promises to My Students at the Start of a New Year

Amy Lauren Smith

Every August, we teachers start out with new goals. Whether they’re personal or professional, a new year equals a fresh start, new students, and a chance to improve our craft. But, even with the best of intentions, these goals can get buried and pushed aside for other projects and obligations.

So this year, rather than set goals for myself, I’m going to remember what being a teacher is truly is about. I'm making some promises to my students instead.

1. I will assess and hand back your projects in less than a week.
This is a recurring goal for me, and one I can rarely stick to. With so many students and projects coming in at once, it’s difficult to thoroughly assess and return them in a timely fashion. But my vice principal always says that after a week, the power of feedback is lost. This makes sense. After all, when I submit work or send an email, I’m used to getting a response in a day or two, and if I don’t, I start to doubt the quality or content of my work. I would hate to cause my studentsespecially with their need for social media likes and instant gratificationto experience anxiety over quality work they’ve handed in. And as for the work that isn't the best quality, asking a student to re-do an assignment two weeks laterwhen we’ve already moved onto another unitis rarely going to lead to improvement.

2. I will give you formative assessments so that no grade is a surprise.
Assessing and grading projects doesn’t take nearly as long if you’ve been actively involved throughout the whole process. When I do periodic check-ins and conferences with my students, I know where they’re succeeding and struggling, and more importantly, so do they. When it comes time to hand in their projects, they are aware of where they’re at, and I’m able to assess the final product and give them the grades they feel they deserve.

3. I will work with you to create projects that are current, relevant, and engaging.
It’s not easy updating curriculum as you go, but it’s also not easy to keep students engaged when you’re sticking to the same lessons and projects year after year. As a health teacher, it’s important that I stay on top of the latest news and ideas, and ask my students for their input along the way. In a subject as inherently personal as health, giving students "voice and choice" over what they learn takes on an even bigger sense of importance.

4. I will put you before my email and be waiting at the door when you arrive.
One week into school, and already it’s started. The endless barrage of emails… school events, new systems and initiatives, announcements, meetings, and messages from colleagues and friends. While important and often entertaining, checking email is not the main purpose of my job. I’m here for the students, and while it may be tempting to sneak a look at my computer as they shuffle between classes, the last thing I want them to see when they enter the room is the back of a computer screen. I’ll set aside time after they leave, but I won’t allow the distractions of my technology to pull me away from the present. Then, hopefully, I can expect the same from them.

Share These Wise Words on Time Management!

In our September issue, we’re kicking off a brand new back-page advice column called Life Skills Made Easy. In it, we’ll tackle a different question each month, sourced straight from the mouths of our Teen Advisory Board members—or your students! (They can go here to submit their question.) The answer will come from a unique, carefully selected expert each month, and the goal is to provide teens with the simple, doable strategies that will help them succeed in school and life—from balancing school and fun, to calming themselves down in a stressful moment, to dealing with difficult people!

This time around, we had a little fun with our go-to guru, leveraging some legendary advice from none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His method of time management isn’t just a lesson in to-do lists; it’s a fairly straightforward way to teach your students to prioritize their tasks and goals. (Check out the story and teaching resources here!)

We also had our resident art director whip up this little sign featuring Eisenhower’s Wise Words, which you can download for your classroom. We’ll be doing the same every month, so check back to add to your gallery of life skills insight! We have no doubt your students will appreciate the inspiration.