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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Pondering The Values That We Bring To The Classroom

I just posted the following on my personal blogspace, Teaching Out Loud, but thought I might get some different feedback here. This is all leading me to some bigger questions in my own practice around the values that I bring into my teaching everyday.

I’m in a bit of a quandry. As part of the Health Education curriculum for Grade 1-3 students, we spend a good deal of time talking about making healthy food choices, planning meals according to the Canada Food Guide and assess the nutritional value of meals. In my entire teaching career, I’ve never been responsible for the health curriculum, so I want to make sure that I’m getting it right.

One of the approaches that is included in our local health department’s teaching resource for this grade level involves students tracking the foods that they eat over a period time. There is a tracking sheet for breakfasts, lunches and dinners. The classroom work with this involves examining the food choices, breaking them down into their component parts, and assessing them using the recommendations found in Canada’s Food Guide.

Sounds simple, right? Sounds like a good way of making connections between school and home life, right? Teaching in a ethnically diverse neighbourhood, it also sounds like a way of developing some appreciation for and sensitivity towards the food choices of other cultures.

So, I gathered my resources, did my photocopying of student tracking sheets and went home on Friday satisfied that things were ready for Monday morning.

And then I followed a twitter link to an article in the National Post about the blowback from a rather unfortunate (but probably not uncommon) incident that occurred in a kindergarten class in Quebec. It seems that a young boy was excluded from a draw for a teddy bear because he brought his sandwich to school in a plastic bag as opposed to a reusable container. Well, the story which could have ended at the school level went viral and has begun a national discussion around the implicit and explicit values that are promoted by schools, and the right of schools to be promoting any type of value-infused agenda. In this case, the culprit is environmentalism.

After going through reader’s comments posted after the article, I began to question my planned approach to the work I was about to undertake around healthy eating. Could a seemingly benign topic of study become a political nightmare?

After all, it could be argued, what right do I have to force students to report on their eating habits when they are not in school? Could this approach lead to emabarrassment on the part of some students whose eating habits may be a little different or even lacking, for that matter? Might this lead to a sense, on the part of parents, that the school is somehow assessing the job that they are doing as parents?

Now don’t get me wrong; I believe that there is tremendous value in having students apply classroom learning to their non-school lives. Isn’t that what education is all about? And I also believe that the work we do with children in the area of healthy living is going to have a tremendous impact on the well-being of adults down the road.

At the same time, I not unsympathetic to the feelings of those who would rather see schools stay out of the values education game. I’m not saying I agree with them. I do, however, understand that in theory the family is the traditional gatekeeper when it comes to teaching what is right and what is wrong.

This is a complex area of discussion, and cuts to the heart of questions around the purpose of public schooling in a democracy. I need to do some more thinking, reading and writing about this but for now I’ve made a decision.

I’m going to send a letter home with parents indicating that we will be starting a conversation about healthy eating. I will use teacher-created illustrations of breakfasts, lunches and dinners as my study exemplars, and I will take the class on a tour of our school “snack shack” to assess the nutritional value of what is available for purchase on site.

But, I’m not finished with this topic yet! The public outcry over the Quebec plastic bag story has raised some important issues for educators in a diverse society. And while I’m going to spend the next few days clarifying those issues in my own mind, I would appreciate any feedback that you might have on either my healthy eating quandry, or the larger set of complexities around values in the classroom.

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About Stephen Hurley

I have been involved in public education for 29 years, and am passionately committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at http://teachingoutloud.org. I can also be found hanging around http://www.cea-ace.ca and, most recently, http://voicEd.ca I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley

Discussion

9 thoughts on “Pondering The Values That We Bring To The Classroom

  1. Had a few problems after a unit like this in third grade. The biggest was kids harassing kids at lunch every time they saw something “unhealthy” in their lunch… Even telling them they were going to get fat.

    Posted by Patti Grayson | February 6, 2011, 9:19 am
  2. Boy, one part of this story is that food is such a touchy subject for some parents, feeling that it reflects on their parenting skills. The 2 times parents complained to a superintendent about me were both (admittedly a long time ago) over food! Both times I questioned a child about what they had for lunch – out of absolutely good intentions, being concerned that they might need something more. One parent didn’t have enough lunch food in the house, and sent the child to school with money to go the corner store — which the child did, and bought only “junk”. (Think about it: what was the child supposed to buy there?) And the other simply believed that pop was fine for kids to bring to school to drink with lunch, and they objected to my statement otherwise.
    The larger issue is simply as you state… Where do the education systems’ rights start and end in our society? It’s kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario…
    Bottom line is not to punish kids for their parents values when they differ from the school’s, yours, or other children’s; to try to work w-i-t-h parents, be transparent, seek input and collaboration beforehand; stay the course you finally decide is right; and don’t expect it to be perfect.
    Great question! Never any silver bullet answers.

    Posted by Miss Beach | February 6, 2011, 10:52 am
  3. The story of the kid with a lunchbag reminds me of a few things:

    1. Drawings are stupid. They don’t work and they don’t help kids learn to think ethically about their decisions. Extrinsic motivation is typically a bad idea, period.

    2. We need to teach tolerance, nuance and paradox. Instead of teaching kids “this is bad and this is good,” we need to teach more holistically.

    3. Teach eco-awareness is hard. For example, which is better: a Volt or a Scion? Well, if an electric car is being fueled by coal-powered plants, it’s not much better. Meanwhile, the Scion might be very eco-friendly considering that it’s hauling around a family of five.

    4. Values will always be controversial. Avoiding them teaches students that values don’t matter, which is a value in and of itself. However, where schools can do a better job is in allowing students to develop their own values and communicate them in a respectful way that still doesn’t cause them to lose what they believe to pure relativity.

    Posted by johntspencer | February 6, 2011, 11:39 am
    • Amen, especially to number 4. This, I think, is where the effective integration (and teaching) of critical thinking comes in. Actually, I think it may be even more than critical thinking.

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 6, 2011, 2:30 pm
  4. Hi Stephen,
    I don’t have much in the way of feedback or suggestions for you. Sorry! However your post came at just the perfect time. At a recent PD day between my school and another school nearby-we offer similar programs- got together to create “authentic” tasks in math (Spanish) and Social Studies (English). I led a grade 2 group in math and we agreed on the topic of nutrition using the Canada Food Guide as a standard that the Canadian government is promoting. I cautioned, however, that we needed to be very cognizant of cultural and social values associated with healthy eating. The big question, of course, is what does this mean in practice? And, are we simply replicating and promoting middle class values to all of our students, regardless of their own family values and habits. I have not heard about the Quebec incident. BTW, we also decided that we are going to talk about healthy eating the context of school snacks and perhaps lunches, allergies, and all of the other contingencies mentioned above. The math, in case you were wondering, will come in through data collection and analysis. I look forward to future posts on this dilemma.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | February 6, 2011, 11:42 am
  5. Thanks Elisa,

    I think that the idea of focusing on the school context is a good one…the best one perhaps. And at our school, there is plenty on which to focus: pizza days every week, chips and cookies in our Snack Shack…there’s a start.

    stephen

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 6, 2011, 2:32 pm
  6. After completeing a certificate in Humane Education through the US Humane Society I have this to ask: what is your job? what is the job of the public school system? If it is to create “better” citizens than teaching with a humane hand will give children the critical thinking they need to make their own decisions. If parents are threatened by this they I would ask them what they expect of you. Making poor choices has lead to horrific results. I hate it when people complain about the cost of health care as they are in line at McDonalds (not a real scenario but you get my drift). If we can’t teach the next generation to do better than what is the point?

    Posted by Anna | February 6, 2011, 8:27 pm
  7. What if students logged the school lunches, or the lunches of X adults at school, as their data set, and created a compare/contrast, healthy-eating report/field-guide to send home to their families? Make kids the educators, rather then risk pitting teachers and parents against one another as food educators?

    That might be more authentic or more evasive, depending on your point of view.

    Now I want to teach a unit on why it costs more to eat healthy – I’ll go looking for a foodie tomorrow in class.

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 7, 2011, 9:05 pm

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