The Other 60 Percent

Eat Your Radio offers kid’s-eye view

Armed with microphones and recording equipment, four fifth-grade reporters deployed themselves throughout teacher Andy Zwick’s classroom at Denver’s Ashley Elementary School on a recent Friday, determined to ferret out the overall opinion of the class.

Denver's Ashley Elementary fifth-grade reporter Fabri Esipa interviews classmate Maria Gonzales about the day's nutrition lesson.

“What do YOU think it is?” they asked, casting glances at the bowls full of something white at the front of the class, and recording the responses.

“Butter?” some suggested. “Whipped cream?” others thought.

But their guesses carried little confidence, since Zwick had warned them not to eat any of it, no matter how good it looked.

It was actually hydrogenated oil, also known as Crisco, and before the hour was up, they would divide into teams of three to four and do some hands-on scooping and measuring work to determine just how much of the stuff really is in a serving of their favorite snack chips versus, say, a turkey sandwich.

Through it all, the reporters would go from team to team describing what each group was doing and recording their classmates’ thoughts and observations.

Program combines nutrition and hands-on journalism for kids

The food part of the lesson is courtesy of the Integrated Nutrition Education Program, a curriculum funded through a federal grant to targeted low-income communities.

KGNU producer Shelley Schlender teaches students how to use audio and video equipment to create radio and online segments.

The journalism part of the lesson is thanks to “Eat Your Radio,” an award-winning project of KGNU, a non-commercial Colorado radio station, now in its third year of documenting the challenges kids face around issues of nutrition and obesity.

“I got involved because children’s nutrition matters to me,” said Shelley Schlender, the KGNU producer who will spend several hours a week for 10 to 12 weeks with the Ashley students this semester, coaching them on how to use the audio and video equipment, how to interview classmates and how to frame the results.

She’ll also take some of the best of what the kids come up with and edit it to create reports to air on KGNU, and nutrition-related messages that the principal will play over the intercom every morning.

Schlender is one of two producers working with Eat Your Radio. The other, Ellen Mahoney, is assigned to Denver’s Swansea Elementary this spring. They’ve also worked with students at Columbine Elementary and Casey and Centennial middle schools in Boulder, and Maxwell Elementary and Centennial K-8 in Denver.

“This has been a beat I’ve covered for years, and I’ve seen enough data to convince me that when kids are healthy, they do better in school,” said Schlender, who has worked for a number of publications and broadcast outlets.

“I’m a journalist. It’s a different role from being a teacher, and different from doing PR for a program. My job is to celebrate the wonderful things that are happening, and to look for the prickly things.”

Eat Your Radio archive ranges from Chicken Salad (W)rap to serious issues

The result is nutrition from a kid’s-eye point of view.

Under the tutelage of KGNU producers, Eat Your Radio reporters have interviewed classmates about nutrition lessons, gone into their school cafeterias to interview lunchroom workers, and talked to family members about eating habits at home.

Best of Eat Your Radio

They’ve gone into grocery stores to examine the layout of the aisles, and documented how junk food is often put at eye level while fresh fruits and vegetables take more effort to get to.

They’ve created a blog where they can submit nutrition-related questions to “Dr. Carrot,” who responds within a few days with kid-friendly answers.

“We didn’t want to just put a microphone in front of them and have them parrot off lessons,” said Maeve Conran, KGNU’s co-director of news and public affairs. “We wanted to give them mikes and help them get to the truth about nutrition challenges. We’ve had a few reports where we’ve really empowered the kids to talk very sincerely about the challenges they face.”

One of Conran’s favorite shows is “Cavities and candy,” which includes a song one fifth-grader wrote about the evils of sugar, and in which the children share their difficulties in just saying no to candy.

“Part of me does want some and part of me does not,” one child admits. “This much of my body wants some, and the rest doesn’t. I’m like, never mind, I want that candy! Never mind! And I can’t make up my mind.”

“There’s just a real honesty coming from the kids, and you can see how conflicted they are,” Conran says. “They absolutely understand the issues around eating, but it’s hard because it’s so tempting.”

Near the top of Schlender’s list is the segment called Chicken Salad (W)rap, which begins with youngsters learning to make healthy chicken salad tortilla wraps in nutrition class.

Later, a handful of young volunteers gave up their recess time to join Schlender in a supply closet – the quietest room they could find – to come up with a song they could sing about chicken wraps.

“We just started playing with it,” Schlender said.

Then there’s the Broccoli Campaign, a five-part series that ran every day for a week on KGNU, paired with a listener call-in on helping kids learn to eat and like foods they initially refuse to eat. In the segments done at school, the Ashley students shared their own reluctance to try broccoli.

“At one point, one girl’s best friend says ‘I know you love mustard, so why not make a mustard sandwich, and I’ll mix in a little broccoli.’ That’s not something I would have thought of, a broccoli and mustard sandwich,” Schlender said.

Teacher embraces pint-sized broadcast crews in his classroom

Zwick isn’t bothered by having pint-sized broadcast crews prowling his classroom during his lesson. Quite the opposite.

“The kids love the technology,” he said. “I’ve taken some of the things Shelley’s done and put them up on my own website. The kids love to laugh at the videos.”

Learn more

On that Friday, 11-year-old Fabri Esipa got to don the headphones and carry the microphone and interview classmates for the first time.

“I like being a reporter,” she said. “I like reporting what people say. But the hardest thing is to know what you’re going to say to the person.”

Schlender is there to help with that. When the reporters run out of questions, she’s there to coach them with some others, and encourage them not to be shy.

“Ask them what they think they’ll learn from this lesson,” she told Fabri. “And be sure to talk to some of the boys. We want boys’ voices too.”

Eat Your Radio is now in its third year of a three-year grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. Conran considers the project to be a huge success with demonstrable results showing that kids who participate in the media portion soak up and remember much more on the nutrition information than kids that don’t.

“Now we’re looking to expand it,” she said. “We’d like to go into other school districts. And I know the schools we’ve worked with have enjoyed it. It benefits the kids in a variety of ways, not just nutrition. It also improves their literacy and their communication skills.”

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”