First Person

Eat Your Radio teaches kids about food, and journalism

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

“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 targeting 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 volunteer 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.”

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk