Culture & Community

By: Dru Tomlin


As I dig my fork into the characteristics in the category of Culture and Community in This We Believe, I am drawn to the one that states "Health and wellness are supported in curricula, school-wide programs, and related policies" (p. 38). Young adolescents—due to their impulsivity, neurological make-up, and inclination to push physical boundaries—are primed to make interesting and potentially harmful decisions about their own health. While we spark their curiosity about content area learning, they might become curious about drug use, alcohol, tobacco, and sexuality. And while it may seem like a lesser concern, our students are experimenting with food, particularly unhealthy food options laced with enticing, dangerous highs. High sugar, fats, cholesterol, sodium, preservatives. And because these foods are also highly convenient, our students are drawn to them despite what the Nutrition Facts labels tell them. So how do we reverse this trend?

There are many layers to the answer, but I think it starts with us. We can't wait for a packaged curriculum or program that spells it all out. And it's not the PE/health teachers' sole responsibility to promote positive health and wellness. Perhaps it starts by facing our own histories and modeling better habits as adults. For example, when I was a young adolescent, I thought I could maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating processed cheese, drinking liters of soda, gnawing on pepperoni sticks, and avoiding physical exertion. I was dedicated to that philosophy, and it did unspeakable wonders for me physically, socially, and psychologically. I still feel the effects of this and remember—with regret—the poor choices I made. Now as a parent to two young adolescent boys, I use that remembrance to help my sons make better choices. I try to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly, and if I eat something nutritionally wonky, I do so in moderation.

What does my story have to do with what happens in our schools? Some of our students don't see good models of health and wellness when they go home. So, we may be the only ones in their lives who are consistent, positive examples. And the topic of health and wellness involves other aspects such as social-emotional, behavioral, and mental wellness. We must be good stewards and examples of those elements, as well. While no one is perfect with this work, we need to show our young adolescents that health and wellness are a lifelong process of learning.

Metaphorically, food connects to two other key characteristics from This We Believe: "The school actively involves families in the education of their children" (p. 40) and "the school includes community and business partners" (p. 41). In every school that I've worked, these external stakeholders can have a profound impact on our students and programs, but it can be a challenge to create connections with them. From a food perspective, part of the issue is that they really don't know what we're serving up, and we don't deliver. The adults we want to involve in our schools were once young adolescents in the middle grades, and they have preconceived notions (not necessarily positive ones) about what our schools are serving up daily to our students. Therefore, we need to inform them loudly, proudly, and persistently about the fact that the middle school menu has changed, and invite them to join us and support our work. Thankfully, schools are expanding on traditional forms of communication (i.e., the weekly newsletter) to keep stakeholders informed and involved by using Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media. In short, if we want to get folks in our schools, we should promote the great dishes we're serving up.

Some questions to consider when thinking about health, wellness, and community involvement:

  1. How healthy and well are your students, teachers, and staff? How do you know?
  2. How is the school promoting positive health and wellness across the grade levels and content areas—or is it up to one person or department?
  3. How does your school communicate with external stakeholders to keep them informed and involved? How do you know they're reading what you're sending them?

Dru Tomlin, Ph.D., is principal at Heritage Middle School in Westerville, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2017.

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