Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Taking our Work Further

Kathleen Mitchell’s blog several weeks ago briefly outlined the student population she teaches:  her population includes both seventh graders who are refugees and currently learning English as well as students who are native speakers.  I have had the privilege of observing in Kathleen’s classroom, getting to know her kids and, just this past week, teaching a health education lesson.
After discussing health topics with Kathleen and doing an initial assessment, we decided that I would teach two lessons on nutrition.  I decided to start with the food groups for my first lesson.  The lesson was fun—the kids shared their favorite foods, shouted out which foods were vegetables, which were fruits, and showed me their muscles in order to identify a food with protein. 
            Teaching a class of students who are native English speakers as well as those who aren’t is a challenge.  While some students wanted to know if corn and potatoes were vegetables, others were learning the word “corn” for the first time.  When they were asked to draw their own plate, some kids were sly enough to draw a pizza and show how pizza had all the food groups, but others were struggling to find the words in English for the foods that they ate at home.
            I can say with some confidence that all the kids learned something; but what they each learned was different depending on their previous experience and knowledge, not only linguistically but also their nutritional knowledge.  For me this demonstrated something very important that we need to consider when thinking about improving health to facilitate better learning and vice versa: we have to remember where the kids are coming from.  Different languages are only the beginning.  Teaching and planning the lesson I was constantly asking myself, but what do the students eat at home?  What about their behaviors when they themselves choose their food? What are they able to choose? From my work with other refugees in the Atlanta area I know that the amount of money they have to live on is very little, and often times the access to food is also limited.  And it’s not just the situation for refugees.  Just looking around the area near Freedom Middle School where Kathleen teaches, there is limited access to food. 
Standing in the classroom chatting with these kids about food was great. I mean, who doesn’t like food?  But I found myself asking, how can we really make a change in their eating habits?  Two classes of 45 minutes with these kids won’t change their behavior.  What they need are social workers, nurses, and advocates who will help the kids and their families find the resources they need to access healthy, affordable food.
I think we as public health students have learned a lot teaching these health lessons, but what I’ve learned more than anything is that we can’t stop here.  As all the “Behavioral Sciences and Health Education” students from Rollins can explain to you far better than I, behavior change has multiple levels and requires intensive work.  That is what we as students, professionals, and a school must make an effort to do as well.  In order to really change something we need to put our energy into long-term community partnerships with organizations and populations who demonstrate a need for public health professionals.  Relationships like these can grow and improve, benefitting both the population served and Rollins students who will have an opportunity to see how health issues can be addressed in different communities.
 Luckily, one partnership has begun that aims to bring together Rollins students and TFA corps members to address these issues.  ConnectEd 4 Health, mentioned in Michael’s earlier blog, was recently started by TFA corps members and alumni as a collaboration between TFA and RSPH.  One of the goals is to improve health outcomes for students in the schools where TFA corps members teach.  This burgeoning partnership is an important and sustainable step towards creating long-lasting collaboration between public health and education leaders.  I am excited to see the work and progress that ConnectEd for Health makes in the coming years, and hope that all of us can contribute in some way.

--Brianna Keefe-Oates, Rollins School of Public Health, Global Health Department

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