Jan. 5, 2017 -- Teachers know they have a good lesson if it succeeds at changing the beliefs, actions or behaviors of their students. An even better lesson might manage to change the beliefs, actions or behaviors of the teacher themselves. But to change a teacher’s life? Well, that’s an extraordinary lesson indeed.
Monticello Middle School health and physical education teacher Gretchen Angelo has created such a lesson. A unit, in fact, on health, nutrition and self-care.
Angelo, who teaches sixth, seventh and eighth grade girls, realized some time ago that the standard text-based health curriculum was not cutting it. “What’s in the textbook is all based on government guidelines, while much of the up-to-date research is pushed under the rug,” she explained.
According to a recent article published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the sugar industry funded research in the 1960s that downplayed the risks of sugar and blamed a variety of health problems on fat. This only added fuel to Angelo’s fire.
“I knew I needed to supplement what we were teaching kids. I knew I needed to find – and share – the truth.”
For several years, she had shown her sixth grade students the documentary Super Size Me, about a man who eats nothing but McDonald’s three times a day for one month, with immediate health consequences.
Seventh graders watch Food, Inc., a 2008 documentary about corporate farming in the U.S., which shows “that agribusiness produces food that is unhealthy, in a way that is environmentally harmful and abusive of both animals and employees.”
“It was pretty eye-opening,” said Monticello eighth grader Maple Buescher, “especially regarding slaughterhouses.”
According to Angelo, many students walk out of that class claiming they’ll never eat meat again.
But the film that changed Angelo’s life was 2014’s Fed Up. After watching the documentary with her eighth graders in the fall of 2015, she was stunned by the power of the food industry to dictate what and how Americans eat. Learning the truth about what sugar does to our brains and bodies propelled her into action, and she went home and started pitching everything in her cupboards.
“We have completely changed the way we eat,” she says of herself and her husband, who – with a background in exercise science – was on board from the beginning.
After cutting 95% of processed sugar from her diet, Angelo lost 45 pounds. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. “It’s been a massive shift for me. I used to be chronically fatigued and was hooked on caffeine. I didn’t even like the taste of coffee, but I’d buy the largest Starbucks coffee available just to make it through the day.”
“I realized that I needed to create an entire unit around this because I was amazed – and dismayed – at how much information is out there that kids just don't know.”
Her eighth grade students were asked to record everything they ate for three days, in order to calculate the amount of added sugar they consume. Young people shouldn't have more than 6 to 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day, but the average American teen consumes upwards of 28 teaspoons!
Angelo’s students were surprised to find sugar even in foods that aren't sweet. “Ketchup! Barbeque sauce, tomato sauce,” rattled off eighth grader Marissa Hamby. She hopes to cut back on sugar in her own life, “now that I know what it can do to you” and even had a conversation with her mother on conference night about making some changes to their diet at home.
Students also looked at ingredients that are banned across much of the world but are regularly consumed here in the U.S., like brominated vegetable oil, arsenic, synthetic hormones and coloring agents. They researched the types of food these ingredients are found in, why they’re used, which countries ban them and how they harm humans. They then went home to conduct food investigations in their own kitchens and were surprised by what they found.
“My family is pretty healthy,” said Buescher, who is a vegetarian and reports eating fruits and vegetables daily. “But even things that are marketed as relatively healthy are loaded with preservatives and chemicals.”
Angelo’s assignments included research, investigations, reflections and goals for the future. Her students were asked to identify family behaviors and food choices that they could change for the better. She recognizes how hard it is to change family habits and traditions, especially for kids who have little say in the matter. She recalled being raised in an Italian household where “everything was about food.” She has tried to get her parents to change their ways but with little success.
A major part of Angelo’s unit was on the tactics used by the food industry to manipulate young people, such as brightly colored boxes with fun mascots placed right at eye level on grocery store shelves.
After watching Fed Up, one eighth grader wrote in her reflection sheet that she “didn’t want to be fooled by advertising and the lies they feed us.”
Jenna Andrews, another eighth grader, said that completing the food investigation “made me feel lied to. How can we be healthy if we’re putting things in our bodies that other countries don't even allow?”
Such questions are examples of the deep thinking expected in an International Baccalaureate curriculum. According to Leslie Garrett, the IB coordinator at Monticello and Fairfax, the experience led students to be “inquirers,” one of IB’s ten Learner Profiles.
“The key concept for the unit is change,” explained Garrett. “Looking at change through the global context of ‘Science and Technological Innovations,’ the focus became learning how to make more responsible food choices to take better care of our bodies, in turn allowing our bodies to take care of themselves.”
“In order to do this, we need to advocate for ourselves and be aware of what’s in our food and where it comes from.”
Gretchen Angelo is doing this is her own life. And she hopes that her students will begin doing it in theirs.