Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ill Health

“The biggest mistake of past centuries in teaching has been to treat all children as if they were variants of the same individual, and thus to feel justified in teaching them the same subjects in the same ways.”

- Harvard Gardner

Yesterday morning, I was called to teach Health at the Freshman Academy. Although I was feeling ill, the last thing I wanted to do was say I was sick, so I agreed to take the job. So far, I had taught twenty-eight different grades and subjects, so I thought I’d done everything. What on earth would I be expected to do in a Health class?

I tried to stretch my mind back to the Health classes I’d taken. My first memory was from Junior High, learning how to do CPR on the blonde dummy that reeked of an alcohol-based disinfectant. My second memory from that class was when we placed anonymous questions about sex into a coffee can. I recall my middle-aged Health teacher acting quite classy, considering one of the questions had something to do with wondering about the taste of a certain bodily fluid. She said, “I assume it would be bitter.” Shocked that she’s answered the question, my friends and I speculated whether or not she was speaking from experience. Other than that, I can’t remember anything else.

I know that High School health was mandatory, but I only sort of remember viewing old black and white films about health, unless I’m recalling my Driver’s Ed class, which was held in the same room one summer. I also remember being forced to watch an anti-smoking video during after school detention (same room again) when I was caught smoking at the entrance of the school parking lot. I probably did it to protest that they’d done away with our smoking section. That was the only time I’d received detention in my entire school career, though that might have had more to do with luck than goodness.

I hadn’t even known that teachers taught Health in Cambridge. During elementary school, the students periodically receive pamphlets from “The Great Body Shop”, and I remember a music tape that my son brought home from kindergarten encouraging a healthy lifestyle (“Doctor Smartstuff, That’s Me,” were actually lyrics of one of the songs). In fifth-grade, the kids take “Know Your Body”, often at the same time they’re subjected to ballroom dancing. (There was always one boy who cried to his mother about having to dance with girls, causing a call from said fretful mother). And once, when I was subbing a middle school Science class, a woman came in to teach a unit on Health. Just like “Know Your Body”, she was young (enough to relate to the students, I’m sure the administrators hoped), not a Cambridge teacher – rather, hired by some company offering this service to the school district. I caught her last day with the students, when she let them place anonymous questions in a box (deja vu). The woman didn’t answer the questions if she thought they weren’t real, which were quite a few of them, I think.

Maybe going down memory lane wasn’t a good idea, because I was dreading this job more and more. I arrived at the school twenty-five minutes early. There were no plans in the mailbox. When I was handed the attendance, it looked like I was teaching all day, until the secretary explained that the teacher had black days and silver days – I was teaching on a black day. I tried to read no symbolism in this. When I reached the classroom, the door was locked, so I returned to the office just in time to overhear the secretary talking to the Health teacher on the phone. The plans were being sent via e-mail to the other Health teacher, and I should just… wait in the classroom. So I did, until fifteen minutes after the starting bell rang. In the meantime, the students just sat and talked quietly, and I perused the room. There were several hokey inspirational quotes about behavior and success, along with posters about fitness, and pictures of the brain. Maybe it wouldn’t be a sex class after all.

The other Health teacher arrived, harried, and with barely a word, handed the papers to me, and went on her way. The plans were pretty close to the instructions on the board from the previous (silver) day. They had to write about something that they excelled at in their journal, and then share with their group. After that, they had to take a survey to find out what type of learner they were (auditory, visual, and tactile kinetic), and write a paragraph about their learning type. Lastly, they were to read four pages in a book that explained: education is the key to success. The homework required them to take an on-line survey and print the results, and (of course) some kids didn’t have computers, while others didn’t have printers. Hey, I’m just a sub – I didn’t come up with the assignment. Although there was some balking and talking here and there, the students did their work, even helping some of the ESL or LD students with their reading-aloud.

Next I had homeroom.

A seemingly nice female student came up to me and asked, “Are you the sub today?”

I replied, “Yes.”

She said, “I have you fourth period. The students are terrible.”

Oh, great - something to look forward to.

As the day wore on, my energy level decreased, while my throat pain increased. By the time that fourth-period block came, I didn’t know if I could muster the persona required for a difficult group. In fact, I was feeling so sick that I’d made a doctor’s appointment during a break, certain it was strep (It wasn’t).

Fourth period, while not the easiest group, wasn’t as bad as I’d been warned. The principal visited for a time, but the students were quiet then, so I don’t think it was me. He talked to a table of boys about their gripes with the Freshman Academy, which were numerous:

“Why can’t we leave school grounds during lunch?”

“I don’t feel like I’m a part of the regular high school.”

“This school is lame.”

While the discussion continued, I skirted the groups, helping students tally points to determine their learning styles. Once the principal left, as more and more people finished the assignment, the room became rowdy, but at that point, I was happy if they kept the windows closed and didn’t all try to use the bathroom at once. I was relieved when the day was over, so I could make my doctor appointment to check on my health.

That evening, I reflected on the fact that the students were learning about their learning strengths. Normally, that’s a privilege for educators, and the good ones use that knowledge to vary their lessons in order to reach all of their students. Always suspecting that I was a visual learner, I checked my “Learning Style Inventory”, and confirmed my suspicions. Wouldn’t that be a great tool for students to be told at an early age? Maybe that would be too much for them to grasp at a young age, but hopefully knowing it ninth-grade would make them utilize their strengths in the years to come. Learning something like that in Health class certainly would’ve made an impression on me.


  1. That wouldn't work in France...
    A students strong and weak suits are irrelevant. Every body does the same thing the same way...
    On a tangential note, it's also interesting to learn and study one's own teaching styles, their strong suits in imparting knowledge to others. Even amongst children you can observe blatant differences, between the explanations of two children both explaining how to do any given thing eg play a game. Some can explain the rules and grasp what a beginner will have difficulty understanding, others can't do it at all. : j

  2. @ Alesa, interesting how different it is in France.

    I like varying my teaching methods in an attempt so everyone get it.

  3. The system here is designed in cast iron, barring a few exceptions.
    But yeah, it's interesting hearing how you have to adapt for each grade... And control your tone for the various age groups.
    I imagine that skill could have handy everyday applications.
    Subs basically have to be discworld witches. ; j

  4. @ Alesa, all I have to think about as a sub on top of all the educational factors is dizzying at times. No wonder I was always exhausted this last year.

  5. The quote at the top of this post is so true. Especially in relevance to the No Child Left Behind program. It was a great idea with good intentions, but how it would affect above average students was not taken into much consideration. My father rants about this often.

    In Oklahoma, since we have such a high teen pregnancy rate, we are required to take a class called Skills for Adolescence in the seventh grade. A kid once asked if a certain female organ could sneeze...

    I am a visual learner as well.

  6. Brooke, I think any one program can't really teach to everyone. A skilled teacher uses a variety of methods.

    In Cambridge, there's actually daycare for teen parents at the high school. In the fall, I took attendance and was told the student was on maternity leave.