Health class on the verge of being eliminated

• VandenBerge teacher Mark Leland says subject matter taught too important for kids to trade it out

by Jim Boyle


The students in Mark Leland’s eighth-grade health class at VandenBerge Middle School talked about the attributes of perfect parents last Friday.

Each were asked to list five qualities the best parents have for a hypothetical newspaper ad. They punched answers into Edmodo, a social learning application they use on a classroom set of iPads.

They came up with qualities like kind, married, trustworthy, financially stable, drug- and alcohol-free, responsible, fun, protective, forgiving, supportive and more. They talked as a class and created a Top 10 list.

This conversation and others on topics such as illicit drugs, alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases and mental health might not happen next year under a proposal to eliminate one-quarter-long health classes in sixth and eighth grade as part of a restructuring of the Elk River Area School District’s delivery of education.

Health and family and consumer sciences curriculum will take a back seat to computer coding and an exploratory foreign language class. There will still be seventh-grade health education, but the sixth- and eighth-grade components of it would be dropped. Some components of seventh-grade FACS proposed to be eliminated will be added to the curriculum of other classes. Sixth-grade and eighth-grade FACS will remain intact.

Teachers and parents, including Leland, spoke out about such changes at a recent open forum of the Elk River Area School Board. A final decision on the proposed changes is expected Monday.

“I feel and believe there are other way that these problems (of not enough technology and foreign languages) can be solved,” said Leland, who invited the Star News and Elk River Area School Board members into his classroom to see first-hand what they do.

He does not oppose advancing technological competencies, but he questions the newest direction the district could take.

He said the push for 21st century skills over the past few years in the Elk River Area School District has already led to the implementation of the iPad program in health education.

“Within these classes, you’ll see students actively engaged in online learning with the use of virtual classrooms,” he said. “You’ll see them take on research projects that help them decipher their own meaning of what health truly is, and how it defines them as they grow into adulthood.

“They have the opportunity to not only engage in building 21st century skills in these classes, but also the opportunity to realize why their health is the most important part of their everyday life.”

The use of iPads started in the 2010-11 school year, with the health department being the first one in the district to take on the integration of the technology.

Students learn media literacy, use iMovie to create public service announcements and watch short educational videos at their own pace, Leland said.

Edmodo, an interactive online classroom for teachers, allows students to do assignments inside and outside of class, take quizzes and tests, do homework and receive immediate feedback in class that helps teachers adapt to help better meet the needs of students learning.

“It’s awesome,” Leland said.

What frustrates Leland, however, is the thought of not having health curriculum put before students, who face big decisions in their lives that can have lasting impacts.

He suggested saving classes and creating electives to replace the choice of study hall at the middle school level.

“If a student currently doesn’t take a music class, they have study hall opposite of physical education,” he said. “This means they have two or three hours of study hall a week. Why not offer them a foreign language class, a wildlife art class or a total health and fitness course during this time?”

He said this is but one example of many. He asked the School Board to consider whether they are ready for such changes or if they could wait until all possible options are exhausted.