Unlike many other subjects, health is rarely a yearlong course. Most students are required to take health for either a semester or a quarter, which means that this time of year can require a quick “getting to know you” process, or a conscious shift in class dynamics as the students move from the field into the classroom.
The first day of any class is often associated with a course outline or syllabus. But good news: There are ways to deliver this information that won’t put your new students to sleep! Here are some activities that can help you set the tone of your course in a positive and engaging way:
- Take ice-breakers literally.
There are so many great icebreakers out there, and most teachers keep a few in their back pocket for new class scenarios. What’s different with health classes, though, is that often a typical name game might not work, as the kids may have already been in phys ed together for the first half of the year.
My class kicked off this semester with a “snowball fight.” Students were given a sheet of recycled paper and told to write one fact about themselves that the class may not know, then crumple the paper up into a ball. From here, the teacher yells “SNOWBALL FIGHT!” and the class erupts into a giant snowball fight.
After a few chaotic minutes, everyone picks a snowball from the ground, and students take turns reading theirs and guessing whom it might belong to.
- Have students engage in a round robin discussion.
A big part of health class is discussion-based, but many kids aren’t comfortable sharing in large groups. To make sure they all get a chance to demonstrate their knowledge, I mix class discussions with small table talks.
To give kids a taste of how this works as soon as they enter my class, I use a round robin protocol. One person at the table takes 30 seconds to share his or her thoughts on a topic, and then the other group members have 30 seconds to ask questions. Then the next person goes.
On the first day of class, I usually start with an easy topic like “What did you do over the break?” I’ll demonstrate first, and then have them get started.
In groups of four, this takes only four minutes, and it’s a good way to ensure that every student understands that they have a voice in your class.
- Play a game of health bingo.
Bingo is a long-time favorite for teachers everywhere and a surefire hit for kids.
Find a bingo card template online, and fill the boxes with examples of healthy behaviors, like “I ate breakfast today” and “I like to be alone sometimes.” Then have the kids get up and find classmates to sign the boxes that that apply to them. The first student to fill a row with different signatures wins.
If you’d like to extend the activity or if you have a larger class, try playing this game “black-out style,” in which winners are required to have all boxes filled.
- Put students in the hot seat.
Create a Power Point with a different vocabulary word on each slide, and have students take turns sitting in the “Hot Seat” with their back to the screen. The rest of the class tries to have them guess the vocabulary word on the screen by giving them the definitions, charades, or anyway you decide.
This is a great way to evaluate what your students remember from any previous health lessons. It’s also a fun and active way to tie up the first lesson… especially if you end with a word from the puberty unit.
Still looking for more innovative first-day ideas? Browse this Pinterest board.
This past weekend, our seniors came to school on Saturday for a full day retreat, where they attended workshops designed to help them navigate the growing list of requirements for their college applications.
Knowing the stress that often appears this time of year, their counselors asked us to offer some workshops on stress management and healthy coping skills. Between applications, essays, portfolios, classes, sports, and social commitments, high school seniors need to be reminded to unwind in healthy ways so they can enjoy their last year of high school.
Here’s the agenda we followed, as well as links and resources for further learning. Feel free to use any or all of these with your students, as these are valuable tools for teens (and adults!) of any age.
Healthy Coping Skill #1: Journaling
Activity: Give students a slip of paper or a small notebook and have them reflect on the following:
- How are you feeling about all that’s needed for your college applications?
- What are some concerns you have going into your senior year?
Learn More: 7 Reasons to Use Journaling in Your Classroom
Healthy Coping Skill #2: Practicing Gratitude
Activity: Have students quickly jot down five things they’re grateful for. Doing this simple activity just once a week has been proven to increase happiness in college students.
Learn more: 10 Reasons Why Gratitude is Healthy
Healthy Coping Skill #3: Effective Time-Management
Activity: Have students read the Choices article Why Can’t I Stop Procrastinating? and figure out what type of procrastinator they are. Then, have them form groups with people who have each of the different procrastination styles, and then read and discuss How Can I Get It All Done? You can also have them watch this video on how to deal.
Learn More: 20 Quick Tips For Better Time Management
Healthy Coping Skill #4: Mindfulness and Meditation
If there’s time, show the TED Talk Andy Puddicombe, All It Takes is Ten Mindful Minutes. (If you don’t have enough time, the animation intro from Headspace will work as well!)
Activity: Try the guided meditation, Smiling Mind, Level 1.
It might be tempting to skip this part, as it can be tricky getting buy-in from the kids. It’s just five minutes though, and after the workshop was over, my teaching partner and I got an email from a very thankful senior who appreciated the the meditation most of all. She said she would be using the program we shared on her own, so it was definitely worth the time.
Learn More: Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress
Healthy Coping Skill #5: Talk it Out
Remember, reaching out to others is a great way to prevent stress. Students need to realize that they’re not going through this alone!
Activity: Stand Up – Hand Up – Pair Up
This is a great discussion protocol, and also a nice way to end a lesson. Give students a list with the following questions (or something similar). They need to find someone to talk to about the first question. When they’re done discussing, they put their hand up and find someone else who needs a new partner. They high five their new partner, talk about question two, and then put their hand up again when they’re ready to move on. They cycle through five different partners, and avoid that whole awkward thing that can happen when they wait for the teacher to tell them to rotate.
- What are you most nervous or apprehensive about this year?
- Are you and your parents seeing eye to eye for your plan after high school?
- Is there anything you don’t have time for that you would like to do?
- What can you take off your plate so you can find time to do this?
- What are you most excited about going into your senior year?
Even more on healthy coping skills
10 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Incredibly Happy
The 33 Best Online Resources for Teen Health
6 Ways to Bring Authentic Learning to Your Health Class
When I was in 8th grade, I was assigned a project on career exploration. At the time, I was obsessed with music, and wanted nothing more than to be a radio DJ. My friend and I researched everything we could get our hands on (not an easy feat before the dawn of the Internet) about becoming a DJ, and even got to visit the local radio station.
While sitting in as guests in the studio, we were asked to select a song. My friend Gina asked for New Kids on the Block, but I said we should play something “new and fresh”, like Milli Vanilli.
It’s one of my favorite memories from middle school, and not just because of my ridiculous song choice.
It was memorable because I felt like I was actually doing something for real, not just for a grade. The learning experience was so rich that I can still recall all of the details, even though I can’t remember if I got an A or a B.
That’s what learning should be- student-directed, inquiry based, collaborative, and full of “real-life” connections.
With a subject as universal as health, we’re blessed with abundant opportunities to bring authentic learning to our classes. Here are 6 ideas to get started with yours.
Give student work a public audience
- Join a campaign like Food Revolution Day by chef Jamie Oliver, which aims to bring food education into schools. Not only will students learn how to cook, but they can share their work on social media and practice their advocacy skills.
- Have students organize a community wellness fair. Students can run talks, give cooking demonstrations, offer fitness classes, and see if local health and wellness professionals would like to get involved. Check out the resources at Action for Healthy Kids for tips, handouts and ideas.
Have your class create a school-wide advocacy campaign
- Inspire kids to advocate for healthier school lunches. After watching a documentary about a group of students from New Orleans who took on their cafeteria provider, have your students create their own campaign and get more fresh and tasty food available in your school.
- Join a fitness challenge like the Billion Mile Race from the New Balance Foundation. Students rack up miles by running and walking during class and in their free time, and can check their school’s stats as they go. A little healthy competition is a great motivator to get up and moving.
Break down the classroom walls and get out into the community
- Have students organize a healthy field trip. They can take a trip to the market, go to a yoga studio, or visit a chef for a cooking demo. When students contact community experts themselves, they’re much more likely to get offers for free lessons or and services.
- Go and visit a farm or vegetable garden. One of the best ways to get kids excited about fruits and veggies is when they’ve picked the produce themselves. If you don’t have the space or resources to plant a garden in your own school, find a local farm to visit and get your hands dirty for the day.
These are some ideas to get started, but the magic of authentic learning happens when it comes directly from the students. Ask yours what issue they feel passionately about, and guide them along as they create a project of their own.
Online Resources for Planning a Health Curriculum
Two years ago, I finally did it. I threw away (or recycled, actually) the stacks of textbooks that have been collecting dust on my shelves for years.
I’m not sure why I didn’t do it sooner. Textbooks are often outdated and health is a subject with a constantly changing curriculum. It’s best to first find out what the student health concerns are in the community, and then find supporting materials online.
It can be overwhelming to sift through all of the resources out there, so I use Twitter to help me streamline my news feed, and subscribe to the blogs that I know will consistently deliver good information.
Here are a few that have helped me keep my health curriculum up-to-date.
NY Times Well: Covering a wide-range of topics and written by a team of experts, this blog is full of breaking health news, tips for healthy living, and the latest in research and studies.
The Atlantic Health: Dr. James Hamblin writes the health column for The Atlantic, and his fresh take on things is insightful and often very funny. His video series “If Our Bodies Could Talk” takes a humorous look at current health trends, and his Twitter feed was named one of the best of 2014 by Time Magazine.
NPR Shots: The health column from the NPR blog is an excellent resource. It’s updated frequently, and delivers the latest with a balance of focus on physical, mental and emotional health. They do quite a bit of reporting on the health of kids and teens, and I like sharing these articles with my students when they’re doing health research, because it gives them the option of listening to the story or reading it instead.
Choices Magazine: This might seem like an obvious one, since you’re reading this post on their blog, but Choices is a valuable resource for any health teacher. They tackle real issues that kids are facing today, and put a lot of thought into the stories that they choose by getting feedback from both teacher and student advisory boards. They update their blog often, and are active on Twitter, so if you follow them, you can stay caught up with the latest.
The Greater Good Science Center from UC Berkeley: This has been an extremely useful resource for me over the last few years as I’ve incorporated mindfulness into my classroom. They’ve got the latest on social and emotional health, and their site for educators is full of resources and research to help any school or teacher that’s shifting towards a focus on educating the whole child.
Their focus is on the science of what makes a meaningful life, and their new website Greater Good In Action, is full of active, research based practices to help improve health and happiness that could easily be used in the classroom.
Common Sense Media: Subscribe to this blog! I can’t say enough about this site as a resource for teachers, students and their parents. It covers all things digital, including screen time, cyberbullying, and media literacy.
So much great stuff out there… this is just the tip of the iceberg, but can help you stay in the loop. Which, in our age of information, is key when it comes to getting buy-in from the kids. Happy planning!
Journaling has been a big part of my health classes since the day I became a teacher, and the benefits it has had on my teaching practice keep piling up every year. Even with all of the technological advances over the last 15 years, I start every semester by giving each of my students a small spiral bound notebook.
Here are 7 reasons why you should too.
- Gage student concerns and keep your content relevant
When I first became a health teacher, I was given the teacher’s guide to an outdated textbook and told to just “go in order and get through what you can”. When I thumbed through the first few chapters, it was clear I wasn’t going to cover the topics my students wanted and needed me to.
So I asked them what I should cover, by writing the following on the board,
“Journal #1: What are the biggest health concerns in our school community? In your family? For you personally?”
I spent that first afternoon looking through all of their journals, and built my curriculum from there.
- Enjoy one-on-one conversations with your students
When I was a sophomore, I had a Language Arts teacher who had us journal at the beginning of each class. I still remember some of her comments back to me, as it felt like she really was getting to know me as a person.
I used to collect journals twice a semester to spend time writing back to my students, but would end up overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it all. So for the past few years, I’ve used a staggered “journal check” schedule. Each student has five days during the course of the semester when they’re assigned to hand their journals in. This keeps them on top of their entries, and gives me about 12 journals a day to check, making it much more manageable.
- It gives students a healthy coping skill
Research shows that keeping a journal is good for our health– physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. It helps us gain perspective and work out problems on our own. Getting students in the habit of writing down their thoughts and feelings is worth the time in and of itself.
- It’s a good place to write down gratitude lists
In a recent study, university students who took the time to write down five things they’re grateful for had a marked increase in their happiness levels. I have my students jot down a gratitude list in their journal during the first lesson of each week. It takes just a second, and as one of my 7th graders put it, “It’s like the fastest happiness hack ever.”
- Increased mindfulness and focus
My students spend the first five minutes of class every other day writing in their journals (three years ago we started alternating it with a guided meditation). If they have something pressing on their minds, they’re always free to write about that rather than the prompt I’ve given them. Having the chance to get their thoughts out on paper and out of their heads helps them focus and get ready for class.
This is especially useful when you teach 6th graders right after lunch.
- It’s a tool for formative assessment and reflection
My journal topics are always connected to our current projects or units of study, so with the staggered journal checks, I can really get a feel for what’s working, and what I need to spend more time on. I can also track individual student progress and get an idea of who needs help.
- It’s a great discussion starter
Not all kids are good at thinking off the cuff, so by giving them the chance to get their ideas on paper first, they’re more comfortable when it comes time for our class discussions. As for my introverts who have a hard time sharing at all, I get to check for understanding on journal check days.
Unlike is usually be the case, some of the strongest relationships I have are with students who rarely raise their hands. And that is the biggest reason for journaling of them all.