I taught Middle School Physical Science for a time at Phambili, a People’s Education pilot project in Durban in the early 1990s. We had quite a range of laboratory equipment, but not the facilities to stage experiments effectively. By and large you had to do it by demonstration. I remember the very first experiment we did. It involved a potato: and to show the changes, I had to pass the potato round the class. When it came back to me, someone had taken a big bite out of it.
All my Science classes were thereafter punctuated by reminders not to eat the experiments! The tone in my voice must have warned them when it was downright dangerous to do so. Many of the students were coming hungry to school, and the occasional consumption of my experiments was a constant reminder of this! Phambili was situated in Cato Crest Manor, a squatter camp on the outskirts of Durban. It accommodated a range of students, and most of them were from desperately poor backgrounds.
The importance of adequate nutrition, however, is important in all schools. After teaching at Phambili, I taught for thirteen years at an inner-city school in Johannesburg called St Enda’s. The students were considerably better off in the main. But watching what they ate at the tuck-shop made me acutely aware of how little real nutrition they were getting. I also came to understand that for many the first meal of the day was eaten at the tuck-shop!
My own children are lucky enough to be able to go to St John’s College, one of the top schools in South Africa. But even there I can see the signs of poor nutrition. Many of the boys are routinely diagnosed as ADHD and prescribed Ritalin! And yet the reasons for their behaviour are all too obvious in their diet of sweets and fizzy drinks! As a parent I know how difficult it is to constantly come up with appetising and healthy meals for the lunch box. I know how often the lunch-box comes home unopened! But this fight is one we need to constantly be fighting.
It seems to me that one of the major problems in Education today is diet. Jamie Oliver is doing a fantastic job at foregrounding this issue, but it needs more than this. The major responsibility lies with parents, obviously, but one of the things that we can do, as teachers, is to make sure that students are educated about how important it is to eat well. The body, and brain, need a slow release of energy throughout the day, and we need to make sure that children know this and take responsibility for it themselves.
Those of you who follow this blog might be asking where the digital stuff comes in! I think that one of the ways one can make it real for children, is to require them to take on an educational role for younger children. I think that children should be challenged to research diet and its effects on learning and produce edutainment in the form of vodcasts or brochures and so on, aimed at educating younger peers. These materials should then be used in the classroom. If possible, it would be good to allow the older students to talk to the younger ones, and get feedback on their materials.