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Madison School District student, staff work on changing health class calorie counting activity

Madison School District student, staff work on changing health class calorie counting activity

JAKE ZAROV

Madison Memorial High School sophomore Jake Zarov brought up concerns with a calorie counting activity to his teacher this year, and district staff are considering updating the curriculum in response.

In November, Memorial High School sophomore Jake Zarov found two of the units in his health class were “kind of problematic.”

One had students counting their calories every day and the other was a measurement of body mass index. The first functioned as “a restriction of how much to eat,” Jake said, while the second “was very inaccurate” and led some students to feel pressured to share their number with peers.

“In the high school setting, that’s going to get public, people are going to share,” he said. “It’s making a number confine you.”

Having had an eating disorder himself when he was younger, he approached his teacher shortly thereafter. He said he understands the importance of discussing healthy eating, but he also wanted her to be aware of how the activities can affect someone who has had or might be going through an eating disorder.

“Even one or two slides about the dangers of under eating and the dangers of eating disorders,” he suggested. “For kids who are going through that, if we had information about outlets where you can get help, like the eating disorder hotline or whatnot, I think that would be very helpful.”

A couple of months later, Jake met with the Madison Metropolitan School District’s physical education and health coordinator, Ashley Riley, to discuss his ideas for change in the curriculum on a district-wide scale. The pair came to an understanding of the nuances of health education, both he and Riley said.

He’s the second area student to speak out on the topic of calorie counting this school year. In December, an Oregon High School sophomore created a petition asking the district to stop having students count calories as part of their eighth-grade health curriculum.

Student questions calorie counting in Oregon Middle School health class

“This isn’t about the teachers. In no way, shape or form is this the school district’s fault, (or) do I blame anyone involved,” Evelyn Becker said at the time. “This is something now we as society have grown to see is not fitting, and I’m just advocating for that change for the school district to adapt a little bit to that current worldview.”

MMSD's Riley said she was excited to hear from a student on the subject having read about Becker’s campaign last fall, and students speaking up is something the district is hoping happens more often. She said calorie counting in health class has “just kind of been traditionally what we look at” to help students identify eating habits.

“With what Jacob’s bringing, it’s kind of like, ‘Woah, hold on a second,’” Riley said. “That could be good intentions, but that’s not being sensitive to other needs and individual needs.”

She said she and staff will work on ways to incorporate those ideas while still allowing students to reach learning targets like identifying reliable information and goal-setting that are part of the district’s new “skills-based approach” to the health curriculum.

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“We need to have some type of system set up that gives kids options of, if you feel this is not the best way you could accomplish this learning outcome, then you can do it this way, this way or this way,” she said.

Riley also would like the district to connect with more community resources on nutrition — something they already do on topics like alcohol and drug abuse or mental health. That would allow professionals to help staff keep up on the latest changes in nutrition recommendations and provide resources for students to use if needed, she said.

Jake said he’s glad to have had input on curriculum, something he hopes more students will voice their opinions on. His experience this month was “validating,” he said, in seeing how his teacher and Riley responded to his feedback.

“That’s what kids need from teachers, just understanding,” he said. “It’s important kids have some say in the curriculum because they are the subject of the curriculum.”

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.

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