When does “safety” prevent learning?

It started off as a unique learning experience for a class of fifth graders at Alpine Elementary School in Longmont, Colo. After receiving a request from the fifth grade teachers for any parents who worked in the medical field to come in and speak to the classes, Ana Williams – a certified nurse midwife and parent of a student in the class – suggested to the teacher that she could discuss placentas and even bring in a donated human placenta to enrich the class’s study on the human body and circulation. According to Williams, the teacher said they had just been learning about blood vessels and thought it would be great.


Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons: Premasagar

Williams discussed placentas with the class, then showed them the donated placenta (which came from a low-risk mother who tested negative for infectious diseases in all routine prenatal tests) from afar, and then, after donning gloves, students were permitted to view and touch the placenta (if they wanted to) in small groups. After removing their gloves, they immediately washed their hands.

One child in the class took exception to the demonstration and her parents, Michael and Christina Valentine, were shocked when they found out what took place in the classroom. The Valentines – who called the lesson “horrible” and “not age appropriate” – were upset that parental consent was not required in advance and contacted the media. CBS4 Denver did an investigative study about the incident and aired this on the 10 pm news. The piece came across very one-sided and left me wondering what exactly about this story was newsworthy.

According to CBS4:

The St. Vrain Valley School District says it was an “oversight” not to let parents of 5th graders at Alpine Elementary School know in advance that a human placenta was being brought to class as a teaching tool.

“Unfortunately that presentation did not quite follow district protocol,” said district spokesperson John Poynton.” They (the parents) had a right to know in advance and for that we regret that they were not told in advance.”

The Valentines are concerned their daughter could have contracted a blood-borne disease and have since taken her for testing which has come back negative. They plan to have her retested in six months.

According to a letter from principal Dede Frothingham sent home to all Alpine families:

Officials with the Boulder County Health Department and Denver Health have assured me that all the appropriate measures were taken to ensure student safety. Further, Dr. Ned Calonge, Chief Medical Officer with the Colorado Department of Health has also assured the District that the chance of any transmission of a blood borne pathogen is unimaginably low, substantially less than a common nosebleed in class or on the school playground.

Williams also commented, “I would like to stress that none of the children had exposure to any blood borne pathogens. Exposure would involve getting stuck with a dirty needle; blood having contact with their mucous membranes; or blood having contact with an open wound. Of course, none of these things happened. We followed standard precautions and hygiene that are used in the hospital. ”

While the Valentines are upset, several other parents thought the placenta demonstration was a great opportunity for the children and some who’s fifth graders were not in that particular class are disappointed that now their children may not have the same learning opportunity.

Melanie Lambert’s daughter is in the class where the placenta demonstration took place and said her daughter thought it was exciting and cool. Lambert doesn’t feel a permission slip was necessary, but perhaps a lab release at the beginning of the year along with a mention in the newsletter would have been sufficient. Lambert said what concerns her is “how this with affect future ‘future show and tells.’ While parental notice is nice I’d hate to see fear and bureaucracy deny kids the opportunity to learn about something real rather than simply reading about it in a book or seeing a picture on a computer. There are always going to be risk with sending your child to school. Kids are often exposed to ‘bodily fluids.’  Blood, vomit, and feces happen at school. You can either talk to them about how to reduce the risk or keep them home. I’d like to see more parents prepare their children to take the risk.”

Clive Oldfield also has a fifth grader at Alpine. His daughter is in a different fifth grade class, but he wishes she would have had the opportunity to have this “great learning experience.” Oldfield said, “What a perfect opportunity to continue their study of circulatory systems by examining an organ that was donated. Life/nutrition/circulation – how fantastic to have that experience first hand.” Oldfield does not feel parental permission was needed and said, “By sending my child to a public school I expect the child to encounter situations and choices made on my behalf by the school and staff that are: moral, ethical, safe, valued, non-threatening, non-corrupting, age-appropriate and educational. All of these criteria were satisfied by embracing the examination of the donated placenta.”

Kris Koval is another parent of a fifth grader who missed out on the demonstration. She said, “I hope that other learning opportunities to engage in hands on, practical learning will continue to be available to my children throughout their educational career.”

Susan Lynch’s daughter missed out on the experience as well, but Lynch thinks it would have been very beneficial to have the hands-on experience. Lynch sees nothing wrong with exposing fifth graders to a placenta and said, “in 4th grade the students dissect ‘owl pellets’ (which is undigested parts of prey that the owl vomits up). The kids find all the bones in the pellets and put together the skeleton(s) that they find. The students enjoy this sort of ‘hands-on learning’ and come away from this unit of inquiry with a good understanding of the life-cycle, animal adaptations, and a basic bodily process (digestion). Using a placenta as a way to illustrate and discuss circulation seems like a fine ‘hands-on’ learning experience for the kids.”

Lynch adds that there was no discussion of sex or reproduction as a part of this demonstration and she doesn’t think there needs to be. “If a parent brought in a lung or a heart for the kids to look at and touch, would we still be having this discussion? I doubt it. It feels like the controversy is because it was a placenta – something that is connected (although tangentially) to sex, reproduction, and (horrifyingly) BIRTH.”

Personally, I feel that while the school district probably should have notified parents in advance, it was a great learning opportunity for the students, one that I’d be happy to have my children participate in when they are older. I think both the midwife and the teacher were acting with the children’s best interests in mind and never had any intention of jeopardizing anyone’s health, nor do I think (based on the information given to me) that anybody’s health was jeopardized. It seems like an overreaction on the part of the Valentines to contact the media resulted in a shock journalism piece put forth by CBS4.

We all want to keep our children safe, but when safety precautions were taken and the majority of the parents and students found the experience to be a good one, is one set of parents’ squeaky wheel really all it takes to get the media to jump on a story? Why didn’t they interview any parents who supported the demonstration? Why didn’t they show the views of the health professionals who thought there was no problem with it? I’m disappointed in the reporting done by CBS4 Denver.

Cross-posted on BlogHer.

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Dyeing Easter eggs naturally – a tutorial

Easter is right around the corner and since I’ve been totally immersed in house prep/selling stuff for the past month and I haven’t had time to do much blogging, I’m going to recycle this egg dyeing post from last year. Hope you give it a try! :)

Originally posted: 4/4/09

So you want to dye your Easter eggs naturally – without chemicals and artificial colors? While it takes longer than the commercial egg dye kits you buy at the store, dyeing your eggs with natural foods is better for you and your child(ren)’s health, produces much more interesting colors and is, quite arguably, more fun!

Why dye with natural colors instead of artificial?
According to Organic.org, “Many food colorings contain color additives such as Red No. 3 and Yellow No. 5, which, according to a 1983 study by the FDA, were found to cause tumors (Red No. 3) and hives (Yellow No. 5).” I wrote about the drawbacks of artificial colors a while back if you’d like to read more on the topic.

It is more time-consuming than using a store-bought conventional egg dye kit (and I highly recommend preparing the egg dye baths a few hours before you plan to dye the eggs with the kiddos), but it is healthier for your kids and the environment. “Dyeing eggs the natural way gives you the opportunity to spend more time with your family, teaching kids to use alternative project methods that are healthier for them and the environment.” I think it will be a lot of fun and a great family project.

To get started you will need:

  • Hard boiled eggs (preferably white eggs since they take on the dyes better than brown eggs)
  • Ingredients to make your dyes, which I will discuss in more detail below – As a guideline, use up to 4 cups for vegetable solids and 3–4 tablespoons for spices per quart. Mash up fruits.
  • White vinegar (2 Tablespoons for every quart of water)
  • Several pots and bowls
  • Optional: stickers, rubber bands, and crayons for decorating the eggs and making interesting patterns
  • Egg cartons for drying the dyed eggs

Natural egg dyes can be made from a variety of ingredients. Here’s a list of what I used last year along with comments on the colors that resulted.

RED

  • 3 cans of beets in cranberry juice (instead of water) – produced a dark reddish hue

PINK

  • Frozen cherries – made a very light pink

RED-ORANGE

  • 3 tablespoons of chili powder produced a nice reddish-orange color

YELLOW

  • 3 Tablespoons of tumeric produced a great yellow

GREEN

  • A mix of spinach leaves, canned blueberries and their juice and a few tablespoons of tumeric produced a gorgeous earthy green color – I think it would work without the spinach leaves, but I happened to have some that were wilting so I threw them in.

BLUE

  • 3/4 of a head of red cabbage (chopped) made a beautiful blue

GREY BLUE

  • 2 cans of blueberries and their juice made a grey-blueish color

GREY

  • Frozen cherries mixed with blueberries yielded a grey color (not the purple I was going for).

Instructions:
Last year I found a couple great web site with tips on “Natural Easter Egg Dyes” and Natural Dye from Organic.org. The natural dyes come from spices like paprika, tumeric and cumin; vegetables like spinach and red cabbage; fruit juices and even coffee. All of your dye ingredients can (and should) be composted after you are done.

On Organic.org, there is a boil method (which produces darker results) and a cold-dip method, which is suggested for children or if you plan to eat the eggs, which is the method we used last year.

The two methods are:

Method 1—Hot
Place eggs in a single layer in a large, nonaluminum pan. Add the dyeing ingredient of your choice—it’s best not to mix until you are comfortable with experimenting. Cover the eggs and other dyeing “agent(s)” with one inch of water. Add 2 tablespoons of white vinegar per quart to help the color adhere to the egg, and bring to a boil. Next, simmer for 20–30 minutes or until the desired shade is achieved. If you cook the eggs longer than 15 minutes, they will become rather tough.

Method 2—Cold
The cold method is the same as the hot method with the following exception. Once ingredients have simmered 20–30 minutes (depending on desired shade), lift or strain the ingredients out of the water and allow the water to cool to room temperature though you may wish to try keeping the ingredients in the colored water to give the egg more texture as the dye will become concentrated in areas where the vegetable touches the egg. Submerge the eggs until the desired color is achieved. You may keep the eggs in the solution overnight as long as it is refrigerated.

The longer the egg stays in the dye, hot or cold, the deeper the hue will be. Using vinegar will also help the color deepen.

Definitely feel free to experiment and try out other foods and spices. For me, that was a big part of what made it so much fun, trying out different things to see what colors would come from them. For example, the dye from the spinach, tumeric, blueberry mix looked orange or brown, but the eggs came out green! And the red cabbage dye was purpley-pink, but the eggs came out blue. It was like a fun science experiment that the whole family could get involved in. Happy egg coloring! :)

Pictures:
The process of making the dyes:

The egg dyes on the stovetop Beets in cranberry juice
Red cabbage Tumeric

And the results:

Red and pink eggsYellow and orange eggs
Green eggsBlue eggs

Links to other people’s natural egg dyeing results:

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Can Your Child Identify a Tomato? Teaching Kids About Food

I recently watched a preview from Jamie Oliver’s new show Food Revolution where first grade children were unable to identify fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, etc. While I didn’t find it shocking, I thought it was quite sad. It drives the point home that as a society we are, as Oliver points out in his TED talk (which is absolutely worth 20 minutes of your time), very disconnected from our food and where it comes from. Sure, kids eat french fries and ketchup, but do they know they come from potatoes and tomatoes? He also points out that the current generation of children may be the first in two centuries to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Of course after that I had to quiz my five-year-old Ava (to make sure I wasn’t being overly critical) and she knew what everything was except the beet (which we don’t eat because I think they taste like dirt).


Photo credit: Jacki-dee

Ava’s kindergarten class is currently doing a section about food. My daughter already knows a fair bit about what she eats since she’s been gardening with me since before she could walk. We also have friends who have chickens and we frequently visit the farmers’ market. I don’t know what specifically her class is being taught about food, but I imagine it’s pretty light and upbeat (i.e. no information about factory farming, genetically modified organisms, etc.). That’s OK with me though. I feel like you can only give five-year-olds so much information. They have plenty of time to learn more about the current farming practices in the United States when they get older. I have been impressed that they made butter in school by shaking a jar full of cream and will be making applesauce as well, and are even hatching baby chickens in an incubator in the classroom. They also took a field trip to a supermarket. A trip to a community garden would have been nicer, but there’s not much to see at a garden in Colorado in early March. Regardless, I’m glad that her school is teaching young children about food and hope that others around the country are as well.

Earlier this week I finally sat down to watch Food, Inc. for the very first time. My kids, ages three and five, who were not yet in bed sat down too, ready to watch along side me. I had a conversation with myself in my head for a minute. Should I let them watch it? I haven’t yet seen it so I have no idea what to expect. But it’s about food and where food comes from, and that’s educational, right? I decided to turn it on and keep the remote in my hand in case anything looked like it might get too gory or inappropriate for them.

Ava watched it quite intently and asked me several questions. Julian, my 3-year-old, watched bits and pieces while he wasn’t busy playing. Actually, one of the things he started playing (after watching a scene where a factory chicken farmer collects dead chickens was “throw the dead chickens (stuffed animals) into a bucket.” It was rather fascinating to see him reenact that scene.

At one point, I stopped the movie to gauge Ava’s reaction and ask her how watching it made her feel. She replied, “Sad and happy. Sad because people have to eat the chickens. Happy because I’m learning.” That reinforced my decision to let her watch it. I was very happy to hear that learning made her happy.

We ended up watching only half of the movie together before it was time for the kids to go to bed and they missed some of the more gruesome scenes like the lame cows, pig slaughterhouse and the scene of the traditional farmer and his workers killing and processing chickens (which really wasn’t that bad). After seeing it all now though, I think they would have been OK with watching it.

Food, Inc. is rated PG “for some thematic material and disturbing images” and that seems very fair. I wouldn’t let children watch it on their own, but I think if they watch with a parent it’s a great learning opportunity for all parties involved.

This spring we will start getting chickens (to eat) from a local farmer and I think a field trip of sorts to visit the farm and the chickens is in order. We’re also hoping to get chickens or maybe ducks of our own for eggs once we move and have more land. The more I can expose my children to where their food comes from, the better. We’re not perfect. We go out to eat and even eat *gasp* fast food and junk food from time to time, but my kids know what a tomato is, they see me cooking and gardening and help me with those things. All of that, I believe, will help establish healthy patterns that will last a lifetime and will hopefully keep them from becoming a statistic.

Related posts:

Soon-to-be cross-posted on BlogHer

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