Every so often in life, an amazing and wonderful opportunity makes its way to fortunate educators like me. Although I have been a high school science teacher since 1996, I never have had the opportunity to teach a class to young people about the virtues and practice of becoming a vegan … that is, until this year.
With all the publicity about various environmental issues of concern today—not the least of which is global warming—I decided to create and implement a new course at my school. The design of the academic schedule at the high school where I teach allocates a two-week period between the second and third trimester each year; this allows an educator to teach a condensed course on a topic about which he or she feels passionately for students of any grade level at the school. I decided to carpe diem and create my ‘minimester’ course, which became known as Vegy 101: An Introduction to Living and Thriving on an Environmentally Sustainable Diet.
Since I only had nine days available to me to teach this new course, I immediately sat down and compiled a list of topics that I believed were necessary to teach—but not so detailed that I would not engage the students who were brave enough to sign up for my class. After considerable deliberation, I created the course syllabus. See <www.vrg.org/journal/vj2009issue1/vj2009issue1vegy101.htm> for this and other materials I used for the class.
Despite the fact that my roster indicated 16 students had registered for Vegy 101, 18 students arrived in my classroom on the first day. Although I was initially short some chairs, I was ecstatic to see the class enrollment increase. We immediately got the class rolling by my having students introduce themselves and provide a brief statement of why they elected to take Vegy 101mdash;especially when all the other teachers at my school were offering wonderfully creative courses ranging from snowcamping to pinballing!
After the introductions, I had students create a namecard, on the back of which I asked them to write three questions that they wanted to have answered by the conclusion of Vegy 101 The list of questions students asked ranged from “What are extra nutrients you need to take in if you are a vegetarian?” to “What is your opinion of the beef recall?” to “Does making gelatin hurt or kill animals?” For the rest of the questions, see <www.vrg.org/journal/vj2009issue1/vj2009 issue1vegy101.htm>
The first topic we studied was the relationship between diet and disease. We examined the differences between epidemiological and clinical studies and discussed why both types of studies were important in understanding relationships between diet and disease. To give students some appreciation for the work done by epidemiologists, I created an activity involving a picnic where a disease outbreak occurred—for which students had to identify the food(s) at the picnic that made people attending our fictional gathering ill. After the students completed the activity, I had them use a whiteboard to elaborate about their investigation and present their findings to the rest of the class.
After that exercise, it was time for the daily vegan snack, which was pita, hummus, and raw vegetables on this day. For homework, students were to read and summarize Chapter 2, “The Evidence Is In,” of the course’s textbook, Becoming Vegetarian: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Vegetarian Diet by Vesanto Melina, Brenda Davis, and Victoria Harrison.
Today’s class was devoted to the introduction of basic nutrition principles, including descriptions and roles of dietary nutrients and requirements for sound health based on current scientific recommendations. Then, the class had its daily snack, meatless ‘hot dogs’ and fixings. During the snack period, I showed the Get Yer Veggie Dogs Here! video with Johanna McCloy (of Star Trek fame) from SoyHappy, which is an organization working to get meatless products into sports venues.
The purpose of today’s class was to introduce students to vegetarianism, including proper nutrition for both vegetarians and vegans. First, we examined the statistics of how many vegetarian adults and youths there are in the United States. Next, we considered nutrient needs of vegetarians and vegans, with emphasis being placed on the importance of obtaining sufficient intake of calcium, iron, and vitamin B12. Today’s snack was meatless ‘burgers’ and fixings. For homework, I directed students to make a list of foods they consumed in a typical week so they could create a nutrient profile and conduct a nutrient evaluation of foods typically consumed in the weekly diets of students.
On the fourth and fifth days of class, we began the formal assessment of the implications of various food choices on natural resources and on the environment in general. The emphasis of Day 4’s class was on the physics of resource utilization in the process of converting natural resources into food. To reinforce the relevance of this topic, I created a “Food and Natural Resources” activity about resource availability and utilization in the global perspective. In brief, a group of three students formed a country, and the resource availability (arable land, water, and energy) and sustainability requirements of that country were determined by the roll of a die. (Quantitative values for water and energy availability, corresponding to each roll of a die, were obtained from Tables 17/18 of A Vegetarian Source- book by Keith Akers, while land data was obtained from the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom.)
By the conclusion of the activity, students quickly realized that not many countries had the resources to support the Standard American Diet (SAD)—and one country even invaded another country that was undergoing starvation (due to only being able to grow sorghum, which is a challenge for maintaining nutritional adequacy unless you happen to be a ruminant!). As a teacher, I found it very interesting to watch the group dynamics and facial expressions of the students throughout the activity. Clearly, the students representing countries that had plenty of resources were smiling and relaxed throughout this activity, while those representing countries that lacked one or more vital resources looked to be stressed and even upset at times. At this activity’s conclusion, it was not at all difficult for students to understand the global implications of food choices and their impact on other human populations. Today’s daily snack—which the students especially appreciated after the “Food and Natural Resources Activity”—was whole grain cereals and plant-derived, non-dairy beverages.
The emphasis of Day 5’s class was on the footprint that livestock agriculture leaves on the natural environment, including potable water depletion, topsoil erosion, desertification, displacement and elimination of wildlife, pesticide bioaccumulation in the food web, waste water runoff, and global warming due to methane production by livestock, just to name a few. There was not a more appropriate time to show the class the DVD Eating the Earth One Bite at a Time by former fourth-generation rancher Howard Lyman!
After consuming the daily snack of vegan snacks and pastries, students were issued a copy of Teen’s Vegetarian Cookbook by Judy Krizmanic to start thinking about what to prepare for the following week’s class potluck feast. Also, students were issued the book Six Arguments for a Greener Diet, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and assigned the reading of Argument Two: “Less Foodborne Illness” in preparation for the next class after the weekend.
In some sense, today’s class was the most difficult for me to teach since it focused on the animals that are exploited for food production. As a teacher, I firmly believe that it is very important not to traumatize students, especially ones who already may be sensitive and empathetic to the plight of animals. Thus, I made it very clear to students that they did not have to watch graphic videos of what happens in a slaughterhouse. At the same time, I made available plenty of still pictures and magazine photos of factory farms and slaughterhouses to those students who wanted to “bear witness” to what happens to animals in such places.
To maintain continuity with the weekend’s reading assignment about foodborne illness, I showed the class a fascinating (and prospectively frightening) DVD on Emerging Infectious Diseases by Dr. Michael Greger. Between the factory farming discussion and infectious disease DVD, it should not have been a surprise to me that very few students had an appetite for today’s daily snack—meatless lunch meat analogs. I ended up taking most of them home and will probably be eating them over the next month!
This day was devoted to discussion about the philosophy of animal rights and how to incorporate such an intricate belief into an individual’s lifestyle. Although I attempted to exclude the topic of animals used in medical research and indicated it was outside of the course’s purview, ultimately students raised the issue. I redirected them toward the scheduled topic of the day, veganism, and hinted at keeping an eye open for the minimester course I’d be considering for next year!
Since I wanted to help students make the transition toward preparing their own dishes, I provided the ‘base pizza’ (either Amy’s cheeseless pizza or Trader Joe’s roasted vegetable pizza) plus topping options, such as onions, mushrooms, broccoli, Yves meatless ‘pepperoni’ slices, and a variety of vegan cheeses (all of which actually did melt in the toaster oven!) and then watched students have fun creating their own unique vegan pizza pies. It was evident to me that today’s snack was the one most enjoyed by the class as a whole.
This second-to-last day of the course was devoted to the examination of myths about vegetarianism, the exploration of the availability of vegetarian and vegan foods, and special vegetarian diets—with emphasis on athletes and companion animals. Today’s class was well-received, as many of the students were involved with one or more sports at the school. Since athletes often need bursts of energy, today’s snack placed emphasis on high-energy density. Thus, I had students prepare my own ‘gorp-like’ recipe mix, which is a mixture of raisins, non-dairy chocolate or carob bits, and some type of nuts (almonds/peanuts/pecans/walnuts) with the option of adding dried shredded coconut. To “practice what we preach” about increasing non-heme iron uptake, I provided a crate of mini-oranges to the class.
The other snack for the day was nut butters, including almond butter, cashew butter, and sunflower butter. This was a refreshing change for many students who consistently consume peanut butter as the nut butter of choice, due to convenience and not necessarily taste. It was evident to me that several students will be expanding their nut butter repertoire in the near future! Since students now had an abundance of snacks to consume, it was time to watch a movie.
Today’s class concluded with me assigning the students their homework, the task of perusing Teen’s Vegetarian Cookbook and finalizing the selections that they would be preparing for tomorrow’s potluck feast, which would immediately follow the course exam.
It is hard to believe it is the last day of the class already. Today’s class had three major objectives:
To maintain continuity, I will flip-flop the order of the three objectives above. The potluck was a wonderful experience. Students made a variety of foods—predominantly vegan, to my pleasant surprise—including casbah couscous salad, butternut squash and green beans in coconut curry sauce, bean dip delight, cold Szechuan noodles with vegetables, and a vegan apple pie that couldn’t have been tastier. The potluck attracted so much attention that other students, teachers, and people in the administrative wing of the school came to the classroom to sample some of the tasty vegetarian food in front of them. What an appropriate culminating activity for Vegy 101 as a good time was had by all in attendance at the potluck feast.
Based on the course evaluation form, 50 percent of students said they were “very likely” to modify their dietary habits, while 25 percent were “likely” and 25 percent gave a “maybe” answer. As I exchanged thank yous and goodbyes with the students, I awarded each of them with a VRG bumper sticker of their choice.
VRG Life Member Phil Becker lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
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