First Person

Ask an Expert: Healthy, fun school treats for kids

Q. The end of another school year is almost upon us. But there are still a few school parties to go – not to mention daily snacks. Can you give me some tips on how to make the snacks healthier in general and OK for kids with food allergies, too? 

A. It’s very easy to pack a bag of chips, Goldfish crackers, cookies or super sweetened juice boxes as a child’s snack for either home or school – but they are often filled with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, poor fats,  and additives and preservatives that are likely to lead to poor health.

Far too often, children’s snacks are full of SUGAR.  This will only lead to poor focus and concentration at school, weight problems, mood swings/irritability and other health issues.  There is also an increase with food allergies among children, which makes bringing snacks to school even more challenging.  So what can parents do to make sure their kids are eating nutrient dense snacks?

Here are a few fun and creative ideas along with easy recipes that are wholesome and delicious to get even the pickiest of eaters to enjoy! Most of these are ideal for those with food allergies such as gluten, dairy and nuts.

Healthy school party tips

Get involved and be creative Making a snack or meal fun may entice picky eaters to try foods they might otherwise turn their nose to. My mom used to make us a “surprise” for our after-school snack.  It was often just beautiful fruit, a mini sandwich or homemade pudding, but the way in which she displayed it using cut out shapes and pretty glasses made it irresistible.  Better yet, get your kids involved and have them prepare these with you. Here are some fun ideas:

  • Octopus swimming in hummus: Who wouldn’t want to grab a leg off this guy and take a bite? You can also use guacamole or plain Greek yogurt…or better yet, mix avocado with plain Greek yogurt (for those that can tolerate dairy) and add fresh squeezed lime juice for a tasty dip. You can also use jicama sticks, sugar snap peas and cucumbers for great dipping.
  • Here is a fun sandwich idea along with a tree made of cucumbers and pretzels.  Use sprouted, 100 percent whole grain or gluten free breads. You can also find gluten free pretzels for those who are sensitive to gluten. Add tuna salad, egg salad, chicken or turkey for added protein.
  • Make it a kabob  Small cookie cutters work great for making all kinds of snacks more appealing to young children.  Substitute chunks of avocado for those with dairy allergies.  This idea works great with fruit such as apples, bananas and melons as well – add rolled up turkey for extra protein…and be sure to squeeze in some greens.
  • Use a muffin tin to display veggie snacks, fruit, crackers, dips, etc….You can find heart-shaped or colored tins, or patterned muffin papers to add even more fun.
  • Include protein in their snacks.  This will prevent their blood sugar from spiking and give them more sustained energy, focus and concentration. Try serving: Hard boiled or deviled eggs; turkey roll-ups with veggies and avocado in the center; nut butters with veggies, apple slices or try other butters such as “sunflower butter” for those with nut or peanut allergies; or hummus or other bean dips.
  • Make your own trail mix. (For those without nut allergies, of course). Most of the prepackaged “bars” contain way too much sugar.  You can premix your own special varieties and put them in baggies. Don’t forget to add a bit of flaked coconut and go easy on the dried fruit. Create fun packaging with ribbon, stickers, baggies and other containers.
  • Skip the juice and sodas.  These are simply loaded with sugar – even those that are labeled pure fruit juice.  Instead, try a club soda or sparkling water with just a splash of fruit juice – add lemon, lime or a few berries for an extra sparkle.
  • Set an example: Children will imitate what they see, so if you are noshing on junk, and have unhealthy snacks in your pantry, that is exactly what they will want.  Keep a bowl full of fruit and vegetables on hand at all times along with a healthy dip such as hummus, guacamole or Greek yogurt.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.