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Teaching About Toxins

By Kelley Dawson Salas

Thus far, our study was purely about the causes and symptoms of asthma, and how asthmatic children could avoid or respond to asthma episodes. But I needed my students to go beyond that. I wanted them to understand asthma as a public health issue and as a disease that targets poor people, people of color, and people living in cities.

We began to discuss the numbers and percentages of people with asthma. I shared with them the statistic that 7 percent of children in the U.S. have asthma. Because percent is not an easy concept for fourth graders to understand, I asked the students to take a blank grid of 100 squares and color in 7 of the squares. Under that grid we wrote: "Seven of every 100 kids in the United States have asthma." Then I gave them another copy of the same grid and told them that in big cities in the United States, 14 percent of children have asthma. They colored in 14 squares and wrote underneath: "In big cities in the United States, 14 of every 100 kids have asthma."

We discussed why it might be that more children in cities have asthma. One student mentioned that there are more factories in cities and another said that there are more cars and traffic. We talked about older houses and schools like ours where there is a lot of dust in the vents and the air is not as clean. I asked why the asthma rate might not be so high in the suburbs or in rural areas. Their responses were limited: They guessed it was because there were fewer factories and cars, that the houses were newer, and the air was cleaner.

The students' knowledge of asthma as an illness that targets specific groups was superficial at this point. I asked them: If we do a research project in our class, what percent of kids do you think will have asthma? They hypothesized that a lot of kids would have asthma, but did not state their hypotheses in terms of percentages, and did not link their hypotheses to the national or urban percentages we had discussed. Instead, their hypotheses were anecdotal: "I think a lot of the kids in our class will have asthma because a lot of my friends have asthma."

We did the study with both groups of students I worked with. In one group, two of 25 kids (8 percent) had asthma. In the other group, six of 25 kids (24 percent) had asthma.

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