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He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. 
And what does the Lord require of you? 
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8 

Health can be a tricky subject at any age. No matter your background, you likely have struggled with a health issue — big, small, or somewhere in between. And you’ve probably found that information is key to understanding and treating your illness.

For seventh graders at Grand Rapids Christian Middle School, this lesson is applied thoughtfully over the course of a six-week project in Stephanie Tanis’ science class. Pairing scientific research with critical thinking and writing in Jennifer DeBoer’s English language arts class, the two collaborate annually to inspire students to research and present health topics of their choice at the school’s health fair.

A Grand Rapids Christian graduate herself with an interest in science and health, Tanis launched the first health fair at GRCMS during the 2012-2013 school year. “I thought it would be a good idea for the kids to write a bigger research paper related to science,” says Tanis, who also guided her students through the creation of a display board and oral presentation.

The first year of the fair was a success, and Tanis realized that she had curated a project that was not only a useful academic tool, but a personal one. Encouraged to consider thoughtfully which topic they will research, students almost always choose a health issue that has affected themselves, a friend, or family member. Others have investigated their own diagnosis and symptoms of ADHD or learned more about the stigma surrounding mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

“It’s very empowering to understand your own symptoms,” says Tanis. “It really does connect with the kids.”

Working collaboratively with Jennifer DeBoer for the past six years, Tanis has realized the scope of this long-term, cross-disciplinary project. “It covers so many skills that kids need to have,” she says.

“Steph and I want to make sure that the students are getting the whole experience, so writing the paper in ELA makes sense,” says DeBoer.

“I spend the first two weeks after iXplore teaching them how to make a provable claim about their topic and then how to research based on that claim. This is the culmination project of seventh grade ELA as well because it allows students to put together all the skills they have learned thus far in ELA with regards to writing a research paper. We really promote this as higher-level learning.”

After choosing their particular topic, students then make a scientific claim and begin compiling and explaining the evidence in the form of a research paper, oral presentation, and display board for the health fair.

“This project is filled with authentic learning that requires students to think about a particular topic but then to decide what they think about that topic and research accordingly. We are preparing them to be thinkers and decision-makers in the real world,” says DeBoer.

Held at the end of May each year, the health fair is open to the GRCS community and gives the students an opportunity to showcase what they’ve learned and connect with community members on their topic.

“Kids have had some cool experiences,” says Tanis, recalling one instance in particular in which a woman with functional schizophrenia approached the student reporting on that issue and discussed her first-hand experience living with the disease.

Each year, Tanis and DeBoer are further impressed with their students’ ability to explore a topic that interests and excites them. With just the structure and support to get going, “They will just go way beyond what you anticipate,” says Tanis.

By diving into the research of real-world problems and definitive solutions, students connect with each other and community members. “The health fair enabled a further sense of empathy for others as I learned about different ways people struggle,” reflects current ninth-grader Olivia May. “It was helpful and interesting to learn more about the human body and how someone’s surroundings can easily affect their health.”

Combining science with language arts, personal experience with polished presentations, Tanis and DeBoer have created a cornerstone project for seventh graders that will impact their education for years to come.

“The health fair was a great way for me to learn about certain disorders, addictions, or diseases on a personal level, knowing that they have affected people in my family,” says eighth-grader Caebre Baty. “The 2019 health fair was amazing and something I will never forget.”

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