Photo of Sarah Gershon (left) in a black shirt and Jennifer Banas (right) in a black, yellow, and gray zig-zag top against a gray background

News & Features

Thursday, August 29, 2019

As Sarah Gershon taught her health classes at Waukegan High School, she noticed an alarming trend. Many students were missing class, not because they were sick, but because their relatives were.

“On numerous occasions my students would say to me, ‘I had to go to the doctor with my mom or my grandma so that I could translate,’” said Gershon, who earned a Physical Education (K-12) certificate from Northeastern Illinois University in 2011. “I thought, ‘Wow! That’s a huge responsibility for a 14-year-old kid.’”

It occurred to Gershon that her students, many of whom come from Spanish-speaking homes, needed to know more than health basics. They needed to learn how to become effective patient advocates for themselves and their family members. They needed real-world information, like how to read a prescription label, interpret a health insurance card, fill out a medical personal history form, or prepare for a doctor’s visit.

That’s where Jennifer Banas came in. Gershon contacted her friend, Banas, an associate professor in Northeastern’s Department of Health Sciences and Physical Education. She and Gershon met back in 2012 at the Illinois School Health Association conference. Since then, they have collaborated on several research projects. When Gershon reached out, Banas had just read about a new health literacy and advocacy curriculum being tested by The Nemours Foundation, an organization whose mission is to improve children’s health through various services and programs including their popular websites, and Banas contacted Nemours to ask if the foundation would be open to piloting its curriculum at Waukegan High School. Nemours said yes. Like Banas and Gershon, Nemours seeks to foster health literacy among students needing those skill sets now, while also preparing them to become health literate future adults.

“Per the Civil Rights Act, there’s always supposed to be someone available to an individual who is able to translate health information into their language, but they’re not always available, or sometimes it’s a dial-up service and a person doesn’t want to go that route,” Banas said. “They’d rather have their child interpret. These kids were having to navigate the healthcare system at a way earlier age than families where limited English isn’t a healthcare barrier. The Nemours Foundation was in the process of testing out a curriculum that did exactly the things that we were seeking to do.”

Banas and Gershon took the curriculum a step further by incorporating lessons on how to use the internet to find medical specialists and local resources available through the Lake County Health Department.

In 2016, they began implementing the curriculum in Gershon’s five freshman health classes.  In 2017, their curriculum’s innovative approach to health earned Banas and Gershon a grant from the Healthcare Foundation of Northern Lake County to implement the health literacy curriculum in all of Waukegan High School’s sophomore classes as well as conduct research on the curriculum’s effectiveness. Three years since the initial launch, approximately 3,500 students have been taught this curriculum at the high school. In the past two years, they also added a mini-unit that promotes careers.  Given the culturally and linguistically diverse student population at Waukegan High School, the idea is that promoting health careers with these youths may help to increase the diversity of healthcare professionals in Lake County where the school resides. This year, with support of the school’s science teachers who will act as club leaders, they will launch a Future Healthcare Professionals Club. This will help students with an interest in health careers learn about the medical field and take steps now toward a future career.

With that success, their efforts are expanding and earned additional grant funding. A grant from the NoVo Foundation is giving Gershon and Banas the opportunity to implement a new curriculum for Waukegan High School health students called “A Novel Approach.” The program will teach socio-emotional health through young adult novels.

Gershon had already been using this technique with her students for the past three years utilizing two books—“Breathing Underwater” by Alex Flinn and “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher.

The grant allows Gershon to expand book offerings, form in-class student book clubs based on students’ book selection and, hopefully, help students process lessons the books’ characters encounter to deal with their personal struggles in healthier ways.

“The feedback I’ve gotten from my students is that even though they don’t like to read, or they’ve never really picked up a young adult novel before, they really like this activity because it’s a different way to learn the material and it’s something they can relate to,” Gershon said.

Some books in consideration for the class are Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” Erika Sanchez’s “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” and Samira Ahmed’s “Love, Hate and Other Filters.”

“The hope is that by giving students a choice of a book to read, they can identify what a character is going through,” Gershon said. “It might be depression, stress, gender identity or sexual preference. They can see how the character in the book deals with the situation, and the hope is they can relate the experiences they’re reading about in the book to their own life.”

In addition to socio-emotional health, the curriculum will incorporate the National Health Education Standards and the social justice standards published by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Gershon and Banas are also aiming to promote English language arts literacy and a love for reading. Novel-based curricula like the one they are planning can be bibliotherapeutic, helping some students to uncover new ways of thinking, become more aware of their emotions, find insight into managing a personal challenge or a difficult situation and, perhaps, feel less alone.

“I’m pretty excited about being the health teacher that asks students to read a book,” Gershon said. “By aligning these books to the health education standards, I hope to show other health educators that we can expand the health curriculum and be very effective in helping students develop the health skills they need and we don’t need a textbook to do it.”

Top photo: Sarah Gershon (left) and Jennifer Banas (photo by Rourke Johnson)