Teaching Literacy through Public Health: Focus on Children, Grades 4 and Above

Why with an already brimming agenda of topics and content, would a teacher use project-based public health literacy as the theme of a class project?

What is meant by public health anyway?

How would it fit into a classroom?

Public health is the term used to describe how a state or national government regulates, monitors, and promotes the well-being of its citizens. One Public Health is a 21st-century term defining a global public health approach to prevent disease and promote health and health services.

Although these issues are obviously pertinent to students, how can a teacher motivate students to public health? Focus on mothers and children.

Here’s how to start:

  1. Print short excerpts (or use digital media) that deal with children and maternal health that are relatable to children.
  2. Ask children how long their life expectancy is in the United States versus if they were born in an underdeveloped African nation? Have them guess and explain numbers. Next, allow them to research the potential life expectancies based on birth country.
  3. Have them reflect on how life expectancy varies according to country of birth. Allow them to react in discussion, poetry, illustration or comics, and written reflections.
  4. Challenge them with the larger issue of how an individual country can extend its life expectancy numbers. Focus them on public health mandates which they as children need to adhere to in order to be admitted into school. Be grade 4, they should be familiar with immunization at the very least.
  5. Challenge the students to list other maternal health issues that would affect a baby’s survival and other environment issues that might be toxic for a baby.
  6. Allow them to research child mortality and maternal health factors that can alter a child’s life expectancy. Share the two-page excerpt of Rakku’s story and contrast it with the animation about the joyous birth of baby Maya. One mother in a narrative based on a very true story that takes place routinely in underdeveloped countries, suffers the horrific and preventable death of her beloved son. In the optimistic, beautifully presented animation, another fictive mother (but also based on real cases unfolding in undeveloped countries) delights in hearing the healthy cry of her baby girl at her birth. Two stories and both can be true ones.
  7. Challenge children to come up with the root cause of the death of Rakku’s beloved son. Sadly, in the short two-page excerpt of this baby’s brief struggle, myriad causes emerge that explicate this untimely fate that in this 21st century is all too common in underdeveloped countries. First, although Rakku was a working mother, she was unable, even with the help of her 7-year-old son, to have sufficient income to properly nourish herself and her children much less to produce breast milk for her baby. The baby developed diarrhea, which in developed countries does not kill babies. After trying traditional healer remedies, Rakku had to sell off property to pay for a bus to take him to the hospital because he was limp and thin. The doctor scolded her for waiting too long and a nurse urged better nutrition and hygiene. But after being discharged from the hospital with an infusion of glucose and prescriptions, the baby died. Like an Agatha Christie mystery turned horrifically true, there are numerous causative factors to blame in the baby’s death from diarrhea and dehydration. End of day, the cause is a social determinant: poverty. Had that determinant not been in place, Rakku, a working mother of three who truly wanted to nourish her baby, could have used her wages from her labor to purchase nutrients that would have allowed her to provide sustenance for her family including the baby. When the baby was ill, she might have been able to pay for a local trained health worker to examine the baby or to pay for the bus to get quickly to the hospital to have a certified doctor examine the baby.
  8. Challenge students to explain how and why the Baby Maya animation has a joyous ending because of different access to public health. Have them explain why the ending is different.
  9. Challenge students to identify career roles and government regulations that could be put in place to change future mother Rakku stories, so they too could end with a healthy childbirth. Students may also want to study child mortality and maternal care issues in the United States and report on how a public health focus can improve those as well.

Any and all of these child- and mother-centered public health topics will immerse students in literacy research, discussion, personal development as an empathetic citizen, mathematics data analysis, 21st-century problem solving, engineering design process, and introduction to public health careers. Students can immediately develop project-based life expectancy learning on expo displays in their schools, online sites with their perspectives and that of their families, blogs on public health and child-focused news issues, podcasts with public health professionals, and more.

Beyond accountable literacy skills, public health issues alert students to the ways their skills can set them off on the open and needed role of caring for the key health futures of all. Teaching for citizenship and real world participation is the essence of education.

Dr. Rose Reissman is a veteran teacher educator who founded the Writing Institute now in 157 elementary schools nationwide. She is coauthor of Project-Based Literacy: Fun Literacy Projects for Powerful Common Core Learning (Information Age Publishing, 2016).


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