Fort Valley middle schoolers take studies to a higher level

Students in Mary Jean Banter's gifted English/language arts class at Fort Valley Middle School have been getting big doses of health and politics.

The students have been involved in a yearlong project called R.O.A.D. (Representatives Organizing Awareness of Diabetes), and the road they've traveled has taken them to City Hall and the state Capitol.

And soon, the road will take them to East Lansing, Mich., to participate in an international competition sponsored by Future Problem Solving Program International being held this year at Michigan State University.

Banter has taken a team of Peach County students to the international event nine of the last 10 years.

This school year, the class — after much give-and-take — chose to explore the topic of diabetes.

"I had told them that one in three children born in the year 2000 will contract diabetes in some form. I had them gather in groups of three, said one person in there will get diabetes, and that brought it home to them," Banter said. "We voted, after discussing other topics, and they learned about consensus and collaboration."

The class researched the topic and made display boards presenting facts about the disease, how to cope with it and how to treat it. The students were also filling notebooks and scrapbooks as they chronicled their efforts in detail.

"We didn't know how big this would be, and we were adding to it each month," Banter said. "We got encouragement from (principal) Dr. Green, and the community has been very supportive."

One of the first public events at which the class presented its project was the Halloween carnival in Fort Valley. They set up their exhibit in front of City Hall, which elicited a visit from Mayor John Stumbo.

"He came out and told the students he wanted to support them," Banter said. "Then on Feb. 11, on Diabetes Awareness Day in the Valley, he came by the class and signed a proclamation the class had helped write for the event."

Their political education continued as the class made a trip March 6 to the state Capitol during the General Assembly session.

The class visited with state Rep. Lynmore James, D-Montezuma, and then went to the gallery, where seats had been reserved for them.

Banter said a resolution the class had written promoting diabetes awareness was read in the chamber.

"You should have seen their faces light up as it was read and they recognized what they wrote," Banter said. "And then they got a standing ovation from the legislators."

A similar resolution, SR1092, later was read in the Senate chamber and students again received a standing ovation from legislators.

"Later, Sen. George Hooks (D-Americus) and James had lunch with us, and Hooks told them the resolutions were going to be forever in the state archives," Banter said. "That impressed them quite a bit, that their work was going to be a permanent part of Georgia history."

YOUNG AUTHORS Banter said the project aims to raise awareness about diabetes, and students wanted to reach their peers.

That desire resulted in "Matthew's Surprising Story," a 17-page book about a boy who discovers he has diabetes and how he copes with the knowledge, going from denial to acceptance of his situation.

To show how serious they were in spreading the word, students wrote the book in English and translated it to Spanish, Banter said.

"It was nice to have your own translators to do the book," she said. One of the translators, 13-year-old Elizabeth Morales, said the experience has opened her eyes.

"I learned a lot. Before, I didn't care too much about athletics or watch what I ate," Elizabeth said. "I've joined a soccer team and now I know the value of being active."

Elizabeth said she also helped with drawings in the book, and she loves to write. "I've been in competitions before."

The class took the book to Hunt Primary School's "Share and Tell Day" and answered questions from second-graders, Banter said.

"Some of the bigger words puzzled them and we had to explain them," she said of the younger students.

Vermecia Howard, 13, said that before the project she thought diabetes was "something older people got, but when I learned that kids could get it, it kind of scared me."

"I have family members who have it but I'm not diagnosed with it," said Jamayka Webb, 14, an eighth-grader. "I know what you have to do to keep your health up."

Before learning about diabetes, 11-year-old David Williams said, "I didn't care if stuff was unhealthy, I just ate it. Now I'm more aware and skip the junk food so I don't have to worry about getting diabetes."

Taking a rationing approach was Payton Ogletree, 12, a sixth-grader.

"Studying diabetes helped me not eat that many sweets," she said. "Saturdays are my junk food days and Sundays I eat right, even though some of what's good for you tastes nasty. I also use a treadmill a lot."

The most enduring effects of the year-long lesson have been students developing their critical and creative thinking skills, Banter said, adding those attributes are components of the new Georgia Performance Standards.

Plus, the students have learned the value of making right choices when it comes to food.

"I'm studying to be aware of my health more," said Cecilia Zavala, 13. "I've already cut down a lot on junk food."

Students are tweaking the project for the international competition, said Banter, and are doing fundraising activities to pay for the trip.

"They've planned a variety of activities to help raise funds, such as a soft drink sale, sponsor letters, in-school activities like hat day and, if needed, a car wash," she said.