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New Civic Education Program Unleashes Serious Fun (and Learning)

by Bryan Pflaum, Civic Education
5/2/2018 12:00:00 PM

Darion, a third grader from Cleveland’s Andrew J. Rickoff School, runs in place, singing. “We sweat when we run a race!” he chants before breaking into laughter – a big, hearty, deep-from-your-gut laugh that washes over him, forcing him to catch his breath.

No, this isn’t a recess period in Andrew J. Rickoff’s gymnasium. It’s an English Language Arts lesson in Anita Giusto’s classroom.

“My students loved it,” Giusto says, referring to Health Unleashed! – a new Cleveland Clinic Civic Education program that promotes healthy lifestyle choices, literacy, and interdisciplinary exploration for early elementary school students. “And they especially loved Rex!”

The title character of the Rex Rules! storybook series, around which the Health Unleashed! program is built, is a Cleveland Clinic therapy dog who takes pride in teaching his canine cohorts the important health tips he overhears on his beat at the hospital. Misunderstandings lead to misadventures, though – and lots of humor – before each lesson is done.

The first book in the series, Rex Rules! Right Bites, finds our hero learning the hard way about healthy eating habits, and provides the foundation for the program’s first instructional offering: a fun-filled lesson on nutrition.  

“They enjoyed reading the book several times and looking up the part where Rex drinks out of a toilet bowl,” Giusto says. “They found that hilarious and could not stop laughing.”

Making learning fun for students was a top priority in the development of Health Unleashed! – particularly for two of the program’s chief architects.  As students themselves, Cleveland Clinic Creative Learning Interns Madeline Spicer, from Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin School, and Rachael Thorn, from Rocky River High School, had a special appreciation for the power of humor and hands-on learning, which they noted early on in their project research.

“We observed that kids love to be playful, use their imagination, and laugh when they learn,” says Thorn, now an education major at the University of Mount Union, “and we understood that we needed to incorporate this throughout the books and lessons.”

With the support of Civic Education mentors, the two interns evaluated responses from their interviews with teachers, healthcare providers, and children’s literature specialists; brainstormed concepts; drafted proposals; crafted characters and storylines for the books; developed activities for the corresponding lessons; built a prototype of an all-inclusive educator’s kit; and tested the program, using feedback from pilot sessions to implement further refinements – all with the goal of ensuring an engaging educational experience for students.

“I hope students find elements of the program that they love and want to do over and over again,” says Spicer, now a graphic design major at the University of Dayton. It’s apparent at Andrew J. Rickoff School that the former intern’s wish has certainly come true.

Darion and his classmates complete an encore performance of Rex’s Water Dance Chant – a favorite program activity – and take a collective, cleansing breath before transitioning to their desks. The teacher passes out placemats, included in the Health Unleashed! Nutrition kit, and the students pull out their crayons, eager to apply what they learned from the previous activities to the creation of colorful, balanced meals. And what they learned, according to Giusto, is extensive.

“It changed my students’ views in so many ways,” she says about the program’s impact. “They learned that healthy eating is the best choice for a healthy lifestyle, and they learned that we should try to stay away from pop and sugary drinks and stick to drinking clean, fresh water – not dirty water from a toilet bowl!”

Giusto chuckles – susceptible herself to the charms of potty humor – and nods her head: “Having fun while learning is always a plus.”
Click here to read student poetry inspired by the Health Unleashed! Nutrition lesson, and visit www.clevelandclinic.org/healthunleashed to learn more about the program.