It's the last week of finals at Santa Fe High School, and the seniors in Amanda Burkybile's government and economics class sit rapt. No one gazes out the window or begs for a hall pass; no one surreptitiously texts friends or plays Angry Birds.
And, as if this scene weren't incongruous enough, they're watching a video about nutrition.
"Obesity, health problems, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure," rumbles a disembodied male voice as images of curly fries and tacos flash across a projector screen. Then the voice falls silent, giving way to dramatic piano chords and shots of pale, caged pastries.
This isn't just any health video, though. It's the end product of eight weeks' work by four students who together decided the main thing they wanted to change about Santa Fe High was the quality of food served in the cafeteria.
Those four students—they've dubbed their group FLAB, for the Friendly Lunch Action Brigade—watch from the back of the classroom. The video transitions to an interview with Khala, one of the group members.
"How do you feel when you eat cafeteria food?" the voice asks her.
"I feel like crap!" she replies, laughing on-screen.
When the film ends, Burkybile—who, despite her youthful demeanor, has seven years' teaching experience in local public schools—switches on the fluorescent lights while a student named Nick passes out fliers for a group called Appetite for a Change.
"There's an organization that does exactly what we do, just, well," he tells his classmates. For 35-40 cents more per student per day, he adds, Santa Fe High could offer organic food in its cafeteria. It seems like a universal good, but Burkybile presses him: Why, in an age of inescapable budget cuts, should schools bother with organic cafeteria food?
At this, all four students speak at once.
"Childhood obesity leads to adult obesity," one says.
"If they start eating bad as kids, they'll eat bad as adults," another adds.
Burkybile goes further: "How much should a school be involved in making a lifestyle choice for students?" she asks.
"Kids don't have a choice," Khala argues.
Her classmate Dylan—skinny with a gold chain and baggy pants—nods in agreement.
"It's sad when a school offers you a bad health choice," he says. "If they're giving you bad food in the first place, that doesn't make too much sense."
As Burkybile continues her cross-examination, the students who produced this video and its attendant branding (a logo consisting of a hamburger framed by crossbones; the fliers; the name FLAB) come across as consistently well-prepared and engaged.
That, Burkybile says, is precisely the point.
"This project had everyone pretty motivated," Burkybile tells SFR. "I was really pleasantly surprised."
The project required groups of students to choose subjects that affect young people in Santa Fe, research them and come up with impact-oriented products—videos, newspaper articles, bumper stickers or, in one case, branded rubber wristbands.
The only hitch: "It has to be something that you see as having a detrimental effect, like something that society isn't doing for a certain group of people," Burkybile says.
The subjects her students came up with range from nutrition to domestic violence, heroin use, dropout rates and gang membership.
Burkybile says that, while the project was unconventional, she didn't face opposition from district officials or parents.
"These students and their parents, to the extent that their parents are involved in what they do in class—whether that's seeing their work every single night or they hear about it once in eight weeks; there's the full range—said, 'That's really cool; that's hands-on; I wish I'd had the opportunity to learn like that,'" Burkybile says.
"It's not boring; it's not out of the textbook; they can use their creativity; they can collaborate."
Peter Chapin, an artist and educator slated to moderate a panel on creative education next month, says Burkybile's project is a perfect example of the types of teaching methods that engage students by giving them the freedom to innovate.
"It's allowing kids to use a different kind of thinking, the kind of thinking that goes into producing a video, in order to get their ideas across," Chapin says. "That's very positive, in my view, because it's not just using what is usually considered academic or to-the-test work, but allowing the kids to let loose and be creative."
As schools make budget cuts, particularly to arts programs, giving individual teachers the ability to use the arts and creative methods in their instruction becomes increasingly important, Chapin says.
"It's unfortunate," he says, "that so many people have the mind-set that [arts education is] a frill, kind of an extra, when in fact it is part of what's needed to help education in general."
But this project, which took the place of a final exam, had another element: outreach. In addition to educating the public through videos and news articles, students also had to offer measurable steps they, the public and the schools could take to help create solutions.
"I want to give students a sense of empowerment, showing them that they can make a difference in society, [whether] it's within our small community of Santa Fe High [or] within a broader context," Burkybile says. "I want to show them there's a real-world application for their knowledge…You might only be a teenager, but you can do something."
Burkybile says the idea of engaging the community arose out of frustration with public schools' negative image.
"Ninety-five percent of what we see or hear in the news media about teachers and education [is] negative," Burkybile says. "I feel like the public gets a really skewed perspective of what public school is like."
While Burkybile acknowledges that some aspects of public education are flawed, "It's no one person's job to fix it," she says. "I wanted to have the kids turn it back on the community also and say, 'We're trying to do our part to fix this problem. What are you doing?'"
Back in the classroom, Nick is answering a question about the fresh ingredients—or lack thereof—in Santa Fe High's cafeteria food.
In an interview with a cafeteria employee, he says, he learned that everything except salad comes frozen.
"The only actual cooking tool they use is a box cutter," he adds.
The class issues a collective exclamation of disgust.
"I haven't ate lunch [at school] since I started this project," Dylan chimes in.
After rapturous descriptions of a New York school that serves painstakingly healthy food, and whose students reputedly pay attention better and are happier, the group offers suggestions for improvement: more fresh foods, more investment in school lunches, fliers and petitions to mobilize community action.
"Packing a lunch is hard work," Khala concludes. "It's quick and easy to eat at school, and it's cheap, so it should be good food, not disgusting food."