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Health Education
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Health Education
In the Department of Health and Behavior Studies

Spotlight On Students

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Spotlight On Students


Dena Simmons is currently studying for her Doctorate of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where her research is focused on teacher preparedness as it relates to handling bullying situations in the middle school setting.  From 2005 to 2006, Dena pursued research with a Fulbright grant to study the collaboration between schools and health agencies to prevent teen pregnancy in the Dominican Republic.  Upon arrival, Dena served as a middle school teacher in her native Bronx.  During the summer of 2007, she worked with the Directorate of Gender Affairs in Antigua to provide better health services for Dominican sex workers.  Besides her doctoral studies, Dena leads workshops on power and privilege and teaches pedagogy courses at a graduate school of education.

She has published on teaching and bullying at FeministingFeminist Teacher, and the AOL/PBS MAKERS blog. She has been invited to speak at Middlebury College, Westover School, United World College-USA, and several academic conferences.  In September 2012, Simmons gave a TEDx talk entitled, “What to do if a student comes at you with scissors?”  In April 2013, Dena gave her second TEDx talk at Teachers College entitled, “It's 10PM. Do you know where your children are?"

Dena is a 2013 Phillips Exeter Academy Dissertation Fellow, 2004 Harry S. Truman Scholar, 2005 Fulbright Fellow, 2010 Education Pioneer Fellow, and 2010 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow.  In 2009, Dena was profiled for her teaching and activism in a Beacon Press Book, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists.  In 2012, she was also profiled for her teaching and research in the AOL/PBS project called MAKERS: Women Who Make America, a dynamic interactive, digital experience, which features in-depth interviews from an incredible league of women.

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My master’s project was entitled: “My Plate: Making food choices for your family.” This school health project involved designing and hosting the first-ever Family Nutrition Education Event held at The School at Columbia University by the Parents Association. The planning involved over three months of careful planning and meaningful collaboration.

The event brought together Nutrition Educators and Health Educators from Teachers College, Columbia University’s Program in Health Education (i.e. see Alicia Chung and myself, Kara Siegel—the two at the far left in the above photo), as well as parents and middle school students from The School at Columbia University. The event provided active learning experiences for parents and children in the primary division at The School at Columbia University.

Designed as a parent-child activity, event participants visited food group stations, based on the USDA’s “My Plate,” learning about the variety of foods in each group as well as portion size. They also learned about the health benefits of selecting more fruit and vegetables, as well as strategies to build a balanced meal following “My Plate.”

Most importantly, event participants were required to try every sample food available for tasting. Food was prepared by parents at The School, as well as donated by a few local businesses and The School at Columbia University’s food service provider, FLIK.

After visiting the food group stations and using everything they learned about My Plate, event participants then created their own virtual meals with arts and crafts.

As the photographs suggest, the event was a big success. Moreover, my master’s project allowed me to put what I learned through my education at Teachers College in the Program in Health Education into action—in a real world setting! The comments of parents, teachers and students all affirmed the value of the school health project, as well.

My vision is for schools around the city and nation to follow the model we created, allowing “My Plate” and the goal of selecting more fruit and vegetables to become a real life, tangible experience; perhaps, one that transforms lives and results in ongoing behavior change, as well as healthier children, parents, families, and schools.