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Gym class heroes: Springville-Griffith Institute physical education teachers get creative in the classroom

GETTING IN SOME REPS – S-GI high school gym teacher Gerald Czmerynski said he likes to teach hands-on. “Once [students] see you’re involved in it, they get into it, too.” Photos by Joshua Gordon.

SPRINGVILLE — Gym class is not just kickball anymore.

A lot has changed in recent years, as pushes for a more testing-centric education, along with an ongoing obesity epidemic, have forced teachers to rethink the role of physical activity in schools.

More and more, physical education and health teachers at Springville–Griffith Institute schools are finding creative ways to get kids moving.

“We do the best we can,” said Karen Reynolds, a physical education teacher at S-GI Middle School. “Four-five years ago, there was more time” for physical activity.

Middle school health and fitness teacher Sara Coughlin agreed. “We want to make it a priority in school, to get [each student] 60 minutes of physical activity per day.”

TAKE A LAP – S-GI high school is equipped with a weight room, pool, aerobics room, and outdoor track. Karen Reynolds said she would like to expand the facilities at S-GI middle school with a fitness track, open to the public.

In October, Reynolds and Coughlin were invited to the Learning Connection Summit, where they said they brainstormed ways to do just that.

The summit, a Brooklyn, N.Y.–based health and fitness conference, poses a question on its website and in conference materials: “How might we work together to ensure nutritious meals and regular physical activity for all students in New York and New Jersey, to support their success in the classroom and in life?”

New York state does impose minimum requirements for physical activity in schools. “Success,” however, could mean going beyond those minimums.

“The kids are getting about 35 minutes [of physical activity] three times a week, 40 in elementary,” said Coughlin. “We’re meeting state standards, but if we want our kids to be successful in school, they should be getting 60 minutes a day.”

TOOLS OF THE TRADE — A space for aerobics classes was opened to students last year at S-GI high school.

Coughlin said activity pays off, not only physically, but mentally as well.

“At the conference, they showed us brain scans of kids just sitting there, and kids who had been exercising.” The difference, Coughlin said, was striking.

A study published in 2012 in the journal “Health Psychology” examined the effects of physical activity on children – including magnetic resonance imaging scans of subjects’ brains.

The study concluded that, “Besides its importance for maintaining weight and reducing health risks, during a childhood obesity epidemic, physical activity may prove to be a simple, important method of enhancing aspects of children’s mental functioning that are central to cognitive development.”

To that end, elementary school physical education teacher Robert Gainey said the school began offering morning activity to jump-start students’ days.

“The P.E. department at SES offers a morning walk and jog, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 8:35–8:55, where kids can walk or jog around the gym,” said Gainey. “It gets the kids moving right away, to stat their day. We’ve had a lot of feedback from teachers – the kids are a lot more engaged.”

Coughlin said she has seen benefits firsthand: “I see the difference in the kids, as well: They’re more focused on the next task.”

Gainey said the school also offers activity in the way of “ACES”: “All Children Exercising Simultaneously,” he explained. “Everyone gets up and gets moving in the classroom. Kids can exercise as their desk for 7-8 minutes, outside of state-mandated physical activity.”

For Gainey, Reynolds and Coughlin, mind is just as important as body. “We want to create an environment in our district where physical activity is just as important as test scores,” said Reynolds. “That means getting everyone involved – community members, parents, teachers, even custodial staff – everyone.”

The teachers have teamed up with Fuel Up To Play 60, a program founded by the National Football League and the National Dairy Council that supports physical activity and nutrition in schools. Coughlin said the program offers help with fundraising activities, as well as programs for teachers to implement in their schools.

As part of its efforts, FUTP60 offers an ambassador program, in which student volunteers encourage classmates to get moving and eat healthily. “There are 30 ambassadors,” explained Coughlin, “all working on, ‘how are we going to get people more active, to eat healthier?’”

Reynolds said she would like to see more opportunities for physical activity offered outside of school hours, as well. One idea, she said, is a fitness trail. “We need to provide more avenues [for activity]: walking, mountain biking, roller blading,” said Reynolds.

“What we’d like to see, and we’re taking baby steps, is to reach out to local businesses; the goal is to build a fitness trail for the whole community.” She explained the trail would be “a paved area around the back fields area [behind S-GI middle school] where people can walk, [bike and skate].”

“This place is packed, during the spring and summer,” she noted.

High school physical education teacher Gerald Czemerynski wants to see physical education extend beyond the classroom, as well.

“I get to teach not only swimming, but also weight lifting, fitness and aerobics. These are lifetime activities, something you can take with you into the real world.”

In addition to its gymnasium, the high school is equipped with an outdoor track, a pool, weight room and, as of last year, an aerobics room, outfitted with weights, fitness DVDs, elliptical machines and treadmills.

“Most people have [equipment like this] in their homes. You can pop a DVD in at home; a lot of families have a treadmill or something at home – we’re just trying to teach the kids how to use this stuff, in the real world,” said Czemerynski, who also serves as the school’s athletic trainer.

Czemerynski noted that, in recent years, more testing has found its way into the physical education curriculum. “You’re doing more testing within phys. ed. now.”

He said that he and his colleagues tried administering traditional tests, but found them lacking. “We tried a 50–choice multiple choice test. We thought, ‘this is crazy; let’s gear this toward fitness.

“Instead of paper tests, [we want to] emphasize cardiovascular fitness, which is huge right now, with the increase in obesity and cardiovascular disease.”

Czemerynski said he and his colleagues also wanted to move away from fitness tests that incorporate exercises that not everyone is able to do, and could scuttle a student’s self-esteem. “Not everyone can do a pullup. You see another kid ... he can do a pull-up [with] no problem, and you can’t, you get discouraged.”

The teacher said the department wanted to find “a valid test, but also a reliable test.” The search led them to the Cooper FitnessGram, which he said emphasizes physical activity, and offers alternative exercises without sacrificing reliability.

But it’s not all work and no play for this teacher: Czemerynski said he jumps into activities with his students. “Once they see you’re involved in it, they get into it, too. You’ve got to get kids to buy into it, not just in school, but in the future.”

Like his counterparts in the elementary and middle schools, Czemerynski sees extracurricular activity as a way to get students moving.

“We’ve got our third annual ‘ice bowl’ coming up,” he said. He explained the ice bowl – scheduled for Dec. 20 this year – is an afternoon-long parking lot hockey tournament. At the same time, a volleyball tournament will be held in the gymnasium.

“The kids just love it – they get all excited; it’s cold, it’s snowy, it’s a lot of fun.”

Czemerynski said that’s the best part of physical education. “The kids are dynamite. They make coming to school fun.”


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