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Published in Print: March 1, 2004, as Take It Outside

Take It Outside

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Fed up with out-of-shape students, an elementary school teacher trades classroom time for daily walks.

I wasn't proud of the fact that at 48, I could outrun my 6th graders, or that my superintendent, citing budget constraints, had reduced PE to one period a week, or that my principal had elected to cut recess to 10 minutes a day. I'd watched the news and read the reports. Kids are heavier than ever, beset with such adult-size health problems as diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, stress, and anxiety. They are prone to low self-esteem and depression. Some overweight kids in my school had doctor's notes to take the elevator to the second floor.

A typical day for my students looked like this: arrive in the classroom at 8:15, eat lunch from noon to 12:20, have recess from 12:20 to 12:30, then return to the classroom until 3. Their 10-minute recess over a seven-hour day worked out to less than half of what inmates are allotted in penitentiaries. Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance and evacuating the building during fire drills hardly compensated for the extra 90 minutes a week of desk time we had this year.

During my lesson on ancient Greece, I described to my students how children from Sparta and Athens spent their afternoons running, jumping, boxing, and wrestling. I told them how we'd adopted many of our ideas about education from their culture.

"How did we go from that to PE once a week?" Arnie wanted to know.

"The budget," I said, brushing aside his question and plunging onward. "Those Greek kids could run like the wind, fling a spear a hundred yards, and pin a gorilla to a wrestling mat. They would have made mincemeat out of you guys."

"We're too fat," said Cynthia. "It says so right on TV."

"That's not what I mean," I said. "What I meant was— "

"We're a bunch of couch potatoes," said Jason.

"Everyone in my family is overweight," added Trevor. "Even my dog."

"I was born fat," confessed Anita, "and I'll die fat."

I tried to convince them otherwise, but they continued one-upping each other in tones of resignation. This was how they saw themselves. And they didn't expect me to do anything about it. This wasn't a math problem or vocabulary word they couldn't get. They were simply telling me how life was for them.

I didn't know what to say, so I launched into something about the benefits of exercise. They nodded and doodled in their notebooks. I told them how I ran every morning before school, even in the rain and snow. More nodding and doodling. I encouraged them to walk after school, to get outside and breathe some fresh air. They stared at me and nodded the way they always do when I lecture them.

"All right," I said, determined to be that teacher you see in movies. "We're walking. And we're taking class time to do it. Laps around the school. Every day. No excuses. Get your coats."

They whooped as if I'd canceled homework for the week, grabbed their coats, and bolted for the door. A few minutes later we were outside, 28 of us strung around the quarter-mile loop that encircles our school. Some kids ran, some walked, a few complained. It was a bright afternoon. The cool October air carried the scent of apples. I walked with the conviction that I was making a difference in their lives.

I encouraged them to walk after school, to get outside and breathe some fresh air. They stared at me and nodded the way they always do when I lecture them.

Things went well for a week or so, though as I passed by classroom windows and saw real teaching going on, I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I was somehow shirking my responsibility. Spending a half-hour per day walking meant we hadn't done spelling all week. Essays needed polishing, and novels needed finishing. Our state-mandated high-stakes test—the one that assesses math, reading, and other subjects the Education Department deems important—didn't give a hoot about how high a kid's body mass index was or how fast he or she could cover a mile. And there I was, denying my kids "time on learning" by insisting they walk in circles around the school.

Then there were the complaints from other teachers about my students' behavior as they walked, which prompted me to hold a class meeting so I could rant.

"Don't you understand how lucky you are to have a teacher who takes you out of the classroom and gets you into shape?" I remonstrated. "So why are you impeding the milk truck, and doing back flips off the swings, and hassling the 1st graders playing kickball, and hanging from the basketball rim, and shouting like a bunch of hooligans with classes going on?"

They looked at me. I exhaled and stared back at them. I shook my head.

"That's it," I said in exasperation. "I'm canceling the walking program."

"What?" they said. "But we just started. What about our health?"

"Open your spelling folders."

They opened their spelling folders and sat at their desks. Seatwork was something they were good at—a skill they'd mastered in 1st grade. What they needed most fell outside the curriculum and took place beyond the classroom walls. They'd told me themselves they were too fat, had been up front and honest about it, and here I was back to doing nothing to help them, ignoring the obvious by pushing on with classroom instruction.

So a week later, I decided to give it another shot. They sat at attention while I laid down ground rules and consequences. They thanked me for the second chance and indicated whom I ought to keep an eye on. They promised they would keep walking, no matter what the distraction.

"And no touching the dead bird," added Jake, referring to the robin that lay prostrate on the asphalt three days after slamming into our second-story classroom window.

"That means you, Jake," Arnie replied.

This time, they moved in earnest, understanding the gravity of the situation. I accompanied a small group, while other kids walked or jogged on their own. Two decided to walk backward. As my group looped behind the school, we passed the dead bird. We looked but didn't touch.

A short time later, Cynthia came chugging up behind us and slowed to a halt. She was out of breath. A sneaker lace was undone. Across her sweaty forehead hung a wisp of hair. She unzipped her jacket.

"Once around without stopping," she announced. "I think it's more like a mile around."

She wanted to throw up, she said, but thought she'd be OK. I asked her to walk with us for a while, just in case. She thought that by the end of the month, she'd be up to two laps, so long as she practiced every day.

"By Christmas," she informed me, "I'll be ready to race you around the school. But I'll need a head start. Your legs are longer."

"You're on," I said.

Dennis Donoghue is a veteran 6th grade teacher in Salisbury, Massachusetts.

Vol. 15, Issue 5, Pages 50,52

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