|Pottstown schools look to develop healthy minds and bodies as key to good education, Mercury 8-11-13|
By Evan Brandt
POTTSTOWN — What does breaking a sweat have to do with good grades?
Well, if you had been on the campus of The Hill School during last week’s two-day “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds Institute,” your answer would have been “everything.”
Begun seven years ago by the Boyertown Area School District and helped along with funding from the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation, the workshops program was hosted in Pottstown this year. This is also the first year for the current name.
“In the past, Boyertown always held it, and they invited other districts and last year we had more than 200 people,” said David Kraybill, executive director of the foundation.
Teachers stack cups while doing push-ups at the Healthy Bodies Healthy Minds
Putting it all together w/ "Marry You" by Bruno Mars. Using sign language to teach dance. Healthy Bodies Healthy Minds
North Coventry Elementary Nurse Annette Lemma on how yoga helps students be mindful at Healthy Bodies Healthy Minds
Ear plugs help understand the experience of hearing-impaired with the Black Eyed Peas at Healthy Bodies Healthy Minds
Pottstown teachers Stefanie George, Jolie Martinez & Kathy Eagle measure body fat with Boyertown coach Mike Spinka.
“For the past seven years, Boyertown’s been hosting a great venue for health and P.E. teachers and we decided to expand on that and really include more about how physical activity impacts the brain and learning outcomes,” said Ashley Pultorak, a grants administrator with the foundation who helped to organize this year’s event.
“We want to get more exposure for our academic community and really invite our community to take hold of this research from the ‘Spark’ book by Dr. (John J.) Ratey for use in our schools,” Pultorak said.
Ratey’s book, which served as the nucleus around which the programs at the institute revolved, explores the connection between mind and body, arguing that physical fitness and exercise of the body has a proven effect on mental acuity and academic performance.
Ratey highlights research from a Naperville, Ill. study which shows that in addition to improving school test scores, exercise and movement can reduce attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
In fact, neurological evidence now shows that exercise sparks new brain cell growth demonstrating why “getting your heart and lungs pumping can mean the difference between a calm, focused mind and a harried inattentive self.”
Ask any teacher which they would prefer in their classroom and they will invariably choose the focused student.
The institute’s aim was to show ways this research could be brought into the classroom, not only to make education more effective, but also to help students, and teachers, be more healthy.
With such a large task, one day was just not enough.
“This is the first year we’ve been more involved and the first time it has stretched over two days,” Kraybill said.
Titles of the more than 40 workshops ranged from things you might expect to see, like: “How Exercise/Play Readies the Brain;” to “School Wellness Resources and Best Practices;” to “Learning is a Moving Experience.”
A little less conventional were workshops like “Basic Bicycle Safety and Maintenance,” led by John DiRenzo, proprietor of Tri County Bicycles on High Street in Pottstown; “Collection of Connections: Brain Boosters, Breaks and Energizers;” “Cup Stacking” and “Teaching Dance Using Sign Language.”
In this last workshop, teachers learned the basics of American Sign Language, used ear plugs to understand how the hearing impaired may experience music, and shown how to teach dance moves to specific songs.
Jennifer Gilliland, who is studying speech pathology in Lancaster, and Lynda Lichti, a West Chester University psychology major from Newtown Square, both said the experience gave them new ideas about how to use sign language.
“American Sign Language is really a dance of the hands,” said Lichti. “It’s an art form, so it’s only natural that it would be used to teach an art form like dance.”
Next door from the sign language workshop in the gymnasium, Annette Lemma, a school nurse at Owen J. Roberts’ North Coventry Elementary School, was setting up candles and quietly sounded a small chime.
She was there to teach “Yoga for Kids” and her adult students were taught how simple movements can not only serve as a non-competitive alternative for physical activity, but also how yoga can teach students “mindfulness.”
“It helps the students to slow down, to be aware of what’s going on around them and experience it more fully. So you can do it with anything, like say, brushing your teeth. Brush each tooth individually and be mindful of each tooth,” Lemma explained.
Nearby, Mike Spinka, a conditioning and physical education teacher in Boyertown, held a workshop outlining methods for setting up body conditioning programs and teaching students to set up their own.
“Every three days, they do cardio and their goal is to get into a (heart-rate) zone for 20 minutes out of the 45 minutes they have,” he said. “But you have to tailor it. A runner who is in shape may need to run sprints to get her heart rate up, but the Sega champion of the world who sits on a couch can get into the zone just by walking around the gym.”
Afterward, Pottstown teachers Jolie Martinez, Kathy Eagle and Stefanie George took turns using skin caliper testing to measure their body fat. “We measure that against muscle tissue to get a ratio for body fat and muscle-tissue,” Spinka said.
Outside, beneath the arched wooden canopy of The Hill’s old outdoor hockey rink, Jessica Peconi-Cook was leading a group of teachers who were hitting big rubber balls with drumsticks.
Part of a program called “Drums Alive,” Peconi-Cook had traveled from outside Pittsburgh to present a program named “Get the Brain Alive with Drums Alive.”
Asked how such activity could benefit education, she said “well, in a middle school age group, it gives them permission to hit things when they’ve been sitting too long and there are proven therapeutic benefits of drumming.”
The result for the teacher, Peconi-Cook said, is usually better behavior and more focus.
Those results are no surprise to Scott Miller, instructional coordinator for mathematics in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, where Ratey’s research has been put into practice.
“In my first year teaching, every lunch period was spent with a math teacher who was complaining about what was going on in the classroom and finally I asked her what worked and what didn’t in her classroom,” Miller told the 195 participants who filed into the Hill’s dining hall for turkey Sloppy Joe’s at lunchtime Tuesday.
“We began going through some of the research together and within a year and a half, I was making presentations at math conferences with that teacher about what was working,” said Miller, “... that the best way to engage the students is to get them physically active, not always doing something that’s boring in the classroom.”
As it turns out, “we always had it right in PE,” said Dave Spurlock, coordinator of health and physical education, athletics, ROTC, and district wellness in Charlestown, S.C.
“We’re the non-traditional classroom, we keep them active and the neuroscience is now proving this out, that what we do is ultimately better for the children,” said Spurlock.
This is not a realization that occurs overnight said Spurlock, Miller and Noel Vigue, a fitness instructor at Kennedy Middle School in Natick, Mass., outside Boston.
“I had an administrator ask me what was the minimum the children could do and I said ‘would you say that to a math teacher? What’s the minimum they can do?’”
But that did not stop him, said Vigue. Those he could not convince, he just went around.
“You’re never going to get 100 percent participation, but you have to just keep going with those who are convinced by the research, and then you start using your results to prove it,” said Vigue.
“Really the most effective thing is to get buy-in from the kids,” he said.
“They’re the ones who feel better, who feel more fit, who are more focused, and they will convince the teachers who are reluctant,” Vigue said. “The students will start carrying the flag for this because they know it’s working,” he said.
The event has already instilled buy-in among the many members of the Pottstown School District staff who attended the two-day institute.
“Before we even left on Tuesday, we started meeting to discuss how we could implement some of the things we learned into the daily schedule in our buildings,” said John Armato, the district’s community relations director.
“In many ways, the timing on this was perfect because it dovetails into some other health and fitness-related initiatives we’ve undertaken from the new work-out equipment alongside the middle school, a full-time wellness coordinator and the safe walking and biking routes to schools project,” Armato said.
“And when you look at the science and see that these techniques not only help make for a healthier student body, but also improve with learning, there really isn’t a reason not to try it,” he said.