The bell rings and sixth-graders start to stream into the gym for physical education class at Westbrook Middle School. That’s when teacher Michele Higgins cranks up the music.
Higgins will continue to play music throughout many of the activities her students engage in, whether they are doing their “dynamic warm-ups,” learning dance steps, doing some yoga stretches, or playing a lively game of floor hockey.
“Music really helps the kids get engaged,” says Higgins. “Not everyone likes to do every activity. But they run to get to the locker room and are excited to be here. I don’t have any students who refuse to participate.”
Higgins, who has been teaching middle school physical education for 11 years, was recently honored as Maine’s middle school Physical Education Teacher of the Year at the Maine Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Conference in Rockland. She has been at the forefront of many of the changes going on in Maine and across the country in terms of the way physical education classes are conducted.
“We try to do less competitive sports and more cooperative activities to appeal to a greater number of kids,” she says. “So many kids today are not active. We try to give them more options for activities they can be involved in (for a lifetime).”
Before computer games and cell phones, back when kids spent most of their childhood outside playing games of their own invention, it made sense that physical education classes were devoted more to showing kids how to play various sports and games. But in the past 20 years, since Higgins graduated from Gorham High School in the 1997, the average school-aged child has become much less active, and consequently much less fit. Various studies say up to one-third of children in the country today are overweight or obese – a number that some say has tripled in the past three decades.
Professor Robert Lehnhard at the University of Maine has conducted fitness studies through the years involving school-aged kids. He has concluded that students who progressed through 12 years of school were “significantly less fit when they finished than when they started.”
Lehnhard lays the blame not at the feet of the old physical education curriculum, but more on the cuts to the physical education departments and the time allotted to PE in the overall school year.
“Having PE twice a week for 40 minutes, no one’s going to get fit with that,” he says.
“If we did that with reading, no child would be able to read.”
In the face of budget cuts and shrinking resources – and presented with such alarming and daunting statistics on kids’ lack of fitness – physical educators have realized that their approach needed to maximize the time they were given. Thus, many have made it their mission not only to help students understand the importance of being active, but also to give them the tools and the motivation to become more active once they are on their own.
For MaryEllen Schaper that motivation often takes the form of music and dance. She teaches health, PE and dance at Bonny Eagle Middle School and has for 14 years.
Prior to that she taught elementary PE and dance for 26 years.
“I was not an athlete in school, and went into PE because I wanted to reach kids like me who weren’t athletes, and because of the science,” she says. “I also think dance should be accessible to all. When I taught at the elementary level, my curriculum was 60 percent dance, including a district wide GT (gifted and talented) dance program.”
For Higgins, a three-sport athlete, physical education classes also emphasize movement. Higgins enjoyed physical education classes when she was in middle school and high school. But she remembers doing a lot of standing around between attempts on the gym equipment or turns at bat on the ball field. As a PE teacher, she has wholeheartedly embraced the shift from competition to cooperation and from learning how to play a given sport to learning about how to get and stay fit for life.
Like most of today’s physical education teachers, she is trying to mold “physically literate” students and lifelong “physical activists.”
“We play games that get them moving but that also help them learn about how their bodies work through play,” says Higgins. “We try not to repeat things from year to year.”
Higgins’ curriculum scaffolds the skills that students need to become more active and more knowledgeable about their bodies and the way to build fitness. Her fifth-and sixth-grade curricula teach students about target heart rates, as well as the importance of cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and flexibility, and how to achieve their goals in each area.
Seventh-graders learn about team sports in a coed setting that emphasizes cooperation, while eighth-graders learn and practice such pursuits as archery, tennis and golf (with some Zumba and karate thrown in for good measure).
Higgins also has mobilized the whole school to be more fitness conscious through such things as Fitness Fridays and Fitness Fire Drills. Her goal is to get students to think about being physically active for at least 60 minutes a day. Thus, it matters less how well you did something, as opposed to how much you did.
This emphasis on fitness and fun has led to an increased commitment to physical education at Westbrook Middle School. Fifth- and sixth-graders have physical education every day for one quarter of the year, while seventh- and eighth-graders take PE classes nine out of every 10 days for half the year. Higgins says she and her colleagues have noticed that from fifth to eight grade, “more and more kids are reaching the healthy zone” when they undergo fitness testing.
And that’s certainly music to Higgins and her students’ ears.