My day as a teacher: 16,561 steps
My day as a student on an in-service day: 3,362 steps
When asked to visualize "the model student," most people would have a similar picture in mind. It probably would look like a student sitting perfectly still in a desk, raising his/her hand, waiting to be called upon. I have come to realize that very few of my “model students” take on such a pose. In fact, I dislike teaching a classroom full of mannequins. Sure, any teacher can create an environment of students who can sit perfectly still, who speak when called upon, and who can regurgitate information perfectly. What about creating an environment where individual talents are nurtured, differences are recognized as strengths, and sitting still is not a dominating learning objective.
My Day as a Student: The Sad Realization
On a typical teaching day, I walk between 8,000, and 18,000 steps (without any additional workouts). 10,000 steps is my goal in a day, and it takes very little additional effort, if any, to achieve this. I often laugh to myself about how silly it is that people have a hard time reaching 10,000 steps in a day. Surely, America’s obesity problem cannot be from lack of movement. I get the step goal without even working out!
My thoughts changed when I took on the role of a student. It was an in-service day for teacher professional development. The day consisted of seven hours of sitting, except for two brief breaks and a lunch (which is more sitting). On a normal day, I have at least 5,000 steps by lunch, but on this particular day the Fitbit registered 1,200 when we sat down to eat. I felt exhausted! How could it have only been 1,200 steps? By afternoon, I felt like a true slacker. I even had coffee, mints, and gum to help keep me alert, but I allow none of these in my classroom. How could I expect 8 year olds to do this every single day?
Yes, critics will say that students have been expected to sit still for years. Why do we, all of a sudden, feel that students need to be allowed to fidget and move? Well, things HAVE changed. When my grandpa went to school, he walked to and from school every day. He also played “out in the school yard” with his friends at points in the day. When my mom went to elementary school, she still walked to the neighborhood school, and many students walked home for lunch. She remembers having a few recess times in a day. By the time I went to school, I had a fairly long bus ride and stayed at school for lunch, but we did have both morning and an afternoon recesses. I think both were at least 30 minutes. We even went out again at the very end of the day if we had our work done. In the present day, all of my students ride the bus to school. Unless they have phys. ed. in the morning, they sit in chairs until lunch. There is recess right after lunch, but it is 20 minutes long, followed by a long afternoon of learning… of sitting. I wish I could have put Fitbits on my grandpa and mom when they were in school to show the decline in the amount of steps average students get in a day over the past 80 years.
When I plan my schedule, I put math and reading first thing in the morning or right after recess. When there is a change in plans, I realize how little my students stay engaged right before lunch and at the very end of the day. Of course, I can make them sit there. I praise the students who are actively engaged in the lesson, but many students focus more on trying to “be a student” and less on the content. Oftentimes, I find myself repeating myself in the afternoon, and even my better listeners need more wait time to process the questions and formulate answers. One day a week, my students spend the entire day with me (no special class), and there tends to be an overwhelming number of “bathroom breaks” around 2:00. It is a long time to sit still.
On my in-service day, I experienced this for myself. The afternoon was so hard. I found myself staring at the presenter, thinking, “Wait, what did she just say?” I zoned out, yawned discretely, and counted the minutes until the break. I even admit that I took an unnecessary bathroom break, just to walk around. I was glad to have that coffee drink, mints, and gum to keep me from becoming comatose. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the content or quality of the presentation. It was interesting. My body is just not used to sitting, and my brain needed some blood flow!
Bad Habits: We Need to Remind Grown Adults to Move?!
Oddly enough, when I arrived home (exhausted), an advertisement for the Apple Watch was on the TV. I glanced up just as it showed the reminder for the person to stand up and move during their work day. I find it funny that we need a watch to remind us to get up and move. Are we training our students to become chronic “sitters” now? I recently heard a news story that reported, “Sitting is the new smoking!” Isn't that silly that we reward our best “sitters” in the class!? The students whose bodies are still able to tell them to move (without a fancy watch) are the ones who are negatively labeled and conditioned to sit. Maybe the students aren't the ones with the problem. The system needs to change.
Brain Breaks: Just Another Fading Fad
As with the initiative to have healthier lunches, “brain breaks” are a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, they are forced, lacking in authenticity, and they do not appeal to all students. Like any fad, the practice will probably fade quickly. I have tried them with my class. One website is very cute. The students choose a video that encourages movement, and a little critter keeps track of the amount of time they move. The problem I find, is that we all take this break at the same time. Some of my students are in need of a break, but others may have just hit the zone of, “My light bulb is on, teach me!” We all get up and move, but the boys in my class this year are just not into the Zumba-style dancing or the yoga-like moves. They would rather go outside to run around in a game of tag or football. They end up standing there, doing the bare minimum, and the brief activity becomes more of a distraction than a moment of rejuvenation. This may be effective with some classes, but I’m glad it is not a mandated activity for this particular mix of students. I had to find another way to give the students’ brains “recovery” time.
Good Habits: Listening to our Bodies
If we want our students to grow up to be adults with good habits, we need to allow them to develop those habits naturally. Of course, there are times when sitting still should be expected, but the chunks of time need to be limited. The opportunity to move needs to exist.
- When there is not direct instruction coming from the teacher in the room, students should be able to stand or move while working (with a few ground rules).
- There should be choices among a variety of breaks. Not everyone enjoys the same activity, and we do not want students to think of this as a waste of time.
- The time of breaks should be based on the students’ needs. If a student is in the middle of being productive, they should not be forced to go through the motions.
I came up with “benchmark breaks” for my students. When a student finishes a small section of work, I give him/her an exercise to do. They may either choose one of mine or “create an exercise” of which I approve. They love this, and I need to do it more. The other day was one of the first warm, sunny days of the season. I took the class outside to do their independent reading work. There were five sections to the activity, and it was a little tedious. After each section, the students had to bring me their papers, and I checked the quality. If it was correct, it became a “ticket” for an exercise on the playground.
Boy, were they ever engaged and focused! Even my slower workers sped along. My “rushers” found that they had to produce better quality answers to receive an exercise in return. Here were some of the exercise:
- Run to the curly slide, go down it once, and run back.
- Hop to the swing set, do 5 swings, and hop back.
- Skip to the monkey bars, go across one way, skip back.
- Run two laps around the entire playground.
- Jog to the water fountain, get a drink, and sprint back.
- Climb to the top of the bubble and come back.
- Crab walk around the swings and walk back.
I actually had a student tell me that she did her math homework the same way that night. She said she divided her page into 3 sections. When she finished a section, she practiced her gymnastic moves, “five times like how we did the swings!”
Inside activities are more calm, depending on the assignment. They include things like:
- Various stretching moves
- Heel raises
- Hopping on one foot
- Jumping Jacks
- Triceps push-ups w/ chair
- Bathroom break - hall walk
- March in place
- Practice tying your shoe three times
- Create your own
We still do whole-group activities with movement, and students still have times when they are required to sit still. The difference is, we try to have a balance in our classroom that respects the needs of those growing little bodies. As a teacher, I need to stop “sitting” on the energy that molds creative, healthy students.