Exercise in math class? How one math teacher gets kids moving while studying


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I recently published a post titled “Why so many students can’t sit still in school today” that was very popular with readers. The piece mentioned Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder but another factor, as well: the idea expressed by pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom that academic pressures in school have reduced or eliminated the time that kids have for recess, physical education or other activities that allow them to get up and move.

Jenny Peña, a veteran eighth-grade math teacher in Austin, Texas, wrote to me to echo Hanscom’s concerns about the lack of physical activity for students in school today, and explained ways that she has found to get kids up and moving — even while they are doing school work.

Peña is now in her 21st year as a teacher. She earned a bachelor of arts in education at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, and taught English and math for a number of years in various grades there and in Austin on regular campuses and at an alternative school for five years in a variety of grades. She moved to Austin and for three years taught in  an alternative school in grades 6-10. During most of her career she has taught at high-poverty schools and mentored many teachers. A few years ago, she returned to school and received a master’s of education in educational administration degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

She asked for readers to suggest other ways to get kids physically active during class.

Here’s what she wrote:

I am a middle-school teacher who tries desperately to incorporate movement into my classes daily. Some of the strategies I use come from Eric Jensen’s “Teaching with the Brain in Mind” workshop I attended a few years ago.

I have kids stand and move to different locations in the room as informal assessment or to examine different skill challenges posted around the walls. I often take a traditional “worksheet” (I teach math) and cut it up and give kids one card at a time to practice with a partner or two — or alone (choice). They have to walk across the room and back to their work spot and then return for the next card.

I use butcher paper for bulletin boards as “magic carpet” on my tiled floor so kids can stretch out and lie or sit on the ground and then get up and down.

I usually have 90-minute classes so I break up activities into 5-10-15-20 minute activities. Halfway through class we do a “memory check.” I play music and perform a simple physical action (such as clapping, marching in place, jumping, spinning, etc.), they copy; I repeat action then add new action and they repeat the sequence in order and we continue until we have 5-10 actions. Often a student is the memory leader and does the actions.

I’m trying … but it still doesn’t seem like enough. I’d welcome new ideas or some direction… I too lament the bygone days of merry-go-rounds, monkey-bars, and tall slides I was so fortunate to play on during and after school and every chance I got as a kid…

 

In another e-mail, she wrote:

In Jensen’s workshop I was exposed to the concept of Neurogenesis. Physical activity actually promotes the growth of brain cells. Also, years ago we would do leaning-styles inventories. Some students are more driven by visual input, others auditory, and many students are tactile-kinesthetic learners. Even an old Chinese proverb says, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” More emphasis on action than sit-and-get.

I believe teachers inherently know the importance of movement in the classroom if they’ve taught a while, and many teacher-training programs encourage movement in the class — it’s just hard for some teachers to “bring kids back down” from physical activity long enough or effectively enough for them to produce the artifacts of student work that are required in schools. There is always the urgency of time and test scores underlying decisions teachers make.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 16