Hollywood paints gym class as the typical middle school nightmare where bullies are offered the perfect opportunity to pummel the protagonist. But in real life 2020, the physical education (P.E.) teachers use gym class to save students from a disaster not even Hollywood could make up.
Social distancing is cramping access to P.E., which is crucial to all students’ mental wellbeing and intellectual advancement. As schools remain closed, gym teachers across the plateau are taking measures to help protect their students’ mental health through physical activity.
Natalie Ploetz, a gym teacher at Discovery Elementary School, is taking a fun-focused approach to workouts while addressing the mental health benefits of regular exercise.
Ploetz meets with each class twice a week for 30 minutes. The students stay on the virtual meeting the entire time and participate in guided activities, as well as learn about different health practices like nutrition and hydration. These students also complete fitness logs to track practice and consistency.
“I use Seesaw, which is our platform that we use for our asynchronous work. That is where I post a monthly fitness log that has lots of different things to help get their family involved in it too,” Ploetz said.
These logs include monthly running or walking challenges as well as plank or pushup challenges for kids and their families to complete. As a subtle emotional health exercise, Ploetz said that some of their challenges include doing random acts of kindness for the people in their household. This allows the children to do something to boost the mood of people around them and to feel proud about their good deeds.
Mental health is an important conversation with kids of all ages and is especially important during the stress of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Ploetz has this conversation with students of all grade levels.
“We talk about it all the time. The classroom teachers every Wednesday are dedicated to social and emotional learning ideas and a lesson,” Ploetz said. “I definitely talk about it. I think it is just one of those things, in P.E. especially, that is already a part of it.”
Ploetz designed an activity called “word of the week” to help the elementary-age kids think about how they can support others as well as themselves. For example, one of their previous words was “encouragement.” Ploetz explained that kids would bring stories about how they can encourage and lift others around them. They have also had words like “perseverance” and “teamwork” in the past.
In addition to these class discussions, Ploetz stays on the meetings after class to talk to any students who have questions or want to share a story.
“Making that connection has been really important, even through the screen and the Zoom meetings,” said Ploetz.
Shannon Bleek, a gym teacher at Inglewood Middle School, explains that only seventh graders go through a mental health unit, but all students have some form of activity-based curriculum that support self-care.
Besides encouraging her students to stay active, Bleek shared that the school teaches the Character Strong curriculum during the homeroom period. Character Strong is an online resource used across many school districts to teach students about social-emotional learning and to practice character traits like kindness and respect. She also uses this time to connect students to counseling resources.
During the P.E. hour, students at Inglewood have the option to work out during gym class by themselves or stay on screen with their teacher to do a guided workout. Their teacher shares their screen so everyone can follow along. Some kids keep their camera on, others do not.
Students are also encouraged to do independent exercises, such as going for a run or bike ride in their neighborhood. Bleek refers her students to a group workout where students follow along with a YouTube video, or do an “As Many Rounds As Possible” (AMRAP) together.
All students are required to fill out an activity log that details their activity, their heart rate, and a reflection of the activity. Bleek explains that the reflection piece allows students to think about how the exercise benefits them and how it makes them feel.
At Eastlake High School, Jessica Burrow is leading ninth graders to prioritize physical and mental health in similar ways.
Burrow, the ninth-grade health and fitness teacher, said that she encourages her students to journal, go for walks, and recite positive affirmations as a way to cope with mental health stress.
Students in her class typically have their cameras off, but the chat feature has been a great way for her students to connect and encourage each other while participating in gym activities.
Burrow employs a dual approach that addresses fun and health awareness by providing students with a “workout bingo” that inspires students to do different activities and asks questions to help students reflect on the mental and physical benefits of exercise.
“In my elective class, in a lot of our conversations, we talk about mind-body connection. Exercise and sports teach us so much more than just ‘getting the wiggles out’ or making you increase muscle mass,” Burrow said.
P.E. teachers realize that people of all ages need exercise to maintain mental health, and are encouraging students to exercise with their siblings and parents to stay motivated and feel supported.
To promote exercise as a family activity, Eastlake High School has held events such as the virtual Run with the Pack 5k/10k that took place from November 21 to 22. This event was open to the entire Eastlake community in hopes of encouraging students and their families to be active together.