Research tells us kids need movement to learn, but how often do we incorporate exercise into our academic classes? A health challenge and pure desperation this school year pushed me to try.
My 2016-17 school year started out rough. By the time the first prep day was over an ambulance took me to the hospital for emergency surgery. I missed the first couple months of school and returned with orders to walk three times a day in 15-minute increments. That was easier done at home than at school, but I sure felt miserable when I missed my walks. I teach special education students and, luckily, am given a paraprofessional to assist with each class. One day my afternoon para and I hatched a plan to take our entire 10th grade class, a notoriously rowdy bunch, out on a walk — without prepping them in advance because we had just thought of it ourselves.
Immediately after taking attendance I announced we needed to start writing our argumentative essay. Kids visibly tensed. Usually I pass out a long list of ideas and ask everyone to choose one. This time I told them we would go outside and walk the circular pathway around the quad twice. I called it a “walk-and-think.” They could talk to each other. They could stop and use the restroom. But, they had to walk two laps and come up with an idea for an argumentative essay. I placed an index card on each student’s desk. Immediately upon re-entering the class, they would have to write their ideas on their cards and give them to me.
Some students balked. They worried that other kids would see them walking and realize they were special ed students because who else would be out walking as a class? I told them they didn’t have to walk as a class and they could walk in the opposite direction, but they had to walk two laps. I added my thoughts that other students probably wouldn’t even know they were out walking since they would be in their own classrooms listening to their own teachers, not outside watching us. Someone asked if he could stay in the room. Nope.
A strange thing happened at the end of that walk. Students are assigned to my English class because they have documented disabilities that interfere with their ability to read and write. They do not love English. Reading and writing is so difficult for them that they have honed their avoidance behaviors to perfection by the time they reach high school. And yet, every single one of those students re-entered the room and quietly wrote down their essay topics. Every single student turned in a card, and every idea was a good one. Because they could talk to each other while walking, many cards gave the same essay positions and topics. This allowed me to center the assignment on a common theme, and we wrote our argumentative essay together, over several weeks.
We took two more walks in that class before winter break. We required nothing from the second walk. The third walk we handed out copies of the alphabet with lines for words that started with each letter. Students were directed to find something on their walk that started with each of the letters and write it down as they walked. One teen complained bitterly that this “treasure hunt” was beneath him, and he wanted to get out and move into general ed, the first time I recall him ever voicing the desire to push out. We didn’t get upset. We got excited for him. Five students filled all their blanks within the two laps and we awarded small prizes and put their names on the board. Others earned points, depending on the number of words they had found. We had many of the usual, for example g for grass. But, there were surprises, such as the shy student who came up with Jesuit for the letter “j.” Where did he find a Jesuit on a public high school campus, I wondered. It turns out a social science teacher was crossing the quad and asked the boy why so many kids were out. My student explained, adding that he was stuck on the letter “j”. The teacher told him he had been educated by the Jesuits at a Catholic school so he figured that made him a Jesuit and spelled the word while my kid scribbled it down.
We reported out our words when we returned to class, making that walk into a vocabulary lesson.
We walked the 9th graders once. This class met in the morning, second period, and had many students with autism and ADHD. The kids were kind and fun, but easily distracted. Two paras helped me in this class, and sometimes I had three. One morning the students tumbled through my door with so much energy buzzing off their bodies I knew we had our work cut out for us. I took attendance and announced we were taking a walk — two laps around the quad. Again, some kids wanted to stay behind with a para. Some kids didn’t want to walk with the class. We outlined the rules we had set for the 10th graders and headed out, locking the door behind us so nobody could run back in and hide.
At the end of the walk, the students quietly lined up at the door without an adult. I caught up with them and unlocked the door. The entire class entered quietly, took their seats, and got down to the business of learning to read. It was magical.
I considered incorporating walks once a week, but haven’t because they do take a huge chunk out of the class period. However, I’m keeping my options open.