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Fostering Body and Mind

A physical education instructor at Bauder Elementary School in Fort Collins Colorado for the past 15 years, Chris West has co-lead the Wellness program since 2006 developing innovative methods to integrate academics into his physical education classes and helped changed the mindset of the school to greater physical activity.

"Seven years ago, I hired Chris West to be our Physical Education teacher because his vision centered on wellness and physical fitness.  We started to develop a larger vision together within the walls of Bauder Elementary School.  We began shifting the focus of PE as game play and large team sports to individualized fitness and movement-based health goals. We took the time to educate kids about the WHY behind fitness and life-long health goals. In addition, we involved the staff with this vision and continued to create school community buy-in.  To achieve our goals centered on fitness and health, we have dedicated the past few years to increasing quality physical education and movement beyond the gym and into the classroom."

-Brian Carpenter, Principal of Bauder Elementary.

To accomplish this joint vision of a school culture that integrates health into all areas of learning, we implemented a school wellness team with the direction of the Poudre School District’s (PSD) Physical Fitness and Nutrition Advisory Council (PFNAC).  During the 2006-2007 school year, as a Bauder Wellness co-leader, I volunteered to work with PFNAC so I could align Bauder’s goals with larger district goals for wellness and start building a partnership within the greater Northern Colorado community. The extra effort to build a new partnership was paying off. The PSD wellness coordinator and co-chair of PFNAC, Nicole Turner-Rivana, supported my efforts in several ways, including sending me to trainings such as the National and State AAHPERD.  Her involvement has been instrumental in supporting my vision for a new paradigm shift in education by assisting me in educator trainings centered on bike safety, integration of literacy and science into physical education (PE), action-based learning, active classrooms, and community support systems.  As a result, I continued developing the skills necessary to build Bauder’s PE and wellness program and to lead staff development for others in our school and district. “Chris’ passion for getting all kids moving is infectious. He has been a mentor to me and other staff in our district about how to work diligently for continued changes in the right direction. We are lucky to have him in PSD,” commented Nicole.

Beginning with my own PE class, I planted the first seeds by changing the culture of what students believed gym class was and what quality physical education meant. For example, every other year, I turn the gymnasium into a “Magic School Bus Inside the Heart” obstacle course where students travel through a make-believe heart while learning science and literacy. Their bodies are engaged in agility, balance, strength, spatial awareness, and cooperative play. I wanted to do more than just change the PE culture for students; I needed to build a deeper partnership with my staff. So I asked the third grade teachers to begin working with me to change the traditional Valentine treats from candy to a physical activity party while learning more about the heart. All third grade teachers joined in and used their PTO party funds for this new physically-active educational Valentine’s celebration with the PE teacher, in addition to regularly scheduled PE classes.   Change takes work and creativity, much like how a roller coaster needs to climb up that first steep hill, but the reward is the thrill of the speed and the wind in your face on the way down.

After planting the seeds with students, we began to focus on the school environment, knowing quite well that changing the classroom culture would require time and patience.  We sought out other professionals outside of PE connected with the medical field.   We developed relationships with our local hospital Poudre Valley Health System (PVHS), which connected us to two amazing organizations: Healthy Kids Club (HKC) and the Coalition for Activity and Nutrition to Defeat Obesity (CanDo). HKC and CanDo partnered with our wellness team to help develop specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART) goals. We were familiar with the School Health Index from the CDC, but with help from HKC and CanDo, we were able to prepare the soil before the wellness team started planting the seeds of change in our staff.

I am always trying to make new partnerships for our school and community. I found out from CanDo that a Harvard professor was giving a presentation on exercise and academics. After hearing Dr. John Ratey’s lecture with two of my 4th grade classroom teachers about exercise and the brain during one of the PVHS wellness workshops, we wanted to share this and other research with all school staff.  Knowing that our students only receive 45 minutes of physical education per week, educating the classroom teachers on the importance of physical activity throughout the school day was imperative.  Hearing Dr. John Ratey refer to exercise as “Miracle-Gro for the Brain,” we knew we needed to spend time fertilizing the soil by encouraging other staff members to get involved. On the heels of this information, we invited the founders of Exercise 4 Learning, Dr. Dan Lawler, Ken Reed, and Beverly Bachman, to conduct a half-day workshop on how exercise is interconnected to academic and behavioral achievement. The E4L team collaborated throughout the 2010-2011 school year, integrating movement with instruction and movement before math with our fourth grade team.

At this point, Principal Brian Carpenter and I built upon Dr, Ratey’s research on neurogenesis and his quote, “exercise grows brain cells,” and we felt it was important to start the day off with physical activity to prime the brain for learning. During the last two school years, we have been including “learning readiness time” into our master schedule. Learning readiness time was based on the Naperville Zero Hour PE class that has received international acclaim because students at Naperville scored 1st in science and 6th in math on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test. Learning Readiness Time starts our school day off with 10 minutes of physical activity before students go and sit down at their desk to eat a light breakfast. “I love that our students walk in the morning, then sit down and eat breakfast while we read aloud.  The kids are calm and ready for school”—Lori Painter, 5th grade teacher.

Dr. John Medina at the University of the Washington School of Medicine states that Brain Rule #1 is “exercise boosts brain power” and yet, according to Dr. Medina, “the classroom is a perfect ‘anti-brain’ environment today.” To initiate change in the classroom learning environment, I developed close partnerships with some classroom teachers. Connie Cooper and Tiffany Miller, 4th grade classroom teachers, changed the climate in their classrooms by replacing all of the students’ chairs with stability balls. These teachers showcased their classrooms to the rest of the staff and shared their success stories on how this intervention improved students’ health and attention in the classroom.  One 4th grade student commented, “They’re awesome, they help you focus, they help you keep your structure, and sometimes you get to bounce on them and get the wiggles out.”  Our sprouts of change are beginning to bear fruit.  We have many classrooms from grades 1-5 that have more than 80% of their chairs replaced with stability balls, and others are beginning with one or two.  We have been able to support teachers who want to make the change through grants, PTO funds, fundraisers, and classroom budgets.  Our goal is to supply and maintain stability balls for each classroom.  

Stability balls are one example of how Bauder is making the necessary changes to support student health and academic outcomes.  Changing the way we see and do movement within our school, along with teaching students the WHY when it comes to their health, has been a rewarding journey. The journey has included other interventions such as changing the classroom environment to one more physically active, as suggested by Dr. John Medina.We utilize equipment such as stability balls, mini trampolines, and Railyard Fitness equipment.  This enables students to keep their brain engaged with movement before and during the learning process.

We are “having a ball” at Bauder, from  staff sitting on stability balls to other classrooms jumping  on board and replacing one student chair at a time with stability balls. Not every student has a stability ball or needs one to stay focused in class, but with the support of a wellness grant and matching school funds the school leadership team provided, we are working toward getting every instructional staff member two stability balls for their students. Even though not all seeds (ideas) at Bauder have yet to bearore fruit, we have made a paradigm shift with the students, staff, and community of Bauder Elementary concerning health and fitness.

My most resent new partnership had me traveling 70 miles south of Fort Collins to meet and collaborate with Lee Spieker, the owner and founder of Railyard Fitness. To a child, playing on the Railyard is pure fun; they have no idea how hard they are working. Not only does the Railyard provide a platform for truly functional fitness, it is fun!  Railyard is a strong portable bench students can jump and climb on like a giant set of Lincoln Logs.

The students were having so much fun on the Railyard, but I only see students 45 minutes a week for PE class. I needed to find a way to move the Railyard out of the gymnasium and into a classroom.  So, I partnered with three grade-level classroom teachers, Cindy Roller, Connie Cooper and Butterscotch Culhane in grades 3-5. The three classroom teachers and I rearranged their classroom to make room for rails. Students can use the Railyard as a piece of furniture, sitting or standing at the Railyard while doing their class work on top of the rails like a table. Once students sit still for 20 minutes, their brains start to lose focus. Unlike a table or a desk, the classroom teacher can have the students use the Railyard to exercise, priming their brain for learning, thus enhance the learning environment. 

Dr. Medina states, “Sitting is not ‘brain friendly,’ we think best when we are moving and that exercise improves ‘executive function,’” Placing the Railyard, stability balls, and other exercise equipment into the classroom is changing the typical environment of the classroom to what I call the “Energizer Room.” In this environment, the students are more engaged and they can practice what I teach—health is academics.

The school environment also includes nutritional goals as well as physical activity goals.

I developed a partnership with a new member of our wellness team, Brooks Yates, a 3rd grade classroom teacher, to expand this student mentoring program called S.W.A.T. (Students With an Amplitude to Teach). Third grade students in Yates’ classroom helped younger students in the school with their academic work.  We added exercise or “train” to the SWAT program, calling it SWATT (Student With and Amplitude to Teach or Train). This changed the program for 4th and 5th grade, where the SWATT students would go around to work with a younger student and include energizer brain breaks to prime the brain for learning.

Then, with a grant that Brooks received from Fuel Up to Play 60, he purchased carts, trays, and cups so we could provide healthy snacks to our students.  Through PSD’s Rocky Mountain Healthy School’s Colorado grant we received funding to help provide snacks, but we needed some help putting all the snacks together. So I developed a relationship with one of my student’s parents, Jenny Evans, who also works at our school district program for students with special needs called Cooper Home. Cooper Home students prepare healthy snacks for the day. Job Developer Jenny Evans explains, “Students are building skills that will be incredibly useful in future jobs and independent living.”

The following year, I partnered with another parent on our wellness team, Shannon Emslie, a registered dietitian. She works with our principal, cafeteria staff, and district food services to provide free universal breakfast to all of students. Bauder went from serving, on average, 75 breakfasts a day last year in the cafeteria to over 540 light breakfasts a day in the classroom. This program would not be successful without the partnership between Bauder’s Wellness Team, cafeteria staff, PSD food services, the classroom teachers, and teachers and students at the Cooper Home.

In the school year 2005-2006, with the help from CanDo, we started optional BMI testing as a part of our vision and hearing screenings for students in grades 3-5. These types of partnerships with my students, classroom teachers and other staff members are helping people to see that health is academics. I need to connect my partnership with my PTO with other community organizations like Healthy Hearts Club (HHC). We have been collecting BMI for four years, and our Walk-a-thon PTO fundraiser is becoming acculturated into the community. Our community was ready for more, and in fall of 2008, HHC came in to educate students and their families about heart disease and to provide cardiovascular health screenings for 4th grade students.  The next step was to have HHC partner with other elementary schools in our middle and high schools feeder system, so when students were screened again in 10th grade, HHC would have larger group to track trends over time. My principal began to work with HHC to educate other elementary principals to also participate in the optional BMI, cholesterol and blood pressure screenings that were being provided to Bauder.

In closing, I would like to share with you one of the highest points of my professional career as a PE teacher.  In 2011, from my garden of nurtured soil and seeds, one of my 5th grade students, Kelsey Achziger, went to Denver to represent Bauder on a trip to the state capitol for “Girls with Goals” day. During a mock legislative session, Kelsey wrote a bill to encourage more physical education in schools. “I believe that my bill could make children healthier and better students.” The bill would require children to participate in physical education no less than three times a week.  “I think that my bill could help kids behave better, and I also think that it will help kids feel better about themselves.”  The best part of this story is that I was unaware that Kelsey had visited the capitol until after this article was posted. Kelsey had no coaching before going to Denver. Consequently, her experience is the highest recognition I have ever received because, when a student sees the need for more PE and advocates for more PE, I know I am doing my job well. Moreover, Kelsey was likely unaware that Colorado remains the last state in the nation without any state requirements for physical education.

Much of creating a wellness school is changing paradigms.  Conducting research, taking advantage of community resources, continuing to monitor and adjust, and having the right people on the bus make a huge difference, as do positive attitudes and open-mindedness.  We are creating a culture of wellness and helping our school community make wellness a way of life.  To change, we must first listen and honor where individuals are with their knowledge and level of wellness.  To address those who are hesitant, we simply focus on those who are more encouraged to change.  When success is reached, those slower movers jump on board.  Our ultimate goal here is for wellness to become a part of our identity, so it will not matter when staff leave and others come onboard.  Wellness will sustain.

Receiving this award acknowledges all of the partnerships that have been created and the seeds that have been planted for the past eight years.  Although this award was given to me, it validates all of the people who have helped me reach some of my goals, and I am excited that this award will be instrumental in creating new partnerships to increase physical activity for our youth.  I also hope this national stage will give me an opportunity to talk about how exercise grows brain cells and how health is academics.  The real news is that exercise is not only essential for health, but that it is essential for learning; we exercise for survival and the positive side effects of exercise are the fundamental building blocks to learning.  The brain is primed for academic success when exercise is a part of the learning environment.  It is a partner in academic achievement. 

Chris West has been a physical education instructor at Bauder Elementary School in Fort Collins Colorado for the past 15 years, co-leading the Bauder Wellness program.