Physical Challenge

With childhood obesity on the rise, today’s physical educators are tasked with combating this and similar issues.
With childhood obesity on the rise, today’s physical educators are tasked with combating this and similar issues.

Tamar Kiewe, 14, enjoys being active and loves playing sports. And, for the most part, she says, she was one of the few girls who actually participated in her physical education class at Pikesville Middle School.

But, there’s one element of P.E. that puzzles her: the regular smattering of fitness tests. Timed runs, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups. “Why bother?” she wonders.

“It’s pointless. Absolutely pointless,” Tamar says. “I understand stretching so you don’t hurt yourself, but there is no point to doing push-ups and jumping jacks [in P.E. class].”

What Tamar may not realize is that countless kids in the U.S. today aren’t as naturally active and as physically fit as she. Statistics show that many kids need a little kick in the tush to get moving.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2010, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. And, the percentage of children ages 6 to 11 in the U.S. who were obese increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010. During the same period, the percentage of adolescents ages 12 to 19 who were obese increased from 5 to 18 percent.

In response, P.E. class isn’t what it used to be. Teachers no longer roll a ball out to the students and say, “OK, go play!” Instead, the onus to combat childhood weight issues has fallen on the education system. Now, P.E. teachers are tasked with instructing their students on the foundations of living a healthy lifestyle.

The “pointless” exercises Tamar refers to are components of what’s called a FitnessGram, a widely used physical-fitness assessment that enables teachers to record and track students’ progress over the school year. The mission of the program isn’t competition between students. It’s simply a means to provide them with the tools they need to become healthier people down the road.

“The whole point of our concept area is to introduce students to an active lifestyle,” says Rebecca Chinsky, a Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School graduate who has taught P.E. in Baltimore City schools for the last four years. “I don’t care how successful you are so long as you are trying. I’m not going to grade you on whether you make or miss 10 free throws or you can run a mile. I want to see effort and improvement.”

Chinsky explains that part of the issue lies in the reality that parents themselves usually aren’t educated on the subject. To them, playing outside and being active came naturally. Now, with videogames, iPads and other indoor options, kids are increasingly remaining inside the house and not getting a substantive amount of exercise.

“Growing up, we were always outside doing something,” says Sonya Howell, a P.E. teacher at BT since 1991. “Now it’s a matter of trying to get them retrained and instilling the importance of movement.” (Howell notes that she meets with teachers every year to explain how they can execute similar activities during recess periods.)

Howell says that the implementation of fitness exercises isn’t the only area in which P.E. class has evolved over the years.

The days of selecting a “team captain” — often the most athletic boy or girl in the class — and having him or her pick teams for sports activities are over. Often, this practice resulted in the same kids getting picked last, leading to feelings of embarrassment and alienation. It also subjected those students to potential bullying.

Howell still picks team captains, but she lets all kids of different skill levels assume the role. And she quashes the issue of the same kids being picked last by giving each captain the choice of two students — each of similar aptitude — to pick from. The key, she says, is familiarizing herself which each student’s abilities.

Chinsky uses a similar method, and both she and Howell say that witnessing the humiliation of classmates who were picked last influenced their commitment to not letting that happen to their students. Chinsky reiterated that the burden is on the teacher to set kids up to excel.

“That’s the job of any teacher, no matter what content area,” Chinsky says. “You have to know your students and differentiate your instruction so that all students have the chance for success.”

Tamar says that at Pikesville, students are aligned in “squads,” six rows with four or five kids per row, and that teams were normally formed by combining squads.

It takes the “picking teams” element completely out of the picture.

Tamar’s mother, Suzanne Kiewe, says that she wished a similar strategy existed when she attended Pikesville Middle (then Pikesville Junior High) in the late 1970s.

“I was always one of the last ones picked for the team, and I hated it. It was horrible,” she recalls. “I think it’s terrible to put kids in that position.”

David Snyder is a JT staff reporter [email protected]

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