Originally published Sept. 4, 2021 by The Daily Times.

By Amy Beth Miller

Physical education teacher Ryan Acuff knows the power of goals and gadgets to motivate students at Eagleton Elementary School.

Currently the students are using new pedometers to track their steps, which Acuff records on a chart. The goal: 20,000 steps, based on the average each grade records during a 20-minute period each week.

State law now requires elementary students to have at least 60 minutes of physical education a week, which led Blount County Schools to hire three more teachers to fully cover its 14 elementary schools.

At Eagleton Elementary, individual classes go to physical education and then once a week the entire grade level has a 20-minute session together. With 80 students at a time, Acuff plans different activities for the “unstructured” period.

The walking challenge evolved from fellow physical education teacher Leesa Taylor when she spoke during a professional development session about her plans for a Walk Across America challenge.

Acuff, who has an educational specialist degree, structured the Eagleton step challenge to ask when each grade will reach the 20,000-step goal, not which will reach it first.

He wants students to focus on being competitive with themselves, not just being first to reach a goal. “It’s about beating yesterday and not about beating others,” he said.

The pedometers also offer a way to integrate math lessons into gym time. For example, when a young student said the first time, “I got 2 million steps,” Acuff could explain the actual number was 2,000.

He also recognizes the mental benefit students receive from their physical activity. “Kids are being pushed harder than ever in the classroom, so I want to maximize their wiggle time,” Acuff said.

In the next round he may introduce yoga during that 20-minute period.

Acuff didn’t bother writing a grant for the pedometers and just paid out of pocket to have them when school started. “I wanted to start off coming back on the right foot,” he said.

He has received funding from DonorsChoose.org for hurdles and other equipment, and he has his sights set on a much bigger goal. Acuff is determined for Eagleton Elementary to have a climbing wall by the end of the school year, a goal that will require about $5,000 to $6,000.

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