Originally published Dec. 18, 2017 in the Huffington Post.

By Jackie Greaves

The goal of my class is simple: to build active learners who have the skills to succeed healthily in college and the world beyond. I asked my 5th grade P.E. classes to respond to this question: “Why is it important to get exercise daily?”

The most striking response that helped reinforce the reason I use personalized learning was one from a 10-year old student: “Exercise helps keep me disease free so I can live longer.” A simple answer really when you break it down, but one that made me feel happy because I as her teacher was able to help her see this very important connection between exercise and longevity.

Getting my students to see this is easier when I connect learning to their own lives. I started our Jump Rope for Heart Month by sharing a story about my father who died from a heart attack. I showed my class a video which tells the stories of several young children and the stories of their heart disease. My students then participated in a whole class discussion based around their own experiences and understandings of what it means to have a healthy heart.

jump rope

Students jump rope at Serra Catholic School in Rancho Santa Margarita Feb. 1 in an attempt to help break the Guinness World Record for “Most People Jumping/Skipping Rope at the Same Time.”

I asked some of my students to suggest different types of cardiovascular jumping exercises that they thought would be fun to do during our Jump Rope For Heart Month. My 5th graders came up with lots of creative ideas that only kids can: box jumps, tire jumps, the agility ladder, hopscotch, the skip it, and line jumps. I implemented these ideas as stations and gave my students the opportunity to test them out and to see which ones got their hearts beating the fastest. Maria, one of my 5th graders, wrote: “jump roping gets my heart beating much faster than running, I would like to practice jump roping with my Dad.” Another 5th grader, Jose, wrote: “I did not know exercise could make you feel happier, I would like to teach some of these exercises to my family.”

Once I got my students connected to cardiovascular health and sharing what they learned with their own families, I implement the program’s healthy challenges that students can do at home with their loved ones. The challenges involve students and a family member making pledges to eat more fruits and veggies, drink more water, and get more exercise daily. Students were coming up to me each day telling me about a new pledge they made with a grandparent, cousin, or sibling. The greatest thing I heard was a student telling me that they “can’t wait to go home to try and beat their Mom in a jump roping contest.”

Personalized learning gave my students the opportunity to share what they were learning with their family. This eventually led to our school’s Family Fitness Day where my students got to bring in their family members to participate in several different exercise and healthy eating challenges that they learned in class. Seeing students share their expertise with their own families was incredibly fulfilling. One parent said: “Having the chance to do this with my child is amazing and I am very thankful for this event!”

Giving my students the opportunity to implement their own ideas and then to follow through with testing them gave them power over their own learning. My students were excited to discover different cardiovascular exercises and to implement them in our own classroom. By giving my students the power to make educated decisions about their own cardiovascular exercise regimens, it allowed them to discover more on their own than they ever would have had I planned and taught the whole curriculum myself.

Jackie Greaves is an elementary and middle school health and physical education teacher at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Lincoln, Rhode Island. She is a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellow.

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