Originally published May 1, 2017 in the Tampa Bay News.

By Jeffrey S. Solochek, Times Staff Writer

ZEPHYRHILLS — Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars pulsed through the speakers as the Chester Taylor Elementary fifth-graders took the field against their fourth-grade foes.

“Next up, Jeffery,” 10-year-old Gabriela Rodriguez announced, while statisticians Gabriel Thomas, 11, and Jacob Young, 10, prepared their scorecards for the championship softball game.

The event represented much more than a championship contest, though. It marked the culmination of a new way of teaching physical education aimed at making the lessons more academic.


Fourth-grader Blake Whittle, left, receives instructions from fifth-grader Gabriel Thomas on how to keep score of the game. ANDRES LEIVA | Times

More than just playing a game, the children studied its history, calculated their statistics, designed uniforms, set team budgets and conducted trading based on salary caps, among other activities.

“We’ve shown them there are other opportunities within that sport you can be involved with and still learn the game,” P.E. teacher Michael Johnson explained. “When you get into each sport, your standards are around learning that sport. We want to take it a step further.”

And the kids absolutely loved it.

Too often in the past, several said, gym class meant a lot of sitting around while other people played.

“This is more fun than just to watch,” said fourth-grader Mylianna Lane, one of the game announcers. “It’s like a real game, but it’s more interactive and fun.”

“It’s kind of a challenge. Everyone likes a challenge,” added fourth-grade statistician Jacob Young. “I would love more lessons to be like this.”

That type of student engagement is key to the school’s goal, principal Julie Marks said.

Chester Taylor Elementary adopted the “Learner Active, Technology-Infused Classroom” system three years ago, when it faced the threat of a state-mandated turnaround plan for consistently low student performance on state tests. The school had received two straight D grades, followed by a C, and Marks wanted to keep the progress going.

The model focuses on having students more in control of their learning, with the teachers guiding and assisting as the children follow their lessons. The school quickly saw improvements in student test scores with its initial foray — its fourth-graders soon outperformed the state average — and has been expanding it since.

This year, the physical education department joined in. The teachers sampled some lessons over time to see how to best make the concept work and really impressed Marks with this softball unit.

“It’s more about what’s going on behind the scenes and taking their strengths and what they’re interested in,” P.E. teacher Belinda Brown said. “When you play softball, you have kids sitting and one person hitting. This way, the whole class is involved.”

Fifth-grader James Belmont, 11, approved.

“It’s a fun way to learn more,” a sweaty-browed James said between at-bats. “We get to do almost every single subject in one subject.”

His near trade because of salary constraints brought the lessons home to him.

“We figured it out,” said James, clearly pleased to be on the championship team. “It’s like a real-life experience.”

Fourth-grader Sicily Jordan threw herself completely into the unit. She plays recreational softball with an eye toward competitive, and served as her team manager.

“Instead of just giving high fives … I’m telling them how to get better,” said Sicily, 10, sporting a T-shirt with the phrase “The Real Boss” on it. “It’s really cool. I like you get to pick what you get to do instead of just making them play.”

The final game went off without a hitch. Fifth-graders dominated.

“15-0! Oh, yeah!” statistician Gabriel cheered as he raced across the campus.

Now, the teachers just need to figure out how to keep the effort going with more lessons. They can’t wait.

“It’s about getting kids excited about what you’re trying to teach,” Johnson said. “It’s neat to see how far they’ve come and what they’ve learned.”

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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