Originally published July 9, 2018 in the Cottage Grove Sentinel.
By Zach Silva
At Waldo Elementary School in Salem, principal Tricia Nelson wanted more from the PE program.
Year after year she saw the same games being played and a thought kept coming back to her: will students know how to be in shape without the assistance of team sports? What happens when they are no longer in school?
“How do you take care of yourself when it’s just you?” she asked in a phone interview on Monday.
With this operating as the foundation for what the PE program could become Waldo created a program based around high intensity interval training (HIIT) that has not only impacted students in the gym but in the classrooms.
“It has become the fabric of what we do,” said Nelson.
While working in Salem, current Lincoln Middle School PE Teacher Mark Dreiling noticed the athletes at nearby Waldo Middle School were making drastic improvements.
“It was just night and day for some of them. And I was like what is going on over there?” he said.
He found out that at Waldo, a switch had been made in the PE department to focus on working out using HIIT.
This one change in the PE curriculum sent ripple effects across the school.
He soon found out that utilizing a new program, Waldo participation in PE was now at 100 percent on days it was in use. Even more tantalizing was the anecdotal evidence of better behavior outside the classroom, lower referral numbers and rumors of higher test scores.
“We went over there and it was just amazing,” said Dreiling.
Once at LMS, Dreiling continued to think of what was going on at Waldo. After seeing HIIT in action, simply playing games four times a week in PE didn’t seem like it was helping students.
“My first year here, the things we were doing with kids it was kind of like putting them all in one boat and making them perform and it only got like a section of them. The kids who were really good or the kids who really struggled, it really didn’t fit their needs,” said Dreiling.
With the support of administration, they decided to change how things would be done. The idea was to now spend three days a week using the HIIT model.
“We just revamped, we didn’t copy their program but we got ideas from their program. And we each have different skill sets so we just kind of put our heads together and… now we have a new program and we’re serving all kids and it’s just a great process. It’s a long process, it takes a lot of work,” said Dreiling of the program that began at the start of the 2016-17 school year.
For the students, the day-to-day now includes working on exercises like squats, burpees and sit-ups with the idea of self-improvement at the core. The gym turns into a frenzy of movement as students are competing various workouts all at once.
“One of the really cool parts about this program is that it caters to all needs of students,” said sixth grade PE teacher Heather Devine. “So everybody’s working the same amount of time at different levels and that’s what I think makes it work. It’s not competing against you or her or him for who finishes first, it’s you work until the time is up. They don’t know where everybody else is at. Just everybody is working. It kind of levels the playing field. It’s very cool.”
In this setting, individual achievement takes a back seat to hard work. Or, more specifically, to grit. Grit, the buzzword that has gained prominence in education circles was central to the new workouts. The teachers wanted to have their students be able to persevere and have that determination play out in their lives.
“This is something that’s really difficult to measure of course, but in terms of talking about what grit is, and a lot of schools talk about it… we’re noticing the kids are having to demonstrate it while they’re working out. Because it’s intense,” said LMS PE and Health teacher Jason Corwin. “And they’re embracing it and what we’re finding is those skills that they’re developing, or recognizing, when they’re out in the PE department they’re also starting to show up in the school. Or in the classroom. When they’re having to finish assignments, when they’re having to stay focused a little longer.”
Corwin isn’t the only one noticing a change in how students behave. From students regularly changing for PE to kids no longer wandering towards the office to find an excuse to get out of the class, vice principal Emily Wren sees that the current program has helped the school and is one factor in helping with behavioral issues.
“Kids are consistently getting exercise or getting great tips. There’s this community feel, this family feel within the PE program so I’m sure it does play a part and there would be a correlation I would say,” said Wren. She also noted that the Tiger Pride room, a room focused on helping students through disciplinary actions at school, and having teachers work with trauma informed care have also helped with discipline.
“I think our PE program is pretty phenomenal,” she said.
The department then got a boost this winter when the Cottage Grove Community Foundation awarded a $1,000 grant to the school to buy 30 kettlebells – steel weights that are utilized in many different types of workouts.
“We were so lucky and so fortunate to be chosen as recipients for this grant. We’re so grateful and this is so positively impact hundreds of students every day. Seriously, hundreds of students every day,” said Devine who wrote the grant.
With the weights in place in addition to pull-up bars and bands and a wrestling room that was revamped to be a modern weight lifting room, the school continued to grow their program. The school offers three different levels of PE: life fitness, PE and advanced fitness. But no matter the level, the goal has been to get each student to see improvement.
One was this has been seen this year is with push-ups. Coming into the year, students did a baseline push-up test that saw about 50 percent of students achieving their goals. But after a year of working at it, over 85% of students have exceeded their goal in this one particular area.
“It’s really amazing, it’s really cool to watch. It’s all them,” said Devine. “We set it up for them, they do it. The students have been amazing. They like it. They like it better than the old PE style.”