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Get Moving, Part 2

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In John Hichwa's physical education class the playbook is pretty diverse.

"We're interested in competition, we're interested in basketball, football, baseball, all of those things, but we also have so much more," Hichwa said.

Here, Vermont teachers are his students and together they're tackling a major problem.

"We are in an obesity crisis; one-third of our kids are obese," Hichwa said.

After more than 30 years working with kids, the former National Middle School Teacher of the Year is turning his attention to fellow educators, helping them rethink the way they're keeping kids active, And in this gym, they learn by doing.

"It has to be fun, it has to be inclusive, it has to be interesting, it has to be meaningful," Hichwa said.

Hichwa is with the Sports Play and Active Recreation for Kids or SPARK program. The initiative has trained tens of thousands of teachers around the world. This month, dozens of physical education teachers from across the state came together in Burlington to learn how it works. At its core is a push to keep all kids moving.

"We're looking for more activity, we're looking for meaningful stuff, we're looking for inclusion," Hichwa said.

And that inclusion is coming in the form of dance, fast-paced games and unique activities collected from years in the gym.

"John's awesome," said Lisa Paquette, a phys ed teacher at the Lyndon Town School.

"I am learning all these new tricks for my tool kit," said M.J. Jennings, a phys ed teacher at Union Elementary School.

Gone are the coach's whistles. Here, music sets the pace in a program designed to introduce moderate to rigorous activity from the minute class starts.

"I can say ready, set move, but I put music on it automatically gets them to go," Hichwa said.

"Everything that we are learning here is about movement," said Emmanuel Riby-Williams, a phys ed teacher at Union Elementary School.

SPARK takes the attention off "star athletes," instead favoring activities that target all ability levels.

"Gone are the days when it's for those who play sports and those who do not play sports are left in the background," Riby-Williams said.

The program also stresses students working in different pairings all class long.

"We change partners often. Many students can be successful; stronger students can help weaker students," Paquette said.

Skills like baseball and basketball are still in the mix, but they come with a twist. Teachers are encouraged to bring more than one ball or bat into the action to up the exercise.

"The more often we can get an implement in a kid's hand-- a bat, a ball, a racquet, a beanbag-- the more engaged they're going to be, the more activity they're going to get," said Lindsay Simpson, the physical education consultant for Vermont's Agency of Education.

Activity that's coming with a healthy dose of academic reinforcement. Classroom concepts are regularly brought into the fold.

"We counted by ones, we counted by twos, you could count by fives, you can do a math game with a partner," Paquette said.

They're skills that are making students sweat, but they also focus on patience and teamwork.

"They're integrating so much more than just movement," Simpson said.

It's an effort that's challenging kids in new ways and making for a phys ed experience that might surprise folks who haven't made it to a school gym in a while.

"I think it is going to surprise them to see that everybody can be successful, and a physical education class isn't about winners and losers, it's about sustaining a healthy lifestyle and learning to like physical activity," Paquette said.

A goal for kids Hichwa knows his older students take to heart.

"I want them to leave here with the idea that they do make a difference in the life of a child," he said.

The Vermont Agency of Education is working to secure additional funding to help expand this type of training across the state.

Related Story:

Get Moving, Part 1

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