By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

In this age of shrinking recess time and dwindling PE classes, it’s increasingly difficult to get our school kids enough physical activity.

Difficult, but not impossible.

We just have to be more creative about  it, or so says Bonnie Richardson, a physical education teacher for the past  32 years. To prove her point, during a recent weekend workshop, Richardson challenged a group of teachers to “juggle” a trio of scarves, tossing them in the air one by one, then snatching them back… After, she handed out oversized rubber bands, the kind available at your basic Office Depot, and instructed teachers to use them as resistance bands for tricep and bicep curls. Then everyone joined in a pulse test… Pulses were up.

“We call these Brain Breaks,” Richardson said. “It’s just a good way, in the middle of lessons, to wake the kids up! Because research shows that after a person is sitting between 5 to 10 minutes, the brain gives messages to the body that its time to go to sleep! So before the kids start dozing off, this is a good way to get the  blood flow moving again and to help refocus the kids.”

Saturday’s workshop was one in a series held in the past year, focused on teaching the teachers how, amid already overly packed teaching agendas, to slip in lessons on health and fitness. The assignments are fast, educational, and, yes, even a little silly.

The It’s Your Life teacher training workshop is a Fresh Beginnings program (one of our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant sponsored wellness initiatives). And the workshops were put together by the very dedicated Margie Montgomery on behalf of the Evlyn J. Daniel Education Foundation.

“It’s all about awareness,” said Montgomery, “Making teachers more aware of things they can do to improve the health of their kids.”

In turn, these teachers pass on their newly learned lessons to other teachers — and so on, and so on.

“That’s how we get sustainability,” Montgomery said. “That’s how we’ll keep these ideas going.”

Science teacher Mary Legoria, of Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School, was tapped by Montgomery to demonstrate creative lessons demonstrating the science behind good health. Some tests were simple — like the grease test (setting a potato, cheeto, potato chip and animal cracker on a piece of construction paper and seeing which draws the most oil after a few moments).

“See all that oil,”  Legoria said. “I tell the kids that’s what goes into their

bodies. That usually gets a reaction. Because kids are visual. They like to see it to understand it.”

She also lets her kids dab drops  of iodine onto chips and white bread.

“Anything with a lot of starch will turn black,” she says.

And moments later, our sample platter of starchy goods turned black as night.

But not all lessons were for the students. The teachers learned new things, too — like how poverty affects a student’s sleep patterns (a large number of students where the Its Your Life teachers work, in East Baton Rouge, come from homes struggling at or below the poverty line).

“Kids in poverty are wired differently,” Legoria tells the group. “They even sleep differently. They don’t sleep as deeply or as long as normal kids. Because when you are dealing with the anxiety of where your next meal is coming from, stress normal kids don’t have to deal with, you just aren’t sleeping as well.”

Montgomery also pulled in Physical Education Teacher Bonnie Richardson, of BR Foreign Language Academy Immersion Magnet School, to demonstrate her Brain Burst activities. But some of her instructions offered more than just ways to get the heart moving. They also involved some heartfelt life lessons.

Take the “Fat Tag” game… Richardson came up with the idea after tiring of students making fun of heavier classmates. So she made those smaller kids don a backpack backwards, pouch side in front, loaded down with 10 pounds of books. Then she made them play tag.

“I remember this one kid, after just a few minutes, he was tired and kept bumping into things,” Richardson said. The kid got the point.

And this past Saturday, the teachers looking on were a special group.  The dozen or so participating in the six hour workshop are “lead teachers,” meaning they’ve been to the other workshops in the past and seemed particularly dedicated to the cause.

They’ve now agreed to keep up with their training, and to hold monthly staff meetings with other teachers, to pass on lessons learned and brainstorm new ideas.

“You are leaders,” Legoria told them. “We want you to think differently, to think about new ways these kids can learn these lessons. Don’t just take these lessons and do it our way. Make it your own. Think about new ways to do these things, all the time.”

Richardson, for example, shared the story at her own school, where kids who showed up early used to be forced to go to the library to study. Of course, they hated that. Richardson offered an alternative.

“I told our principal, ‘What if we offer to them the same thing we like to do as adults — walk and talk with our friends?”

Now, early arrivals are welcomed to go to the gym instead, where they can walk laps with friends until 10 minutes before the bell. In those last minutes, Bonnie switches gears, leading students in a group dance.

“The teachers say the kids now arrive to class more awake and ready to learn,” Richardson said. “Because movement is very important.  We need to quit beating a dead horse, forcing them to sit at their desks all day, not move, pay attention. They’re stifled!  If we let them get moving a little bit, then they’ll be more focused.”

So kudos to the teaches who showed up on this recent Saturday morning, and others, in the name of physical education training, and in hopes of doing better by their students. No one likes doing homework on the weekend, even teachers! But they took on the task anyway.

And in our book, that earns these dedicated educators a solid A+.