Chicago Principals Share Strategies to Model Healthy, Active Behavior in Schools

February 20, 2013

HSC’s Fit to Learn sessions, which demonstrate how learning can be part of the everyday classroom routine, are usually lots of fun. But our recent session was really electric.

The auditorium at William Ray Elementary School in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood buzzes before Morning Fitness. Students jump and cheer as a teacher uses a big monitor to let kids choose tracks from a popular dance video game. (They express extreme disapproval over Carly Rae Jepsen’s summer hit “Call Me Maybe” and opt instead for Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling”.) Teachers then lead the students in the on-screen choreography. 

The dancing game was just one example of Ray Elementary’s Morning Fitness activities, which take place at the beginning of the school day every day for 25 minutes as a way to get students motivated and active. Other activities include basketball, fitness stations and classroom yoga. The morning fun and learning extended beyond the students, too — the group included Healthy Schools Campaign staffers and a dozen principals and faculty members from around Chicago, from Bucktown to Bridgeport to Beverly, who are enthusiastic about educating a generation of healthier students.

Ray Elementary Principal and Fit to Learn advisory committee member Tatia Beckwith is one of a number of educators from across the city of Chicago who have become part of Fit to Learn, our professional development program for teachers and principals to learn more about ways to incorporate more physical activity throughout the school day. In the advisory committee, local principals provide assistance with the vision, direction and launch of Fit to Learn, providing strategic advice, and helping recruit and mentor other principals.

Dr. Beckwith has been a fantastic advocate for more physical activity in school and has seen positive feedback since introducing this program.  Jenni Rice, a Physical Education teacher at Christopher Elementary School, attended the event as her school’s Wellness Champion to develop new strategies to bolster her school’s new nutrition and wellness initiative. “Our students do not get enough physical activity throughout their day, and considering the population of our students, both regular education and special education, we felt it could benefit them in increasing their achievement,” she says. 

After Morning Fitness, the educators heard presentations from selected local innovators and experts at the intersection of education and fitness. Dr. Sarah Buck, an Associate Professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Chicago State University, shared a detailed presentation outlining examples of healthier children performing better in schools, as well as current state policies around physical activity in schools.

After her presentation, everyone needed a little movement break, so Carla Tantillo of Mindful Practices, a facilitator of our teacher program, led a fun yoga activity and showed the group a surprisingly effective relaxation technique for students (“It’s like magic,” she says.). Tantillo had all participants take a cotton ball, hold it in the palm of their hands, and then gently try to blow the cotton ball so it touched the tips of their fingers.

After Tantillo came Allison Slade, founder of Namaste Charter School, a unique educational space where physical and mental exercises are incorporated into classroom life. Learn more about her strategies for a healthy, fun-filled school day here

Participating teachers and principals not only gained new insights from the day’s discussions and presentations, but the event also served as a motivator to continue with current efforts or expand upon them.

“The more energy you burn off, the more you’ll be able to sit and focus,” says Gerardo Trujillo, principal at Pasteur Elementary School. “I had thought about the idea of doing a five-minute yoga exercise with the students, because we have students stand and announce the Pledge of Allegiance, maybe we could have students over the PA say, ‘Now we’re all going to do Tree Pose, Triangle Pose,’ empowering the kids to do it.” (Learn more about yoga for classrooms here.)

Jenni Rice says she planned on bringing the “cotton ball” activity back to her school and to talk to her principal about creating a morning fitness program at Christopher. Gerardo Trujillo said one of his key takeaways from the day’s events was to work to ensure that he and his teachers led the charge to set an example for students. “You have to practice what you preach,” Trujillo says. “Every morning, when the students lead the Pledge of Allegiance, every staff member has to stop what they’re doing, stand up and face the flag. So maybe if we start incorporating more physical activity, we can lead by example there too.”

Our next Fit to Learn Professional Development event, Healthy Habits for Lifelong Learning, will take place Thursday, March 21st, at a Chicago Public School to be confirmed in the coming weeks. If you are interested or would like more information, visit us at fittolearn.org or contact Rosa Ramirez at rosa@healthyschoolscampaign.org.