Looking for balance

Racquets sweep the badminton birdies across the nets in second-hour physical education class at Carver Middle School in Warren. Some are returned. Others land on the gymnasium's varnished floor. The two-player teams aim for long volleys but don't keep score as they rotate "opponents" every few minutes.

As she plays, the activity reminds Emily Upton of the physics lessons she's learning in her eighth-grade science class.

"Sports kind of helps with understanding that when you hit the birdie with the racquet, you put a force on the birdie but there's an equal and opposite force put on you when you push it," she says.

Newtonian physics are the new dodgeball when it comes to gym class.

With attention to both the rising rate of childhood obesity and the emphasis on test results, Michigan school districts are revisiting their game plans for gym classes. Their playbooks reduce the focus on competitive sports and increase it on lifestyle fitness activities that will help create healthier kids now and fitter adults in the future. Districts also are transferring some academic lessons from traditional classrooms into gymnasiums to better reinforce lessons for the MEAP.

"We look at physical education as a well-rounded idea to bring in reading, math and science. Physical education is all of those things. You have to be able to read a sign to go to a fitness station or you have to understand what a bowling average is using math or what body mass index stands for," says Mike LeMerise, past president of the Michigan Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance (MAHPERD) and a retired teacher. "Now we understand the integration of all the activities."

The result is that gym classes these days are less recess-style free-for-alls or competitive matches and more learning-oriented activities and practices, often reflecting lessons taught in other subjects, which is why Upton's thoughts gravitated toward Newtonian laws of motion and force when hitting a badminton birdie.

Creative lesson plans help. Miles jogged can be mapped to reflect distances between cities or countries on a map, adding total distances covered or average class distance per day or week. Muscles are identified by name and location during stretching. For younger children, colors, letters and shapes can be reinforced through physical games.

"Physical education involves more of a cognitive concept these days," says Roger Jackson, executive director of MAHPERD. "It's cognitive, social and physical."

The link with more traditional academics may help gym classes survive. In an era of increasing emphasis on MEAP testing and academic assessment accompanied by shrinking district budgets, physical education advocates are looking for all the help they can find.

"Our school days are very full, there's no question about that, because of testing," says Susan Allan, an assistant superintendent in Grosse Pointe Schools. With no physical education component of the MEAP, some fitness advocates worry gym class will get short shrift in budget decisions and other priorities.

But schools can — and do — use phys ed classes to help with the MEAP goals. Grosse Pointe Schools are undergoing a review of the physical education curriculum in part to realign with the new state standards for physical education at each grade level that the state board of education adopted earlier this year.

As part of that, Allan says, classes will not only promote lifelong fitness with units including folk dancing, golf, tennis, jogging and aerobics but also to reinforce foundational academics. Scoring and statistics, for example, could be better taught in gym classes to reflect math lessons. "The revisions will bring that forth," Allan says.

However, some state lawmakers are concerned that not enough time is being spent making sure the state's children are physically fit. Their concerns contain an ironic twist: In the long run, they argue, academic achievement as well as health could suffer if the schools fail to put enough emphasis on fitness.

Grades and girth

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national rate for childhood obesity has more than doubled for preschool children and adolescents; for children ages 6 to 11 it has more than tripled over the past three decades. The 2007 Michigan Youth Risk Behavior Survey found 12 percent of Michigan children were obese and 56 percent did not meet recommended levels of physical activity.

That lack of a fitness foundation leads to problems once school is left behind. In Michigan, 28 percent of adults are obese.

"It is a lobbying point," Jackson says. "We want healthier lifestyles for people. The more healthy a lifestyle you have, the fewer medical costs down the road and better prevention you have."

Reading news stories about such statistics was enough to get state Sen. Deb Cherry (D-Burton) to introduce legislation this session that would increase the amount of physical activity students are getting in some Michigan schools by mandating as much as a half-hour a day. State law currently requires schools to provide physical education but — with the exception requiring one phys ed credit to graduate high school — doesn't prescribe how much. Moreover, that one credit can include health education.

"I really have a concern. We spend a lot of time in Michigan increasing the educational standards for students, which I think is a very positive thing, and we've kind of ignored the physical side of things, and they do go together," Cherry says. "You can't really learn well unless you're physically fit, strong and getting the right kind of nutrition. It seems to me that we need to put the emphasis back on that."

She was the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 125 last year that would require elementary school students to have 30 minutes of physical activity per day or 135 minutes per school week. It has been stalled in the education committee.

"There are people who believe that we should not be mandating more for schools," Cherry says. "I think what's important is that we provide the foundation."

In Southgate schools, lifelong physical fitness is the priority. "Our most innovative program is at the eighth- and ninth-grade level," says Nancy Nagle, an associate superintendent. Working with teachers, students concentrate on personal fitness goals and follow an individual program to meet them. Students learn to use weight machines and heart monitors with their cardiovascular exercise and calculate their body-mass index, a math lesson.

"Our PE teachers are encouraged to integrate core academic concepts in their classes for additional benefit, but it's not mandated and it's not to be the focus," Nagle says.

In addition to reducing obesity, physical education can help with motor skill development, self-discipline, stress reduction, peer relationships, self-confidence, self-esteem and goal-setting, advocates say.

At Carver Middle School, PE teacher Susie Gurney has changed the format of her classes in the 12 years she's taught to reflect the emerging dual emphasis on fitness and academics. Her classes start with a cardio warm-up (walking, jogging, skipping) around the gymnasium and are followed by exercises like abdominal crunches before sports (Upton's badminton game, for example) are learned and practiced.

Quizzes include muscle identification and rules of some sports. Essay questions are graded for punctuation, grammar, spelling and organization, just like in English class, though they ask recreation or sports-related questions. A recent one required students to articulate three recommendations for improving throwing a ball.

In every class — and most of the 800 middle schoolers enrolled there have gym every day — Gurney reduces the competitive aspects of sports and reinforces teamwork and skills. Bowling and an occasional game stressing teamwork are the only times scores are kept in her classes.

"I want them to be able to go into their back yards and play games with other kids," says Gurney, "and like it."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]