I’ve been writing for the past five weeks about how physical health and academic success go hand in hand.  You don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.  Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain and boosts memory.  Further, athletics improves time management, self-motivation, and leadership skills. On the other hand, a strong academic background is crucial in understanding exercise science, technology behind sports equipment, biomechanics, and injury prevention.  A good education is the best investment anyone can make; just ask 4x NBA champ Shaquille O’Neal, who went back to LSU to complete his degree:

“To all the young people out there who think money and fame is important, it’s only a small piece of the pie,” said O’Neal. “You need an education to be totally secure in life.

On a more basic level, a moderate amount of physical activity is essential for overall health.  Over one third of children in the US are overweight or obese.  Adult onset diabetes had to be renamed to Type II diabetes because, for the first time in history, children were getting it!  Children can’t afford to suffer from the health problems related to obesity, and the obesity epidemic is exacerbating the crippling cost of health care.

Schools need to take a leadership role in the fight for student wellness.  School meals need to include fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean meats.  Highly processed foods, and foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat need to be cut.  We can’t let the agribusiness lobbyists determine the school lunch menu. Further, all students should be provided with at least one hour a day of physical activity, either through interscholastic athletics or physical education.  City planners need to design bike and pedestrian friendly paths from neighborhoods to schools so that parents can let their kids ride or walk themselves to and from school.

Schools need to be a place where students develop enduring knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will help them lead a fulfilling life.  If we don’t emphasize the importance of developing a healthy lifestyle, we’re doing kids a great injustice.

As the old saying goes, you can have your cake…

phy_booksAnd eat it too…



Nearly all competitive athletes use video to enhance their technique, proficiency, or teamwork skills.  Basketball, football, and volleyball teams break down game tape to learn how they can work better as a team and improve on their weaknesses.  Runners, swimmers, and wrestlers spend hours studying the techniques and strategies of the best athletes in their sport.  Most athletes don’t really get what you mean by spreading out the offense in basketball, always maintaining outside containment in football, or strategic timing and placement of kill shots in volleyball until they watch experts execute the procedures, and then watch themselves and learn from their mistakes.  There’s no better from of self-reflection than having to grade your own digitally recorded performance.  Strategic use of video recorded performances throughout a season is an excellent formative assessment tool: it informs athletes and coaches of their level of technique and skill development so that timely adjustments can be made.

Russian swimmer Alexander Popov used video analysis to carefully refine his technique:

Here’s a video of Popov winning his 4th Olympic gold medal:

Teachers and teacher educators have also caught on to the utility of video as an educational tool.  Virtually all teacher education programs require teachers to video record themselves in the classroom, and to evaluate their performance with professors and peers.  The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards emphasizes the use of video evidence in teacher evaluations. As part of a portfolio for National Board certification, candidates must submit two video recordings of interactions between themselves and their students that show evidence of student learning and growth, as well as commentary describing, analyzing, and reflecting on the evidence.

The video evidence must demonstrate teachers’ capacity in the five core propositions of The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards:

1. Teachers are Committed to Students and Their Learning
2. Teachers Know the Subjects They Teach and How to Teach Those Subjects to Students
3. Teachers are Responsible for Managing and Monitoring Student Learning
4. Teachers Think Systematically about Their Practice and Learn from Experience
5. Teachers are Members of Learning Communities

Here’s the problem: once teachers complete their certification program, they usually stop analyzing video of their teaching to continually improve on their practice.  Instead of boring teachers with bland power points during teacher workdays or professional development seminars, teachers should regularly video tape their lessons and study them with colleagues to continually improve their practice and student learning.  Currently, the only assessment most teachers receive is a rigid high stakes evaluation by an administrator, lasting as little as three minutes.  Teachers need regular, formative assessments so that timely adjustments can be made, not a pat on the back or a pink slip at the end of the year.

Teachers should also watch video of highly effective educators, such as Richard Feynman, so that they can implement best practices and insightful examples and strategies into their classroom.

One of the great things about the interconnection between athletics and academics is that it provides authentic, real-world applications to knowledge and skills developed in the classroom.  Students will not be apt to study tension, stress and shear forces, impact, or rebound oscillation in a vacuum. However, if students want to discover how to build a skateboard with “pop”, or a bicycle wheel that will endure years of heavy use, they’ll have to capitalize on math and science to arrive at meaningful answers.

Check out these videos from The Futures Channel on the connection between academics and athletics:

Skateboard Design

Bicycle Design

Engineering Faster Bicycles

Building and Testing Bike Wheels

Data Collection and Analysis

Bringing the connection between academics and athletics, music, or commerce to life in the classroom creates a context for learning, a need to know the skills and processes, and eliminates the proverbial question: “why are we doing this?” Although some students may not be captivated about skateboarding or biking, physics and mathematics underlie all physical movement, and thus all forms of athletics.  Teachers can differentiate instruction by providing different athletic motivations to uncover the academics behind any recreational activity,

For instance, check out this link on the physics of dance.

Or, check out this link to learn about the physics of swimming.

For kids to become reflexive, self-driven learners and independent thinkers, we need to provide a relevant, applicable, and problem based curriculum that gets them hooked and keeps them engaged in learning for its own sake. Bring athletics into the classroom is just one of many ways to do so.

As I said in my previous post, wellness is inextricably linked to exercise, sleep, and a balanced diet.  Although I believe schools have the most influence over promoting healthy eating, schools must also advocate healthy sleeping habits. Sleep is paramount for the physical and neurological development of teenagers.  Sleep allows the body to repair itself, helps maintain a healthy heart, reduces stress, and increases concentration and memory.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, children between the age of 10 and 18 need between 8.5 and 9.25 hours of sleep each night, yet more than 25 percent of teens report sleeping only 6.5 hours a night or less. In addition to hindering physical and neurological development, sleep deprivation causes mood swings and behavioral problems, and is extremely dangerous for teen drivers.

A study by Dr. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University suggested that chronic sleep deprivation creates a performance deficit equal to two years of cognitive development.

As teachers we need to help kids to develop healthy sleeping habits.  I might put a big poster (adapted from the Mayo Clinic’s tips for better sleep) on my wall that says:

1. Go to bed and get up at about the same time every day, even on the weekends.
2. Don’t eat or drink large amounts before bedtime.
3. Avoid caffeine, especially in the evening.
4. Exercise regularly.

I hope parents will keep TV and computers out of kid bedrooms, and curb cell phone use late at night.

My interest in the link between wellness and academic achievement extends beyond varsity sports and the Tour de France.  Specifically, I am very concerned about what students are eating and how much sleep they are getting.  Wellness is inextricably linked to exercise, sleep, and a balanced diet.  I would argue that the one element of wellness schools are most in control of is diet.  For thirteen years, most students eat school lunch and perhaps breakfast as well.  The food served at school lunch lets kids know what we as a society deem as appropriate eating habits.  The problem is that school lunches are extremely high in calories and saturated fat, and low in nutrients.

I was raised on cheese pizza, chicken fried pork, fried tater tots, and cherry pie (with 0% fruit and 100% artificially flavored high fructose corn syrup).  Public school lunches never provided the opportunity to eat the abundant fresh produce from local farms or even out-of-state produce for that matter, not to mention whole grains, lean meat, or foods low in sodium and added sugars.  For 16 years, I thought this was the only way I could and should eat; and happily downed a six-pack of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a half gallon of Sunny Delight each morning after track or swim practice.  However, when I moved to Cyprus my junior year of high school to learn Greek and get to know my dad’s family, I discovered a whole new way of life.  I would go to the market each day to pick up fresh bread and milk for breakfast.  My grandfather and I would pick fruit from the large family garden.  For lunches and dinners we made salads and grilled fish or goat using lemon tree embers.  Aside from the fact that the food was delicious, I felt tremendously better at school and at sports practice.  I was no longer falling asleep in morning classes and yawning through the rest of the day.  I could focus my attention and apply myself much more diligently to tasks at hand, and my race times improved tremendously.  When I returned to Iowa, I was baffled as to why our public schools promote such unhealthy habits, especially seeing as how over one third of children in the U.S are overweight or obese.

We need to free the Federal School Lunch Program from the grips of businesses who profit from selling highly processed, high calorie, low nutrient foods.  This needs to be done not for the sake of fighting malevolent corporations, but for our collective health as a nation.  Liberal independent media outlets aren’t the only ones sounding the warning bell, mainstream media also recognizes that school lunches are unhealthy and are contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic.

For more information about the problem, potential solutions, and places where healthy eating in schools is already a reality, check out the Healthy School Lunches organization.



your mind!

your mind!

Paraphrasing Thomas’s comment on my last blog: “I’m no doctor, but exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which is essential for a healthy, full functioning brain.”  Well Thomas, I couldn’t have said it better myself. This might be the most vital and overlooked connection between athletics and academics.

In John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Juana covers her infant son’s scorpion bite with seaweeds after removing the poison, knowing it is a simple remedy, but better than anything the miserly doctor can do.  Regular exercise is very similar, quite simple, but better for your mind and body than any remedy a doctor can give you. Exercise increases blood flow, which in turn increases the amount of oxygen and glucose that reaches the brain.  Exercise can spur the growth of cerebral blood vessels even in middle-aged sedentary animals.  Researchers have shown that exercise improves “executive functions that involve planning, organization, and the ability to mentally juggle different intellectual tasks at the same time”.  Running has been found to improve brain cell survival in mice. For humans, running has a beneficial effect on the hippocampus, a part of the brain linked to memory and learning.  A team of scientists at Duke University Medical Center found that a regular exercise program decreased depression and increased cognitive abilities in middle-aged and elderly men and women.  Depression is linked to low levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and norepinephrine; exercise increases levels of these neurotransmitters.

I don’t want to preach to my future students, but I do want to relay the benefits of exercise that they may not know about.  Aside from the neurotransmitter technical stuff, exercise gives everyone some personal time to let go of their worries, live in the present, and just let loose.  Kids can’t study all afternoon and evening, and adults can’t work all day and night.  Businesses like Cliff Bar and Google have exercise facilities on site, because it boosts employee productivity and satisfaction.  Recess and PE have the same effect, which is why we must fight to keep them in our schools.

Here at Duke, cheap recreation opportunties are plentiful and gratifying. Walk the Washington Duke Inn trail, rent a bike from the Duke Outpost, swim at the outdoor pool on central campus, or move in any way that suits you; your brain will thank you for it.

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Most education articles I read involve some sort of bitter battle between two diametrically opposed camps: the “reading wars” of phonics versus whole language, “math wars” of computational skills versus comprehension, student-centered learning versus direct instruction and public schools competing against charter schools, private schools and school vouchers. I can only hope that these pedagogical and political conflicts are fueled by the desire to improve student educational outcomes. What I don’t hear often in the fervor over how to best help our nation’s children succeed is how we are going to overcome the childhood obesity epidemic and assure that our youth develop into cooperative, fit, and well-rounded adults. While school principals and teachers can be fired and schools shut down for failing to make “adequate yearly progress” in math and english testing in all demographic groups, there is no consequence whatsoever for failing to make adequate yearly progress in students’ physical fitness. This not only reveals our lack of commitment to end childhood obesity, but may also diminish students’ academic achievement. A rigorous study of 4th, 6th, and 8th graders in Massachusetts published in the Journal of School Health found a statistically significant correlation between state achievement tests in math and english and the number of physical fitness tests passed in PE. Although the direction of causation was not determined in this study, the results were upheld when controlling for factors such as BMI, race, gender, grade, and socioeconomic status. The careful controls of the experiment make it less likely that physical fitness and academic achievement are both effects of a common, unknown cause.

Numerous studies indicate the positive correlation between interscholastic athletics participation and academic achievement. Scholars at the University of Minnesota note that “research has time and again demonstrated a strong and positive correlation between high school sports participation and academic achievement.” However, they are quick to note that the relationship between athletics and academics has not been determined to be a direct causal one. Research techniques are being focused to quantitatively determine which factors causally improve academics.  The authors concluded that we need to better contextualize and link sports to academic attitudes and activities.  For individual students or demographic groups struggling in school despite athletic participation,  schools must create more education-focused athletic programs that provide attention, encouragement, and social bonding to improve academic achievement.

Coaches and teachers need to assure that the teamwork, self-efficacy, perseverance, and time-management skills developed by participation in athletics transfer into the classroom, improving academic achievement. Physical education and education-focused interscholastic athletics should be emphasized, not pushed aside, in the effort to ensure that all demographic groups in each public school make “adequate yearly progress” in fitness and academics.

The 4th of July marked the beginning of the 96th Tour de France.  This year’s Tour is highlighted by the comeback of 7-time champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who emerged from retirement to raise global awareness about the battle against cancer.  The Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised over $250 million to unite and inspire people affected by cancer.

Aside from being perhaps the most grueling and captivating race on the planet, it provides a wealth of learning opportunities for students.

The bikes themselves are incredible feats of engineering and materials science.  Thousands of hours of work go into every detail of the bicycle design to optimize the handling, aerodynamics, and stiffness-to-weight ratio.  Students interested in engineering and design could independently explore and learn from the shapes and materials used to build the bicycles.

Further, watching the Tour may motivate students to examine tough concepts such as inertia, friction, and angular momentum to discover why the moving parts (the tires, rims, crankshaft, and cassettes) must be the lightest and most durable components on the bike.  Further, students with mechanical aptitude and interest would benefit from reading an excellent book on bicycle repair, to pick up an immensely valuable and desirable skill.

Parents and students can use the public library and Internet to explore the art, history, culture, and agriculture of the regions of France (as well as the border regions of Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and Belgium) seen in the Tour.  Students can also discover the rich and storied history of the Tour itself, which has lived through two world wars.  Politically inclined students may be interested in comparing the French and EU government to that of our own, to gain a broader perspective on democracy and globalization.  The disheartening stain of doping in the sport can serve as a launching pad for students to investigate the effects and dangers of blood doping, human growth hormones, anabolic steroids, and synthetic testosterone.

Perhaps the most enduring lesson of the Tour is of the necessity of teamwork. The Tour is composed of twenty teams, each with nine riders.  Each member of the team is valued for his unique and crucial contributions.  Domestiques are riders whose job is to protect the lead rider.  They do the extra legwork to keep the lead rider in the front of the tightly bunched pack of racers (peloton), away from the aggressive jostling and frequent crashes that occur towards the rear of the peloton. Each team also needs one or two sprinters to break away in the final kilometers of the flat stages to accumulate stage wins for the team.  Mountain specialists accompany the lead rider in their assault on the Pyrenees and the Alps, and put them in a position to break away on the final ascent to claim stage victories and the coveted yellow (leaders) jersey. Each rider knows their job and executes it to assure team success.  The champion each year is the first to remind the reporters that teams win the Tour de France, not individuals.  Watching nine teammates from different countries harmoniously strive towards a common goal may inspire students to work effectively with their peers inside and outside of the classroom.

To promote health and education, students can organize their own local bike tours.  Young children can ride with their parents on local library, museum, and park tours.  Adolescents can plan a weekend tour of scenic county roads surrounding their community and contact local farmers or park rangers to learn about agriculture or ecology and conservation.  High school students can ride all or portions of the stunning Blue Ridge Parkway; a 469 mile scenic highway that runs along the majestic Appalachian mountains, connecting Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

A sad reality of the “economic downturn” and the NCLB legislation is that physical education is one of the first subjects to be cut in school budgets. With resources devoted to the high stakes testing subjects of reading and math, physical education departments are seeing their support dwindle.  This comes at a time when 32% of American schoolchildren are overweight or obese.

What is perplexing about the tough choices schools are making to focus on the “core subjects” are findings like that of Dr. Charles B. Corbin and Dr. Robert P. Pangrazi, of Arizona State University: “We now know that making time for physical education and physical activity does not reduce academic learning and it may actually increase it.”

In an exemplary exception to this trend, instead of shirking accountability for student wellness, Rio Linda Union Elementary School in Sacramento is integrating nutrition, health, character building and phys-ed into the classroom.  Such creative adaptation keeps the school on budget while giving students a foundation for healthy lifestyles.

As a teacher, I will integrate athletics with academics and technology.  One way to do this is with heart rate and GPS devices.  The following image is a screenshot from Garmin Training Center – a software program that analyzes and stores data from Garmin GPS and heart rate monitors.

Garmin Training Center

Analysis of the data is an authentic and practical introduction into an abstract concept: functions.  Many students will be interested in what factors influence how many calories are burned during exercise.  Using data they collect while walking, running, skateboarding or biking they can examine how calories burned (the dependent variable) varies with average heart rate, distance, ascent and descent, elapsed time, and pace (dependent variables).  Students can then develop, test, and refine their own functions of calories burned vs. dependent variables. Further, students may use the data to effectively plan their own exercise routines to accomplish their health goals.  The concept of calories also lends itself to a lesson in energy, units conversion, and biomechanics; the possibilities are endless.

Instead of putting health and wellness on the back burner to focus on standardized tests, we should look to athletics to keeps students engaged and excited about academics, and to elucidate content knowledge in “core subjects”.

According to Eat Smart, Move More NC, 19.3% of ten- to seventeen-year-olds in North Carolina are obese, 65% of North Carolina adults are overweight or obese, and four of the leading ten causes of death in the US are related to obesity.  As a state and nation, we are reeling from the costs of the obesity epidemic.  Chronic illness caused by obesity will obstruct even the most effective teacher’s classroom efforts to prepare students to succeed both professionally and personally.  Through this blog, I will investigate and reflect on many issues related to wellness and its effects on academics.  I hope to explore topics such as interscholastic athletics, physical education classes, recess, school lunch and active transportation.

Since early childhood I have enjoyed swimming, biking, running, and hiking.   Competing in varsity athletics in high school kept me physically fit and engaged in school.  In college, my commitment to triathlon training helped me with time management, and enabled me to maintain a healthy diet and sleep schedule.  In contrast, I have seen the complications of childhood obesity firsthand in children I have tutored over the past four years, including prolonged medical absences and self-esteem issues.  To promote healthy lifestyles in my future students, I intend to coach high school cross-country and swimming and to support local organizations such as DINE For Life and SEEDS. I firmly believe that a healthy lifestyle and environment are requisite for academic success.

One very unique and creative wellness group is the NYC based Bartendaz,  who teach playground calisthenics to kids of all ages to promote fitness, leadership, conflict resolution, and gang prevention.  It is inspirational to see youth organizing in a community environment, with readily available resources, to have fun and stay healthy.

As future educators, we are not only charged with getting students to pass end-of-course exams, it is also our duty to help them develop skills for success after high school.  Discipline, focus, perceived self-efficacy, and other traits promoted by wellness boost academic performance and empower youth towards fulfilling careers and personal lives. In further posts I will investigate how encouraging and sustaining healthy habits in children relates to academic success.