First Person

New twist on PE: More schools offering yoga

A Wellness Initiative yoga student shows off his flexibility. Photos provided by The Wellness Initiative.

Tom Barela, the physical education teacher at Denver’s Colfax Elementary School, grew up playing football and basketball in his gym student days. But on Monday, he was down on the floor alongside a class of kindergarteners roaring like a baby dragon, then hissing like a cobra, then steadying himself like a frog on a lily pad.

Leading the class was yoga instructor Allyson Levine, who started coming to the west Denver school four years ago to offer three classes a week to supplement the school’s P.E. offerings. This year, she’s leading 12 classes a week at the school, thanks to a partnership between DPS and The Wellness Initiative, a four-year-old Boulder-based nonprofit that provides yoga instruction to more than 2,000 students in 20 predominantly low-income schools.

For 45 minutes, Levine put the students through a series of breathing exercises, stretching and flexibility routines, creative visualization, and movements to improve balance and focus.

Preliminary findings of research on the effects of TWI’s yoga instruction in public schools indicate that at least half of the students who participate report improved physical prowess as well as more self-confidence and optimism, and that 60 to 70 percent used the breathing and visualization exercises they learned in yoga to help them outside of gym class.

PE teacher goes from reluctant to enthusiastic

Barela couldn’t be more pleased, even though the yoga takes up a third of his students’ gym class time each week. “At first, I wasn’t quite sure about it. But now I think it’s great,” he said. “Even though it isn’t vigorous exercise, it is moderate activity, and it improves the students flexibility. It also helps them learn to rest and to focus better.”

“Not every child is an amazing athlete, but I have some who are amazing at yoga,” he said. He’s had some physically disabled students who excel at the activity. “Our fifth graders do beautiful yoga because they’ve been doing it for a couple of years now.”

Yoga isn’t new, of course. But many schools have been slow to adopt it into the physical education curriculum. “Years ago, there were protests about bringing yoga into the schools because people were afraid it was religious,” said Mara Rose, executive director of TWI. “But what we’ve done is to train teachers in a curriculum that takes all the Sanskrit words out, so it won’t freak anybody out. That’s a promise we make to schools. We make it comfortable for teachers and students alike.”

No Sanskrit in the new yoga ed

The strictly secular “Yoga Ed” curriculum is now taught in more than 150 schools around the country. Rose said principals now typically report one to two students in each school who opt out of the yoga classes, but so far no parental protests have arisen.

Rose says yoga’s benefits extend to three areas of student life: physical health, emotional well-being, and academic performance. “The kids get stronger and more flexible, and the athletes say that after yoga they feel faster and more capable,” she said. “Emotionally, they feel the can better manage stress and control anger. Their academic performance is mostly related to their ability to focus, to calm themselves in the classroom. We’ve worked with teachers and students prior to CSAPs to help them develop techniques they can use to focus during the tests, and the proctors say they’ve never seen the kids to calm and focused before.”

The Wellness Initiative is not the only organization pushing yoga in Colorado public schools. Another Boulder group, Calming Kids: Creating a Non-violent World, promotes yoga in school as an anti-bullying tool. Storytime Yoga, which integrates children’s yoga and storytelling, poetry and healthy eating, is also based in Boulder County. And at a two-day gathering of physical education teachers from across the state last week in Loveland, at least three workshops dealt with in-school yoga.

TWI does serve the most children, however, Rose said. In addition to it yoga classes for students, TWI offers a two-hour Tools for Teachers workshop to provide classroom teachers with simple yoga-based techniques they can introduce into academic classrooms; and on-site yoga classes for teachers and school staff members before or after regular school hours.

Teaching students, but teaching teachers too

Yoga classes for students run the gamut, from year-long regular exposure to yoga as part of the PE curriculum to less-intensive elective classes, sometimes offered during the school day and sometimes offered before or after school. Cost to provide the yoga instruction averages about $70 per class, but the cost to the school varies depending on students’ ability to pay. “In schools where there’s a high percentage of low-income students, we subsidize a large percentage of the cost,” Rose said. “In schools that serve more affluent students, we rely on the school or the parents to support the program.”

The Wellness Initiative is working with the Center for Policy Research to conduct research on the effects of yoga instruction in the schools. Rose expects a significant amount of data to be available within the year, but she has some preliminary findings based on a survey of 47 high school students from four schools who participated in 6 to 42 yoga sessions. Their average age was 15, and 70 percent had no previous exposure to yoga.

Among the findings:

  • More than three-fourts of the students agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement “I feel stressed out a lot of the time.”
  • About two-thirds agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement “I put a lot of pressure on myself.”
  • Following participation in yoga classes, at least half the students noted improvements in physical flexibility; feeling positive and optimistic; feeling physically strong; standing up for oneself; self-confidence; being nice to other students and family.
  • When asked their reaction to yoga, 63 percent said they “love it” or “like it a lot,” while 24 percent said they “like it somewhat,” and 13 percent said they did not like it at all.
  • More than a third of the students reported improvement in how they felt about their body; their ability to concentrate; feeling good about themselves; feeling less stress; feeling frustration; eating less junk food; and putting too much pressure on themselves.
  • When asked how often they used various yoga practices outside the class, more than half reported using the breathing exercises; more than 70 percent reported using visualization; about 45 percent practiced positive statements about themselves; and 44 percent practiced yoga poses.

Schools participating in The Wellness Initiative yoga classes:

Adams County: Welby New Technology High School, High Point Academy

Arapahoe County: East Elementary School, Pathways Program

Boulder County: Columbine Elementary, Crest View Elementary, Fairview High School, Louisville Middle School, Mesa Elementary, Southern Hills Middle School, Whittier Elementary

Denver: Colfax Elementary, Denver CAMP, Florence Crittenton School, KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, Knapp Elementary, Munroe Elementary, North High School.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.