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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.