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Farmington teacher promotes active lifestyles

Meadowview Elementary School phy ed teacher Joe McCarthy spends a lot of time thinking of new ways to get kids active.

Meadowview Elementary School teacher Joe McCarthy became a phy ed teacher because he liked exercise. He liked movement. He liked activity. He thought he could help kids become more active.

McCarthy's been teaching physical education at Meadowview since 2004. Before that, he taught P.E. and health in Minneapolis. In recent years, he's come to understand the impact exercise has on student's brain development, which makes him even more passionate about what he does.

Over the past couple of years, McCarthy has started speaking about exercise's role in student achievement. He's come up with a few new programs, too. This week, we sat down to talk about his views on exercise and brain research.

You've been coming up with some neat programs in the last year or two that have all been to integrate exercise outside of P.E. Tell me about those.

The first one is Running Club. That is a program designed to create activity at recess. In Farmington we have paid noon supervisors who would go outside. I happen to be one of them, and over the years I'd see kids going outside and sitting, rather than being active, so I thought of a way to create movement at recess with it still being fun and with friends.... What kids do, when they go outside - and I've trained them in on our cross country course - they will walk or run with a friend or group of friends two laps. For grades 1 and 2, two laps equals half a mile and for grades 3-5, two laps equals one mile. When they do this they still have plenty of time to play other games or activities.... When they come inside, the teacher has a box of stickers there. If they complete their two laps, they can put their two stickers next to their name. With every 10 stickers ... they come back to me. I have a box of donated prizes.... Last year we had over 60 percent of kids doing this voluntarily. To me that is unbelievable. I thought it would be about 10 percent.... It's just a way to be active at recess.

Jammin' Minute is designed to create movement in the classroom. Essentially it's a brain break. Jammin' Minute is a free program you can log into on line. They will send you five easy, simple exercise installments every week. I will hand them out to the classroom teachers. They will put them out on their SmartBoards. Every Monday morning I will go down to a fifth grade classroom and teach one class five simple movements, these activities can be done seated or standing.... One fifth grade student will go to a classroom.... They're going to be there by themselves, teaching the five movements to the other kids.... What the younger kids are learning, is that it's a peer, it's a voice other than mine, teaching them to be active. For the teachers, it's only a one-minute brain break ... but what it does, is it refocuses the students and it prepares the brain for learning in only one minute.

Century Club is a club for our third, fourth and fifth graders to be active outside the classroom day. This is also part of their grade.... What research has found is that the more cardiovascular fit the student is, the more brain cells they grow, which equals a higher IQ. They choose the homework, not me. They can choose to walk the dog, they can play a sport or play tag. Anytime they're active, if it's 15 minutes or more and it's vigorous ... they earn two points. If it's nonvigorous ... they earn one point. Their parents also have to sign off that they're doing it. My hope then is that their parents are doing it with them.

How do you come up with some of these ideas?

Some of the ideas, I come up with on my own. Some of the ideas we come up with collectively, as the elementary P.E. staff, with myself, Jack Olwell from North Trail, Jon Ostgard from FES, Rachel Olson from Riverview and Keith Revels from Akin Road. When we get together, we talk about, what are programs we can do that requires none or not a lot of money? Number 2, do we have the time to do it? And number 3, is it beneficial for us collectively, as teachers, and what would be the benefits for students? We also do research online and emailing, and by speaking to other colleagues.

How do you get kids excited for the programs?

One, it has to be fun. Secondly, we try to tie in brain research, and number 3, incentives, large or small. There needs to be physical education or movement. There needs to be a tie in with nutrition. We want them eating healthy. There needs to be family education. We need to educate the parents why we're doing it and why it's important for them and their children.

You've been sharing some of your programs with teachers and schools. How did all that come about?

People have contacted me through my principal, Jon Reid, speaking to other people, through colleagues informing them to contact me, and just me advocating around the state why it's important to implement these programs. I can be used as a resource for a grade level and a school on how they can incorporate all of these programs into their school.

Why do you personally think exercise is so important?

Over the last three years, while doing research by myself or with colleagues, I've seen the results. I have a young child, and I know if he is active, his brain cells will grow. And I know the more brain cells you have, the more successful you're going to be. When the body is not active, the brain does not grow. If you want brain cells to grow, your body needs to move. That's why I want them to be active, because I know it affects me, my family and the children that I teach.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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