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Newton teachers taking healthy steps to help students learn

In Kim Vanderlaan’s fourth-grade class, each day starts with students moving and being active from stretching to yoga. Vanderlaan is just one of a handful of innovative teachers bringing activity into the classroom to help students learn.

“I think kids need to move and these types of activities allow for that,” said Vanderlaan, who has been teaching in the Newton Community School District for 10 years. “It is much easier to focus when you are comfortable. When you have a bunch of pent up energy, you can’t focus until you let it out. A 2008 study found that children actually need to move to focus during a complicated mental task.”

As the school day progresses, Vanderlaan uses an online program called Go Noodle to help offer “brain breaks” for her students. From running in place to Zumba, Vanderlaan said movement is key to keeping students engaged.

“We get to dance and sing when we tune into (Go Noodle) which my kids really enjoy,” she said.

Across Newton at Berg Elementary School, Krysten Osby helps her students stay focused and healthy through a variety of activities through the day.

“For example, during our 90-minute math block, we might stop and do some jumping jacks, push-ups or sit-ups,” said Osby, who has taught in NCSD for 11 years. “If students get the correct answer on a problem, they might stand up and sit down quickly, put their right hand on their head, give me two thumbs up, anything to keep them motivated.”

It is not just the students who enjoy the activity breaks either.

“We also take dance breaks, play line tag in the gym or solve brain teasers. My para (professional) Andrea Freese and I always join in. If students see that their teachers participate, then, they will too,” Osby said. “I don’t like sitting still for a long period of time, so I believe giving quick breaks helps students focus on the subject. Plus, if students are happy, they work harder and retain more.”

Along with adding activity throughout the day, “standing” desks also have become a popular tool for Newton teachers. Vanderlaan has two such desks in her Aurora Heights Elementary classroom.

“My kids will alternate through these desks on a daily basis as they need to,” she said. “Some days it is just too difficult for some of my kiddos to stay in their seat and remain focused. Using this desk allows them to swing their feet or sway from side to side and still remain focused on the lesson being taught.”

Osby added standing desks in her classroom in 2015 thanks to funding from Newton Community Education Foundation. She said her students love the desks and she sees a real benefit in helping them stay on task.

“I wrote the grant for standing desks because I believed that they could be beneficial in my classroom. You can stand, sit, move the swinging bar and you can be active while you learn,” she said said. “I only have four (desks) but every student loves them.”

Newton Senior High School At-Risk teacher Laura Sherratt recently added standing desks to her classroom thanks to a grant funded by Iowa native and TV and movie star Ashton Kutcher. The $2,300 grant purchased eight standing desks for Sherratt’s students to use throughout the day.

“Students standing in the classroom are more engaged, classroom management is easier, more active learning, greater creativity, test scores are higher, the students can shift their bodies and change position when they need to stay focused,” she said of why she wanted to add the desks to her NHS class. 

All three teachers said continuously adding healthy activities and curriculum will only help their students continue to learn and be engaged.

“I have had very active classes the past few years and noticed that we need to move in order to get focused,” Vanderlaan said. “(The healthy activities) just adds to the element of surprise which students enjoy. Yes, they need routine, but they also need to have it mixed up a bit in order to not lose interest.”

Sherratt and said having a healthy routine in the class can make all the difference in a student’s ability to achieve their full potential.

“(The long term benefits are) academic success as well as personal success in and out of the classroom,” Sherratt said.

Osby echoed Vanderlaan and Sherratt’s sentiments and said healthy additions to the classroom can impact a child’s view of school and learning for a lifetime.

“I want my students to love school and I want them to stay in school,” Osby said. “I want students to know that school can be fun.”

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