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Physical Education with a Heart
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Physical Education with a Heart

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Kevin McGrath uses the question "how many hands does a human have" to illustrate his clicker that will record student responses on the symbol held up on each card.

Kevin McGrath uses the question "how many hands does a human have" to illustrate his clicker that will record student responses on the symbol held up on each card. Photo by Shirley Ruhe.

— Forty second graders wiggle up against the walls in the hall outside the gym at

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Kevin McGrath, PE teacher at Charles Barrett Elementary, says the theory of PE has totally changed since he went to school. Today he is demonstrating "a brand new way to use technology."

Charles Barrett Elementary waiting for the signal to start their class at one of the fitness stations around the gym. Kevin McGrath emerges from his mobile office at the edge of the gym floor which he jokes is a computer and chair pulled out of the closet each day.

McGrath co-teaches this physical education (PE) double class with Misty Boyd. He says a lot of their lessons are done inside. "Too much distraction with noise from traffic and butterflies outside." The music blares out and each student heads for the exercise area where he or she will start their one-minute routine before rotating to the other stations around the room, each emphasizing flexibility, cardio-vascular, speed, muscle strength.

McGrath says the theory of PE has changed today. It used to be based on skills and children got separated out. The youngsters who weren't good left because

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A second grader at Charles Barrett Elementary heads to his fitness station to begin the one-minute drills used to improve cardiovascular, muscle memory, speed and fitness.

they decided exercise wasn't for them. "Now we encourage kids to find something you can enjoy, not based on how good you are. It causes positive interactions and avoids bullying — those who are, and those who aren't."

He has 500 students in PE twice a week for 45 minutes with 14 double classes and 16 single classes. Today's curriculum includes areas like local motor movement (skipping, running, jumping), spatial awareness such as personal space (where you can't touch anybody) and "chase my plate." He explains this is nutrition fact cards focusing on the five food groups.

McGrath points to the corner where a climbing wall and net span to the ceiling. "They learn balance." He explains the kids practice a lot of lead-up skills to sports. "They may not play basketball but they learn the skills for the game so they find something they can be comfortable with.

"But today I have something brand new and cool for you." He tells the class to head for a circle in the center of the gym. "Take one large step away from the circle. Boys and girls, this is called a clicker," as he holds up a small device in his hand. "It has a little symbol if you are answering in a certain way. On each side of the paper there is a letter." McGrath tells them, "Each of you will have a card.

"Miss Hart's class on this side of the circle. Come up and get your card and remember your number." Small fingers wrap around the cards that have an A on one side, a B on the adjoining side, a C on the bottom and a D on the fourth side. "So we're going to do a practice session. Here is the first question. It's an easy one." McGrath asks, "How many hands does a human being have? If you think it is one hand, turn the A at the top, if you think it is two hands, put the B at the top...." As each card gets adjusted, McGrath quickly scans the circle with his clicker to record the responses. He tells them, "This is a brand new way to use technology."

McGrath started teaching in Brooklyn 15 years ago. He had a challenging first year in a school where he was the first PE teacher and had classes of 60-100 students with no equipment and a five and a half hour commute each day. He has been teaching at Charles Barrett for 13 years.

As a result of his own experience, he has created Adopt-A-Gym. McGrath says he realized he has all of the equipment he needs but other schools don't have that advantage. Each year he has a fun fitness event like the dance-a-thon where students are sponsored and the funds go to purchase PE equipment. Over three years they have raised $10,300 that has been given to schools in D.C., Richmond, needy in El Salvador and his own first school in Brooklyn. This year he has gone all over to recruit other schools and currently has 11 registered.

McGrath says he decided to become a PE teacher because he had a challenging life as a child and sometimes he almost didn't make it. "My purpose has been to pass the buck to others in a similar situation.” Since he has the kids in grades K-5, he says he gets to see them long enough to give them the benefit of a doubt and to make a difference.