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Gym Class Gets a Makeover 

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My middle school gym teacher, Mr. Leto, used to buff his bald head to a high gloss. He always had a sly smile and seemed to derive pleasure from the pain he inflicted — whether it was making us run the mile or hurl heavy rubber balls at each other while crab walking on scooters.

I hated gym class. It’s not that I didn’t like physical activity; I took ballet classes several times a week. But I couldn’t stand the ruthless competition or the humiliation (ballet had its own ruthlessness, but that’s another story). Plus, I was afraid of balls hitting me in the face. As often as I could, I intentionally wore skirts and sandals on gym days so I’d be forced to sit out.

Physical education, thankfully, has changed substantially since I was limping through the mile in the ’80s and ’90s. Teachers now recognize that physical activity is directly linked to brain activity and development — and some non-gym teachers give their students physical-activity breaks midway through their lessons.

These days the Vermont Department of Education explicitly discourages elimination games. In contemporary phys ed, kids are encouraged to set goals for themselves and use heart-rate monitors and pedometers. At Middlebury Union High School, for example, students use hand-held heart-rate monitors while working their way through a dozen or more activity stations set up in the gym, upbeat music blaring. “The goal is, they’re going to keep their heart rate up to a certain zone,” says principal Bill Lawson.

These kinds of activities are vital when it comes to fighting childhood obesity, the rate of which recently dropped in 19 states for the first time, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vermont wasn’t one of those states. Nearly 13 percent of children in the Green Mountains are obese, and sedentary lifestyles are largely to blame, says Dr. Lewis First, head of pediatrics at Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care.

The phys-ed requirements in Vermont’s primary and secondary schools are designed to address that problem, but they allow for new methods that emphasize overall movement and getting even non-jocks into the habit of physical activity.

According to the ed department’s website, kindergarteners through eighth graders must have gym class twice a week; in high school, 1.5 PE credits are required for graduation. During that time, the guidelines continue, students shouldn’t be standing around waiting to join in the volleyball game; the majority of PE time should be spent in moderate to vigorous activity.

Kids aren’t required to run the mile anymore; instead, they might take a test called PACER (Progressive Aerobic Cardiovascular Endurance Run). Two lines are placed 15 or 20 meters apart, and students run continuously between them as they listen to recorded beeps. The beeps get closer together each minute, signaling to the runner to increase the pace. Kids run until they can’t keep up anymore.

Remember the President’s Challenge? That national assessment tool, originally launched in the 1960s, is also no longer required — though some teachers still use it. Others employ their own methods of assessment. Pete Driscoll, who teaches physical education at Hartland Elementary School, assesses his kindergarteners through fifth graders in a variety of skills. They don’t just get, say, a B in gym; they get different grades in 19 different categories.

Driscoll’s primary concern is creating “skillful movers who are interested in a lifetime of physical activity,” he says, noting that he encourages students to “find the physical activities they love to do, and do them for the rest of their lives.”

Driscoll, 34, is about as far as a teacher can get from the Mr. Leto of my youth. “The evolution of PE since we went to school versus what it is now is really something remarkable,” he says. “I don’t think I would be teaching PE if it were the same way as we had it.”

Getting kids moving is key. Driscoll uses activities such as Tabata, a fast-paced training method originally created by a Japanese professor for Olympic speed skaters. It’s 20 seconds of exercise — jogging, dancing, push-ups, whatever — followed by 10 seconds of rest, alternating for four minutes. “It’s all-out and then rest,” says Driscoll. “Which is so good, because that’s the nature of kids.”

Driscoll’s musician brother, Jay — also a Tabata fan — creates upbeat music timed to the exercise-rest intervals, so the class can do the whole four minutes without ever having to look at a watch. The Driscoll brothers are creating a website called ClassFit Kids, through which they hope to train other, non-gym teachers to use the exercise in their classes.

“I do next to no competition among students,” Driscoll says. “I do a lot of self-competition.” How does that work? Take soccer: Instead of having 20 kids play with one ball, Driscoll sets up 20 kids with 20 balls.

Skills such as dodging and maneuvering are still important, but Driscoll puts a new spin on them. In a game of “bridge tag,” for example, taggers use a pool noodle for tagging — “which gives the slower kids a chance,” says Driscoll. If you get tagged, you have to go into a bridge position with your body and freeze there until a friend crawls under your bridge to set you free. “I’ll switch taggers every 30 seconds,” he says. “If you’re holding a noodle, I tell the kids to give the noodle to someone who’s been respectful to you today.”

Some of Driscoll’s activities sound more like theater games than gym-class exercises. In one, he pretends he’s watching TV and shouts out what he sees on the imaginary screen. The kids are tasked with acting out the action he describes.

Inventing games comes naturally to Driscoll, who’s been teaching for eight years. “I’ll just be lying awake at night, and I’ll think of a great game,” he says. The next morning, he’ll bring the half-formed idea into class, present it to his students and essentially ask them to workshop it. “They’re part of the process,” he says.

It’s a far cry from running the mile or climbing the rope — an accessory Driscoll eliminated from his gym for liability reasons. And it sure sounds fun.

Gym-Class Memories

We asked Seven Days staffers, readers and a few local celebrities to share with us the horrors and glories of their own physical education.

Our marketing and events manager, Corey Grenier, told us about her Rhode Island middle school gym class’ special dance unit. “All the girls would have to go stand on the floor and wait for a boy to pick them to dance with them,” she says. “It was terrifying.”

On our Facebook page, Janet Fitzpatrick recalled “the hideous one-piece gym uniforms we had to buy — solid Kelly-green bottom and Kelly-green-and-white-striped top. This was in public school — oh, the humanity!”

Reader Chris Kelly regaled us with an unfortunate mishap. “Took a cock to the eye ... shuttlecock, that is,” he wrote. “Spent three weeks lying on my couch.”

Jonathan Wilson wrote about hatching a plan we kind of wish we had thought of. “As an excuse to skip other classes while still annoying my overzealous gym teacher, I took 3 hours and 14 minutes to ‘run’ one mile. #record,” he wrote.

And Paul Olsen’s memory was short but evocative: “Shirts and skins. Ugh.”


The only gym class I ever liked was the one I had in junior high that was taught by a retired circus clown. Rather than playing dodgeball, we spent our time learning how to ride unicycles.


I always enjoyed phys ed! Mostly because it was a break from real class, but also because it was one of the most social parts of the school day. Clearly the memories that stick out the most, though, are that, in middle school, we did a segment on square dancing and a segment on roller skating. These were comical times for us middle school boys!


In elementary school, Mr. Wall taught us softball, soccer, running, vaulting, dodgeball, rope climbing. Oh, and trampoline. One day, I was doing front flips — which are much harder than backflips, by the way — and I miscalculated. Instead of coming down on my feet, I found myself falling like the guy in the “Mad Men” title sequence. My head was just about to hit the edge of the trampoline when Mr. Wall intervened. Rather, his arm did. My head slammed down on his muscled forearm instead of the metal bar, and I got a big bump instead of a traumatic brain injury. I’ve noticed trampolines today have nets around them. Mr. Wall barely acknowledged his act of heroism.


The best thing I learned in gym class in grade school was how to avoid taking a shower. The gym teacher actually felt your skin as you came out of the shower to make sure you got wet. Group showers were not ever gonna happen for me, so I just kept “forgetting” my towel and getting marked F for the day.

In high school, it came time for my last semester before graduation. Somehow I was missing a credit. They were not going to let me graduate without it. This was ironic. Not only was I a gymnast, I took dance classes at least five days a week outside of school. And yet the rules said I needed more athletic training. So instead of making me take a gym class, they made me teach a dance class.


I loved gym. It was a break from class to run, jump and compete. I have fond memories of floor hockey, climbing the cargo net, basketball, learning how to use weights, as well as cross-country skiing. Our teacher, Mr. Gus Stenroos, was a disciplinarian, but when I recently saw him for the first time as an adult, I realized that he had taught me so many things that I still enjoy. It was great to have the opportunity to thank him. m


Back in the day, the only-take-a-sip-or-you’ll-get-a-cramp directive gym teachers gave regarding water breaks during hot days of running was the opposite of what’s healthy — they were reverse waterboarding us little cusses.

Even as I dehydrated, I loved gym. I still love it. I have gym every day. We should all have gym all day. Here’s to all-day gym and zero drive-though drugstores.


Jerry and I met in junior high school gym class because we were the two slowest, fattest guys in the class, and we couldn’t find anyone else to hang out with half a lap behind everyone else when the class ran around the track.

During those days, gym class involved a lot of marching and close-quarters drills, and the coaches were kind of sadistic — there was a whole lot of squat thrusts and “drop down and give me 20.” There was also some paddling involved with coaches drilling out large holes in the paddle to cut down on air resistance and get more speed.


I was in junior high just before the advent of Title IX, so there were no sports for girls in my school, and therefore we were never training for anything. Unless you were a cheerleader, you were kind of a wimp, physically speaking. I remember the beginning of one school year when we entered gym class and had to establish, I guess, a baseline of fitness — we had to run track and do hurdles, push-ups and all that sort of thing, like we’d just joined the Marines. Not surprisingly, I was terrible at all of them. Staggering around the track, I gasped for breath, got shin splints and was sure I was going to die. Trying to pull my body up to “chin” a bar was just plain laughable.

The worst thing, though? The snap-up, navy-blue uniform, a gym onesie.


In junior high school we had a female gym teacher who used to do what she called “girdle checks.” This involved randomly ripping open the front of our little one-piece, snap-front gym suits to be sure we were not wearing garter belts or girdles. It was horrifying.


I attended the same private school, Greenwich Country Day School, that George Bush Sr. did — almost 60 years later. I was an anomaly among my tall, athletic classmates. In elementary school, I was terrified of gym class. When we played Red Rover, I would come up with the most obscure option so I would never have to run. I remember clearly the time that we had to choose McDonald’s food items. I stubbornly held my ground as a McPizza while the McNuggets and Big Macs crossed the gym. I still burn with resentment when I remember the gym teacher I trusted most asking me what I was, a conspiratorial tone in her voice, saying she wouldn’t tell anyone. Then she called McPizza and tagged me immediately.

From sixth grade on, our phys-ed requirement meant choosing a sport to play for all three semesters. I loved field hockey, including our cute black kilts and white-and-orange polos. But in winter and spring, I told the powers that be that I was horseback riding. They never found out that I was at home, probably thinking about McPizzas. Until now, that is.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Let's Get Physical."

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About The Author

Megan James

Megan James

Megan James began writing for Seven Days in 2010, first as Associate Arts Editor. She later became an editor for Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT, and is currently a freelance contributor.


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