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Moving and learning: Kelliher School keeps students moving to increase learning

Kelliher fifth-grader Jordan Waldo, center, dances to the song "Footloose" on Wednesday. The school has begun implementing physical activity in the classroom to improve learning. The school was one of 14 schools in the state to take part in a three-year study to see how physical activity helps in learning. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 2
Kelliher fifth-grader Nakia Heck dances to the song "Footloose" in class on Wednesday. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 2

In spite of the tendency to cram as much information as possible into a single school day, the handful of students Wednesday in the Kelliher fifth-grade class found taking a few minutes off to get up and dance can make all the difference in the world.

The Kelliher Public School District was one of 14 pilot schools to receive a $10,000 grant to implement more physical activity into the school day, such as during classes or after-school programs. The study, which both the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Education undertook, focused on grades 4, 5, and 6 over a three-year period that started in the 2014-15 school year.

“The goal of the initiative was to assist students in attaining the national physical activity guideline of at least 60 minutes of movement every day,” a section of the study said. “Students meeting recommendations for aerobic fitness were 24 percent more likely to be proficient in reading, 27 percent more likely to be proficient in math, and 6 percent more likely to attend school consistently.”

Justin Lundin’s fifth-grade students shove the desks out of the way for a few minutes a day and dance to the “Just Dance” directions on a projector at the front of the class while a song courses through the room. On Wednesday, they chose the now-classic “Footloose.”

Lundin tries to fit the dancing between the class’ 45 minutes of language arts in the morning and the 90-minute block of reading that follows. The theory is that allowing students time to “reset” their brains will allow for more productive learning than if the class were to plow through the material without any break.

“I can lecture for 20 minutes -- after 12 minutes, their brain is asleep,” Lundin said. “I’ve found investing 10 minutes into exercising to restart that brain is going to be far more valuable than taking that 10 minutes and killing them (the students) with more information.”

Kelliher School had kept its students moving long before the state study came around. In fact, Lundin’s fifth graders have mixed dancing with their lessons for the past six or seven years. The school also was connected to the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership before the study began.

Once the study came around, however, the fourth- and sixth-grade teachers came on board as well, mixing physical interactions into the routine of their classrooms. Although not necessarily a part of the state program, the younger grades also have mixed physical activity with their learning.

Part of the actual funding from the study went to pay for additional equipment the school could mix into their students activities, such as roller skates, cross country skis and snowshoes.

As a participant in the study, the school had to enhance two areas of student activity. In addition to increasing physical activity in the classroom, Kelliher chose to invest in its after-school activities.

“As a result of the expanded physical activity options, there was a large increase in the number of students participating in the after school program,” a passage from the study said.

Even though Kelliher School kept its students active before the study came around, it still showed improvement in the students’ academics during the course of the study. Kelliher District Superintendent Tim Lutz said that improvement may be attributable to new students who come into the school during any given year.

Lutz also said increasing physical activity is one of several factors they hope will improve students’ learning. For example, the school also has worked on providing its meal service. He also credited having a strong teaching staff.

“All those things, I hope, come together to make a difference and raise our test scores,” Lutz said.

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