Over the past several years, enrollment in physical education (PE) classes steadily declined in the Upper School. Rather than getting discouraged by the lack of participation—and the subsequent lack of course offerings—PE teacher Mark Oftedal embraced a growth mindset. He saw the failures of the existing PE model in the Upper School as an opportunity to try something new: a Personal Fitness program that launched in September and is already creating buzz inside the Lincoln Street Campus hallways.
The program has a simple premise: make fitness fit your schedule. Instead of trimester or yearlong PE courses that meet at regularly scheduled times, students must accrue 25 hours of physical activity over the course of the year to earn one PE credit. Upper schoolers can earn two credits if they accrue 50 hours, but if they don't reach 25 by the end of the year, the hours won't carry forward.
The classes and activities available through the Personal Fitness program—which students were surveyed about, to gauge interest—appeal to a diverse crowd. Early offerings include hiking, yoga, Ultimate Frisbee, and meditation, with plans for kayaking, backcountry skiing, and open gym time underway. Students can attend a fitness class during a free period, after school, or sometimes on weekends, and most classes don't require advance sign-up. To earn credit, students must sign in with the instructor, and then participate to the best of their abilities.
Mark credited visiting colleges with his son Eli Oftedal '15 for inspiring him to look ahead to the fitness opportunities students will encounter after high school. He saw the first-rate recreational centers and facilities available to college students, and started to devise a PE program that would give upper schoolers the chance to try new activities, and require them to use time-management skills. The new program challenges students to figure out how they fit in, Mark said. "When they get to college, they won't have as many easy opportunities for athletics that they had here at Rowland Hall."
Our school's learning environment will help to make the Personal Fitness program a success, Mark said. "We can give students interesting options—maybe things they want to become better at, or things they have never tried before and can do in an environment that will be supportive, whether they succeed or fail."
Students are already embracing the program, according to sophomore Hailey Hauck. Hailey is a member of the Ultimate Frisbee team that plays after school on Mondays and Wednesdays with English teacher Joel Long and math teacher Brian Birchler. Last year Hailey played volleyball to earn PE credit, and while she likes the sport, she found the practice and game schedule a bit too demanding. She's planning to earn credit for the Ultimate Frisbee workouts this year, and feels less stressed without the commitment a team sport requires. She mentioned that her friends are looking forward to earning credit for backcountry skiing, something they already do an average of twice a week.
Ultimate Frisbee has yielded other benefits for Hailey, beyond a simplified way to earn PE credit. "I have been able to meet a lot of new people that I probably wouldn't talk to outside the team," she said. "And it's a great break—you can switch your brain off from school."
Exercise's mental boost plays a significant role in Mark's plan. He cited the latest neuroscientific research on how exercise improves brain activity and believes that students who can fit in a yoga or meditation class midday, or go for a walk during their free period, will perform better academically in the hours that follow. "All the literature shows that when students go out and get moving, and get chemicals flowing through their brains, they will be more apt to learn and remember material," he said. "It all points in that direction." He's also acutely aware of how much studying the average Upper School student does and wants them to find balance in their lives.
Mark hopes to expand the Personal Fitness program in the future to include guest speakers on topics such as nutrition, sleep habits, and sports psychology. He envisions a strong health and wellness curriculum that prepares students for the real-world scenarios they will encounter in college and beyond. The only challenge he currently anticipates is finding adequate space for certain activities, such as open gym time, especially since the Middle School PE program remains robust.
Upper School Principal Ingrid Gustavson said she's pleased with the rollout of the program so far, especially how it allows for flexibility. She thinks students are excited about the range of classes and curious about the impending experiential offerings. Mark foresees some of the off-campus classes like rock climbing or kayaking eventually turning into interim trips.
Mark also hopes that adults in our community—faculty, staff, or even parents—will join in the fitness activities, and act as positive role models for our students. "I want to create a culture where kids see that faculty and staff enjoy doing these things too, that they're trying to fit them into their lives because they see the benefits and enjoyment they get from exercise."