Oct 312012
This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Gimme A Break

Fields and playgrounds behind the North Middle School

Fields and playgrounds behind the North Middle School. Photo by Caroline Poser.

After hearing from my boys that there is no recess for the older grades in middle school, I decided I”d find out why. (I”m not typically someone who questions authority, but having kids inspires me.) I talked to Steve Silverman, principal of Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School (G-DRMS). He told me that Grades 5 and 6 have recess every day for 15 minutes (not the 25 minutes and 11 minutes respectively, as reported by my children), during which time, there are 8-10 teachers outside with the kids to supervise. Recess is not counted towards time on learning.

According to the MA Department of Secondary Education: all schools shall ensure that every secondary school student is scheduled to receive a minimum of 990 hours per school year of structured learning time. Time that a student spends at school breakfast and lunch, passing between classes, in home room, at recess, in non-directed study periods, receiving school services, and participating in optional school programs shall not count toward meeting the minimum structured learning time requirement for that student.

Silverman has been the principal for six years, told me that the school had not offered organized recess for the upper grades in more than 20 years, and there is even less Physical Education offered now than before he started.

“We tried recess in 7th grade for two years and found that kids did not participate to the extent that the younger grades do: they didn”t play. Instead, they stood around and talked in groups.” According to Silverman, unstructured time can sometimes lead to behavior issues, such as disagreements or bullying (no doubt one of the underlying reasons for recess coaches).

Silverman is not against recess, but feels it needs to be age appropriate. He says he supports the teachers” decision to offer “team time” instead of outdoor recess, which was implemented two years ago. The 7th grade teachers felt that it would be more productive to use the break after lunch for silent reading, doing make up work, getting extra help, or participating in “enrichment” activities, which may include problem-solving exercises.

As an aside, I also asked Silverman about 5th and 6th grade kids being kept in for recess. He told me, “If teachers are willing to keep a student in for academic reasons that would benefit the student, they may do so by mutual agreement between the teacher and student. Kids being kept in for discipline needs to be in collaboration with administrative authorities and parents.”

I mentioned that I had let my 6th grade son”s teachers know that I do not support keeping him in for recess unless it is his choice. Silverman inquired if there were any more instances since then. I confirmed that there weren”t, and felt that Silverman truly supports the G-DRSD mission: to work in partnership with parents (me) but also the community (the local online news) because he was willing to ensure that my family”s wishes were respected (as well as communicate with me repeatedly until I got the facts in this article straight).

Silverman agreed that kids do need a break and that is why they have a 25 minute lunch period. He then reminded me that “outdoor recess is not a common thing in a lot of middle schools,” which is exactly what some of the parents I polled and I remembered from our own childhoods.

While it is also true that the kids have a three-minute walk between classes –- taking time away from work is something recommended to office workers and mandated by labor unions -– this is certainly not enough to be considered “physical activity.” Every seminar and event I”ve attended has had scheduled, 15-minute or so breaks throughout the day in addition to a one-hour lunch, and I would venture to guess that the curriculum days offered by the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District for teacher development follow a similar methodology of specified minutes of break per minutes of seat time.

I also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Tony Bent, the G-DRSD interim superintendent.

Bent can see the rationale for having and not having recess. “There is a benefit from physical activity and movement. At the same time, schools are under pressure to improve academically and to get kids ready for high school.”

Aside from hearing about his recent fascinating trip to Finland and Sweden with a group of educational professionals to focus on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), my takeaway from my meeting with Bent, was that it is important to focus on the value of physical activity as it relates to academic performance.

According to the Need to Know site, to which I referred in “Gimme a break!,” proponents of keeping recess through middle school point out:

  • Research indicates that learning and memory actually improve when learning is spaced out rather than presented all at once.
  • Physical activity makes the brain more alert.
  • Play is an active form of learning, even in middle school.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a recent report titled, “The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance,” which compiles the results of 50 unique studies and confirms that there is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement (including grades and standardized test scores) and that it can have an impact on cognitive skills and attitudes and academic behavior, all of which are important components of improved academic performance.

The report suggests that providing recess to students on a regular basis may benefit academic behaviors and that teachers can incorporate movement activities and physical activity breaks into the classroom setting that may improve performance and the classroom environment.

There”s a program at South Lawrence 5th Grade Academy in Lawrence, MA where the daily schedule for fifth graders includes not one physical education class, but three. The program is just a couple of months old, but administrators studied similar programs in schools in Baltimore, Pennsylvania, and Illinois and were convinced that children learn more effectively when they”ve raised their heart rates by exercising before climbing behind their desks.

“Teaching middle school before was a lot of kids sitting at their desks,” said Meghan Kelleher, who teaches science and supports the new system. “We tried to find ways to stand them up every once in a while, and here we still do that, but they know that in 45 minutes or 80 minutes, they”re going to go outside and play or play a game or some physical activity, so they”re not as antsy, I”ve found. It helps with their focus in the classroom, and they get excited to come to school, and that”s one of the coolest things about it.”

I can”t imagine such a radical shift taking place in at G-DRMS any time soon, but is there anything we can do in the near term that would not increase the school”s budget or take away from time on learning?

If you have an idea for adding physical activity to the school day – keep in mind there are 230 kids per grade and that appropriate supervision would be required (not paraprofessionals or high school students) – let”s hear it. According to Bent, who has a leadership philosophy that includes principles such as respecting all constituencies, allowing space and time for multiple perspectives, and saying “yes” as much as possible, “We try to consider everybody”s suggestions. It”s the least we can do.”

Stay tuned for the third article in this series, with your feedback and suggestions.

Series Navigation<< Gimme a break! A Groton Mom’s Thoughts On RecessGimme A Break! An Open Letter To Teachers And Administrators At Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School >>