'It's Not Gym, It's Physical Education': Wauwatosa School Transforms P.E. Class

Jan 4, 2018

Think about what gym class was like as a kid.

You probably played badminton or pickle-ball; maybe the prospect of the dodgeball unit sent shivers up your spine.

Nowadays, your standard gym class experience is changing in a handful of schools around the Milwaukee area. Several educators are working to transform physical education to give kids the tools to maintain their health throughout their lives.

Longfellow P.E. teacher Nancy Braidigan addresses her students before class.
Credit Rachel Morello

Two seventh grade girls spot each other on the machines in Longfellow's weight room.
Credit Rachel Morello

At Wauwatosa’s Longfellow Middle School, P.E. staff are taking an extra step.

By sixth, seventh and eighth grade, the kids at Longfellow know the rules of the game. Now, it’s time to play.

Four teams face off in games of floor hockey upstairs, in the gym. Downstairs, it’s weight training, and cardio activities like running laps, or biking.

Students suit up for action every other day.

But don’t call it “gym class” around teacher Nancy Braidigan.

“It’s not gym,” Braidigan says, in a serious tone. “It’s physical education.”

Students get their heart rates up by running laps in Longfellow indoor track.
Credit Rachel Morello

Braidigan coordinates physical education curriculum across the middle and high schools in Wauwatosa. And she has good reason for correcting your terminology.

“A lot of people have that perception of ‘it’s just gym.’ I don’t want that to be the perception here at Longfellow, or in Tosa in general,” she explains. “I want kids and parents and the community members to understand that we are here educating your student lifelong, that we are not just a regular gym class.”

The goal here is activity, measured by kids’ heart rates -- which are tracked by monitors they’re wearing under their bright orange “Longfellow P.E.” t-shirts. The sensors sync up to an app on the teacher’s iPad – which they hook up to a projector screen so kids can clearly see how they’re doing.

Twenty-five minutes in their target heart rate zone essentially equals a passing grade for the day. Which sometimes means cramming at the end of class – running in place to get those last few minutes in the “green zone.”

Longfellow teachers sync student heart rate monitors to Polar's GoFit app on their iPads, in order to project kids' data for them to see during class.
Credit Rachel Morello

“Their actual target heart rate zone is specific to them,” Braidigan explains. “You’ll have those kids down in cardio [for whom] a brisk walk helps; other kids have to run. So we wanted to make sure that it was an even playing field for everybody.”

Kids get to choose which activity they do each day, as long as they get an even mix of cardio, game play and weight training over the course of the school year.

The use of fitness technology and health club-style activities is nothing new. Plenty of schools in and around Milwaukee incorporate these things -- much of it funded by federal grant money.

But it’s not just a matter of offering the equipment, or simply teaching the students to use it properly. Braidigan says it’s giving them ownership over their own fitness – and in turn, their own learning.

“Our district really wants kids to be independent,” she says. “When we take away the skills, and they don’t worry about winning, and they just enjoy playing like you would normally, it gives them ownership. And it puts the responsibility on them. And they more likely will be more active.”

Rather than properly spiking a volleyball or mastering the breaststroke, responsibility becomes the challenge: remembering your equipment, monitoring your progress during class. And the teacher’s role becomes one of a trainer, or a coach or facilitator.

“I think that takes the edge off of class,” Braidigan says. “Now, I’m just there to help encourage them and be more of a motivator, [rather] than have this barrier up that I have to teach skills, and kids are coming in not wanting to do the skills.”

According to the Society of Health and Physical Educators, national P.E. standards attempt to shape kids into “physically literate” individuals.

Wisconsin students are required to take some form of P.E. during the school day every year from kindergarten through eighth grade – and across at least three years of high school. 

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