School has its finger on pulse of students

Gym class at St. John XXIII goes high-tech with heart monitors that teach students how to track fitness and inspire them to achieve health goals

SHOWING OFF THEIR heart monitors during a Monday gym class at St. John XXIII School in Port Washington were (front row, from left) Owen Wille, Kaden Kopp, Jacob Sereno, Jose Tello, Max Lane, (back row) Augusto Noll, Allison Schueller, Madison Wagner, Carolyn Lippe, Jackie Weinrich, Ashlyn Williams and Samantha Bennett. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Fifth through eighth-grade students in gym class at St. John XXIII School in Port Washington look like students in any other gym class.

But there’s one difference — these youngsters wear a heart monitor similar to the activity trackers so many of their parents wear.

“It’s an introduction to a Fitbit life,” gym teacher Deb Miller said.  “It’s adding a great dimension to our class. They have that immediate feedback that tells them, ‘You’re doing a good job’ or ‘You need to work a little harder.’ 

“It’s about learning life skills, an introduction to lifetime sports, and kids really like it.”

The students, who have 45-minute gym classes twice a week, love the feedback they get as they check where their heart rate is during class, Miller said, but the trackers also teach them valuable lessons they will carry with them through life, such as perseverance and self-motivation.

“Maybe you didn’t make that basket, but look how hard your heart worked,” she said she tells students. “Look at what you can do. You’ve improved, even if it’s a small improvement.”

Adding the fitness component to the class engages students who otherwise might not be as interested in the class, Miller added.

“For the kids who are inspired by technology but not sports, it’s pretty cool,” she said.

This is the second year the school has been using heart-rate monitors in gym class, and it’s currently in the process of adding fourth-graders to the list of those wearing the monitors.

“We are passionate about educating the whole child — mind, body and spirit,” Principal Kristi Klein said. “Health and wellness are a big focus not only in society but in schools, and we wanted to have the tools that will help the students with that.

“Kids need to learn nowadays that being heart healthy starts when you’re young.”

The school purchased the Interactive Health Technologies Spirit Zone heart-rate monitors with a grant of about $4,000 it received from the Community Education Foundation of Port Washington-Saukville Inc., which also provides college scholarships to local students.

Students are each assigned a particular monitor, which they pick up at the beginning of class and then log into the computer.

As they work during class, they can check the monitors to see how hard their heart is working.

Miller said the monitors not only give students a heart rate number but they also are color coded — blue for warm up, yellow for a moderate working heart rate and red for a vigorous working heart rate — so kids can tell at a glance where they’re at.

“I will say to them, ‘Can you challenge yourself? What number do you want to get to?’” Miller said. “I’ll tell them, ‘If you’re not in the working zone, run down there and back.’”

When the class ends, the students sync the monitors to the computers, which generate a mini-report for the pupils. 

The kids enjoy tracking their progress and seeing how their heart rate has changed, Miller said, noting she stands by as they scan the monitors at the end of class and offers positive reinforcement.

“I want them to see how important I think it is,” she said. “Then they’ll think, ‘If she thinks it’s important, I should too.”

It seems to be working, Miller said.

“They’re pretty proud of their achievements. I see the little grins, the look of ‘Yeah, I did it,’” she said. “And they’ll come back the next time and want to do the work to get healthier and stronger.”

The computer reports, which are stored in the cloud, are used by Miller during parent-teacher conferences to show parents how their youngsters are doing.

“The parents are impressed by it,” Miller said. “I can’t bring them into class to watch their child, but this shows them how they work. The kids explain it to their parents — ‘Here is when I was playing basketball.’”

Miller said she gets a class average that she uses to determine if she needs to change things up a bit in class.

“If I need to alter things a little to make the class a little more challenging, I can,” she said.

She works with students to set fitness goals, Miller said, adding, “This is a way they can monitor themselves and achieve a higher level of fitness, and a way they can continue to do that throughout their life.”

Students see firsthand the correlation between activity and fitness, Miller said, and they see how the activities they enjoy fit into that continuum.

“That’s what we want, everyone to find the activities that bring them joy,” she said. “And to take that with them throughout the rest of their lives.” 

The program “is a great program for any school,” Miller said.  

“It’s been a real positive thing for our school. The kids love it, the parents are impressed and it seems to be keeping kids on track.”

And because the heart rate monitors are only used by middle-school students, they are something younger pupils aspire to use.

“It’s a middle-school, big-kid thing,” Miller said. “I hear the little kids say, ‘I can’t wait to do this.’”

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