- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) - Pam Morren is used to fidgeting fourth-graders, but the 17-year teaching veteran was worried about her new class before school started in August.

The Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2dIoHkk ) reports teachers at Turner Elementary in Pasadena deemed it the most hyperactive group ever to set foot on campus. From the time the current fourth-graders entered kindergarten, they were running circles around teachers and roughhousing in the halls.

To give them an outlet for their energy, Morren and Turner physical education teacher Jackie Caver introduced standing desks and foot boards that students could fidget with under their desks.

“It’s 10,000 times better,” Morren said. “If you’re more free to move around, your grades will be better - especially the kids who would tend to get in trouble.”

Efforts to provide so-called kinesthetic furniture reflect a national emphasis on trying to find new ways to physically engage students, especially after the high-stakes testing introduced by No Child Left Behind in 2001 squeezed out recess and physical education at many schools. Fewer students are getting the one hour of exercise or physical activity that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends.

In the Houston region, Alief ISD now has active-based learning equipment at 15 campuses, including under-the-desk foot pedals, standing desks and balance boards.

Pasadena ISD just won a grant to put standing desks and fidgeting footboards in Morren’s classroom and applied for another that will require teachers to take physical activity breaks every 20 minutes. Spring ISD uses standing desks and other strategies to keep energetic students active at its alternative school. And teachers at some Houston ISD schools have turned to crowdfunding to outfit their classrooms with wobble cushions and yoga balls.

“The bottom line with any furniture is that it has to be flexible, adaptable and tailored to meet various needs that students have in order to help them stay focused and learn in a personalized environment,” said Jenny McGown, Klein ISD’s associate superintendent of teaching and learning. “Teachers are transforming their classrooms to create a culture of innovation and collaboration and adaptability to meet all students’ needs.”

Several Klein ISD campuses have one or two standing desks for every classroom. Other schools provide tables and chairs with wheels, bean bags, ball chairs, tables that can be lowered and raised and tables with whiteboard surfaces.

Morren’s classroom in Pasadena has only three standing desks, but her kids clamor to be among the lucky few to use them each day. Students at their regular desks can use Spooner boards, which lie on the ground but have curved edges similar to a skateboard. They help kids keep their legs still.

But it’s not just the equipment Morren uses to channel her students’ energy. Every 20 minutes, the class takes a physical activity break. Sometimes they’ll dance to a song. Other times they’ll try to cross their arms and touch parts of their faces with the opposite hand.

Caver, the physical education teacher at Turner, said keeping kids active in class does more than rid them of some of their extra energy.

“It wakes them up, gets their blood flowing and gets their brains ready to learn more,” Caver said. “Research shows if you’re moving when you’re storing information to your long-term memory, it’s easier to recall later.”

It’s made a difference at Best Elementary in Alief ISD, which ranks among the district’s lowest performing schools. More than 90 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Renee Canales, principal at Best, said she was brought in three years ago to try to turn the school around. After her first year, a district wellness coordinator asked if she’d be interested incorporating an active-based learning model, which assumes that the more physically engaged students are in a lesson, the more they’ll retain.

Canales jumped at the chance. Now, at least half of the school’s classrooms are outfitted with kinesthetic furniture - everything from ellipticals-turned-desks, seats that let students bounce, desks with bike pedals underneath and balance boards.

The school also features two labs. The lab designed for older students looks more like a combination of an arcade and gym with a 64-inch TV and workout equipment.

Before the school brought in active-based learning in 2014, only about 69 percent of kindergarten students passed a math assessment, compared with the district average of 82 percent. In 2015, 89 percent of Best kindergartners passed the test, compared with 80 percent of students districtwide. The gains were even more striking among Best’s second-graders, jumping from a 5 percent passage rate in math test in 2014 to 32 percent in 2015.

“We always used to be the worst in the district,” Canales said. “Kids that didn’t want to come to school are now the first ones outside their classrooms, so they can pick out which piece of equipment they’re going to use that day.”

Jessica Barron, a third-grade teacher new to Best, said at first she worried that taking physical activity breaks in between subjects or taking students to the lab would cut into her teaching time. But the opposite has happened.

“It gives me more time for them to learn because when you take two minutes to do something physical, they’re engaged for 20 minutes,” Barron said. “There’s no ‘stop that’ or ‘quit kicking your desk,’ it’s just learning.”

Canales said the physical activity has been so successful with students that she now begins each staff meeting with music and movement. One meeting, teachers had to pop balloons tied to each other’s ankles.

“When you’re moving, you can’t help but have fun,” Canales said. “You can’t help but smile.”

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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