A way to walk and learn

Feb. 22, 2014 @ 11:11 PM

As a fifth-grade teacher in Chapel Hill, Laura Fen observed her students simply did not have enough time outdoors.

“The students were inside way too much and time for P.E. and recess was being cut,” Fen said. “It’s not normal for 10 to 12 year olds to sit behind a desk for six or seven hours without going outside and getting fresh air.”

She was looking for way to get kids out of the classroom while not sacrificing instructional time.

Fen’s quandary led to the creation of The Walking Classroom, an educational non-profit program that uses portable podcasts aligned with the fourth and fifth grade Common Core English language arts curriculum to improve the physical and academic health of students.

Since Fen founded the program four years ago, more than 200 WalkKits — sets of headphones and MP3s used by teachers in 33 different states, including Zeb Vance Elementary School teacher Marian Faulkner.

The fifth-grade teacher applied for a grant last year through the Walking Classroom, and last spring she learned the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust would fund 27 WalkKits for her class.

The Walking Classroom set includes a WalkKit for each student that has a year’s worth of lessons pre-loaded on to the MP3 player and a teacher’s guide, which includes the lesson plans and comprehension quizzes.

“The kids bought into it wholeheartedly, and I think that’s due in part to the way the program is set up; it’s so easy to use, and the kids love being outside,” She said. “They ask me every week, ‘When are we doing the Walking Classroom?’”

Fen said schools can purchase WalkKits directly from her non-profit at $100 a piece. But if the school does not have the resources, they can apply for a donated set sponsored by outside funding

“The downside is we never know when that funding might come through,” Fen said. “We have teachers who have been on the waitlist for a month and others who have been on the waitlist for 18 months.”

Faulkner tries to takes her class outside twice a week for about 20 minutes.

Her students form an orderly line and follow the school’s outdoor walking path as they listen silently to the podcast lesson.

When they return to the classroom, her students take a 10-question comprehension quiz to make sure they are retaining the information they just heard.

Debra Ives, Walking Classroom business director, said the podcasts are recorded as a conversation between two children and an adult.

“That format is very engaging because it’s like they are overhearing conversation rather than being lectured to,” Ives said.

At the beginning of each podcast, there is a brief health literacy message relating to various aspects of a healthy lifestyle.

“These kids don’t necessarily get these messages at home, so it’s a healthy living initiative as a well,” Ives said.

Fen said the comprehension quiz asks eight questions about the lesson and two questions about the health message.

“With budget cuts, very often schools no longer have a health budget or health curriculum,” Fen said. “We are trying to build health literacy and not be heavy-handed with it.”

She said the health message might explain the difference between an empty calorie and a protein calorie or why drinking soda is not the healthiest choice.

Students in Faulkner’s class say the program is a refreshing break from the usual lecture-style class period.

“We don’t have to be stuck in a room,” said Zeb Vance fifth-grader Rosie Canouff. “I like that we get to move around outside.”

Canouff said she thinks the program has helped improve her grade in the class.

“I used to get a lot of Bs in social studies,” she said. “But not anymore.”

Contact the writer at smansur@hendersondispatch.com.