learning on the move

Fresh air, exercise and a dose of learning

Fifth-graders at Kenton Elementary school participate listen to a 16-minute podcast on trickster characters in literature.

There wasn’t a whisper of conversation among Kari Burkett’s fifth-graders as they walked a mile around the grounds of Aurora’s Kenton Elementary School on a recent sunny morning. Just the sound of footfalls and the caw of birds flying overhead.

The students, all equipped with small black listening devices and earphones, were absorbed in a recording about trickster characters like Br’er Rabbit. The walk-and-listen routine happens once or twice a week in Burkett’s classroom.

Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. She bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded content from the Internet.
Laura Fenn, executive director of The Walking Classroom Institute, came up with the idea when she was a fifth-grade teacher. At first, she bought a class set of MP3 players using grant funds and recorded her own lessons or downloaded Internet content.

It’s part of The Walking Classroom, a four-year-old program based in Chapel Hill, NC, that allows students to get exercise while they listen to standards-aligned podcasts on language arts, history and science. In an era when many teachers feel overwhelmed by the push for better test scores and health advocates regularly sound the alarm on childhood obesity, The Walking Classroom attempts to address both problems.

All told, more than 30 fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in 20 Colorado schools, from the Denver area up to Loveland, participate in the program. Many of the schools have large populations of low-income students or English-language learners.

Normally, a classroom set of Walking Classroom materials, including listening devices called WalkKits, costs $3,000, but sponsors like Kaiser Permanente Colorado allow many schools to participate for free. Burkett said the audio lesson, which correlate particularly well with her writing lessons, give students new ways to learn and reinforce academic content.

“I have a variety of learners, a variety of different language-learners…it’s an opportunity to do something different instead of just listening to me,” she said. “[They’re] able to connect a little bit more to what we’re learning in class.”

Program co-founder Laura Fenn, who visited Kenton and other participating Colorado schools last week, emphasized the link between exercise and attention.

The Walking Classroom

  • Launched: 2011
  • Used in: 46 states, including in more than 30 Colorado classrooms in 20 schools
  • Not to be used during: Physical education class or recess
  • 2014-15 Kaiser Permanente Colorado sponsorship: $95,000 for 21 classroom sets
  • More information: thewalkingclassroom.org

“We hear over and over again that the kids come back [from Walking Classroom sessions] and they’re more focused, they’re more productive and they’ve gotten some exercise,” she said.

The positive effect of exercise on the brain is something Carla Witt, a Kaiser Permanente doctor who also visited Kenton last week, said is clearly visible in magnetoencephalagrams, or pictures of the brain.

“When you have someone who’s been sitting…they’re recruiting just a fraction of their brain,” she said. “When you have them walk like this and now you take a picture of their brain…they’re recruiting substantially more.”

Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.
Jonathan Rodriguez shows off his WalkKit before heading outside. The devices come pre-loaded with 85-90 podcasts that are aligned to fourth- and fifth-grade Common Core standards.

In their own way, students also seem to notice a difference.

Ten-year-old Katherine Sanchez said she likes The Walking Classroom “because I get to exercise and when I come to learn I get the questions that the teacher asks right.”

Burkett and another teacher at Kenton adopted The Walking Classroom last year after the school got two classroom sets of the WalkKits through a Kaiser sponsorship. At first, she wasn’t sure how the program would work.

“There’s so many assessments and we have a pretty rigorous schedule.”

Nevertheless, she set aside 15-20 minutes for The Walking Classroom every Friday, and sometimes other days of the week. She assigned a leader and a caboose and students soon got used to strolling around the playground while listening to lessons on everything from similes to famous poems.

“If we don’t get to do it every week they get pretty disappointed,” said Burkett.


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.