A Spotlight on Frances E. Willard Elementary. Written by: Ayooluwa Ariyo for Get Healthy Philly
“Raise your right leg! Support it with your arms around your knee! Now I’m going to count to five. You can put that leg down at five and switch to your other leg!”
This is Ms. Debra DeShields, Health and P.E. teacher at Frances E. Willard Elementary School, giving instructions to 733 students over the building’s PA system during their school-wide morning movement break.
Willard is one of a growing number of District schools that use morning pledges to introduce more physical activity into students’ daily routine. Moving their bodies helps students turn their brains on for learning, and get the wiggles out before lessons start.
Children need at least an hour of physical activity every day for their mental and physical health. Understanding that many of their students do not have opportunities to be active outside of school, Ms. DeShields and school counselor Ms. Theresa Bronte approached Willard Principal Ron Reilly with the idea of making movement breaks part of how students start their days together. Instead of each classroom teacher needing to develop and lead their own exercises, Ms. DeShields calls on her decades of experience to conduct them for the whole community.
Debra DeShields knew she wanted to be a teacher by the time she was eight. By 12, she’d decided on P.E. as her subject. She has now been a Health and P.E. teacher for 40 years, 34 of them at Willard.
“Once I had phys ed with a real phys ed teacher, I fell in love with that,” she says. “At first, I had only wanted to teach [high school students]. I took the concentration in secondary because I didn’t want to teach little kids.” But once she tried teaching elementary students, it was a perfect fit.
“My goal is to make phys ed enjoyable for the kids, you know, not like just sheer drudgery… I take my program from what they need. And we have a good time.”
Ms. DeShields has long supplemented her P.E. curriculum with school-wide events. Highlights include Parents and Children Exercising Simultaneously (PACES) Day, when families are invited to join their children in fun and exercise, and Willard’s Winter Olympic Games. But while a first-grade teacher leads her students in regular yoga, Ms. DeShields recognized that all of her students needed more, and more frequent, opportunities to be active.
So now morning pledges at Willard have a few minutes set aside for movement. Each day, two students are selected to join Ms. DeShields in the office, to do the movements with her. Other students and teachers follow from their classrooms. Ms. Deshields is always concerned about how the exercises are going over throughout the building. Are students enjoying them? Is the timing ok for teachers? So Ms. Bronte often pops into classrooms to see how engaged students are. And Willard’s Lead Teachers take the morning movement breaks into account in scheduling lessons and activities.
“I get a lot of support from [our principal, counselor and teachers]. [This] couldn’t be done without [their] support,” Ms. DeShields says.