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She's exercised – about jazzing up gym class

Carol Martini changes the image of an oft-dreaded class

By Sara SteindorfStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2002


At first, it looks as if mayhem has hit Andover High School's third-period PE class.

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Teacher Carol Martini huddles in between four volleyball nets that jet out from her like a giant pinwheel, and tries not to get trampled by 82 students who are jostling for two beach balls.

But just seconds later, she's engaging them in a thoughtful discussion on why all sports (besides "jungle ball") have rules.

"Did you like it when Chris passed only to himself?" The class responds with a resounding "No."

"But some of you copied him because his method worked.... Wouldn't you also copy someone if they did something good?" she asks. "Yes," they shout in unison.

That mix of creative activities – and the lessons they impart – is what earned Ms. Martini this year's title of "Secondary School Physical Education Teacher of the Year" in the Northeast area, an honor bestowed by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

"I work hard to make PE interesting and tough for the kids," Martini says, discussing her goal in coming to Andover High School (AHS) six years ago. "Now kids go home and talk about what they did in phys ed that day, and I think I'm partly responsible for that."

That enthusiasm for PE – an oft-dreaded rite of passage – seems especially refreshing now. Physical activity among American youths ranks at an all-time low.

During the past decade, as schools ignored PE in favor of academic programs, the number of obese adolescents grew to an all-time high.

AHS is an anomaly just by requiring students to take PE one semester each year – even if they are on sports teams. Beyond that, the mix of innovative activities sets the school distinctly apart from others.

"Martini's probably one of the best things that happened to Andover athletics," says Dick Bourdelais, former physical-education coordinator. "She has been one of the primary initiators of change in restructuring the program. The entire staff has contributed, but she came in and she said 'What can we do?' not 'What can't we do?' "

One major innovation is a required course called Project Challenge. Jungle ball is just one of the summer-camp-like activities. Others include a high ropes course with a 60-foot-high zip line; an indoor climbing wall; and trust falls, in which a student falls backward from a height and relies on teammates to catch him or her.

"We try to do fun things students wouldn't otherwise have the chance to do; things that build team skills and boost confidence," Martini says.

The other required course is Personal Fitness, in which students use exercise machines and learn about lifetime fitness skills from a book that Martini helped write. Students may also take PE electives in a range of sports. "There's a big difference between being physically active and physically educated," Martini says. "Hopefully students will realize there are a lot of ways to stay fit, and stick with some of them after they graduate."

The contribution Martini says she is most proud of is the High Five program. "Kids get in enough trouble in school, like when they're late and have to sit in detention," she says. "We wanted to discipline students with a more positive approach."

Students earn credit toward a High Five through behavior that goes "above and beyond what they get a grade on," she says. Kids get recognized for volunteering to put equipment away after class or assisting another student with an activity. After the first good deed, a student has his or her name posted on a bulletin board on a hand-shaped cutout with one finger extended in a "High One." Students who achieve enough credits for a High Five get to go on a field trip at the end of the year – to places like a Boston Red Sox game or the sports desk at The Boston Globe.