At first, it looks as if mayhem has hit Andover High School's third-period PE class.
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.
"It's our way of promoting sportsmanship, respect, and a positive attitude," Martini says. "And it works. Before class every day, kids are out there checking the board."
Her attention to positive sports qualities is echoed on the gym wall covered with cutouts that spell words like "leadership" and "trust." It's also reflected in the students.
"She treats everyone like her own son or daughter, and that's why no one's afraid to do any of the activities they trust her," says junior Kevin Barrett, referring to Project Challenge. He was so taken with the program that he enrolled in Project Challenge 2 so that he could learn how to set up the ropes course and belay other students.
"My old high school had nothing like this. We just ran around and played sports for 40 minutes," he says.
Martini credits AHS's block schedule for PE's success at the school. The system allows for 82-minute classes meaning more time for involved activities or debriefing the lessons and challenges of that day's class.
She also helps coach the boys' varsity basketball team, which considers her "the mother of the team."
"She's the best teacher I ever had," says Chris Vetrano, a sophomore and captain of the team. "She explains things in ways that I understand.... And she's always willing to help me with my homework or give me advice about my personal life."
As a youth, Martini says she didn't spend long questioning her future goals. "I remember going home in fourth grade and announcing to my parents that I was going to be a gym teacher when I grew up," she says.
She went on to study physical education at Springfield (Ill.) College "and never looked back." After graduating in 1975, Martini joined the athletics department at Lexington (Mass.) High School and stayed for 10 years.
During that time she also coached women's basketball at Boston College. But after two years, she says, "I realized my heart was in teaching high-schoolers."
When she decided to have children, she stopped teaching and began driving a school bus in Lexington. On her routes, she often peered into the gym at the elementary school her children attended. It was there that she got to know an energetic and inspiring physical-education teacher named David Fazio.
"When he left to teach at Andover," she says, "I decided I wanted to teach with him, so I followed him here." She and Mr. Fazio are now among the six PE teachers at AHS.
"I love working here. I often say to myself, I can't believe I get paid for this too," Martini says.
Most people my age hated their high school P.E. experience. We really work to make P.E. fun and rewarding for kids, so they'll want to continue being fit throughout their lives...."
We [also] try to get all students to feel involved and to realize what they can learn from others.... Recently, a kid who is in a special-ed program was extremely nervous about sliding down the 60-foot zipline. When he was up in the tree, every kid stopped and cheered him on. Even the principal came out and watched him jump...."
It's so amazing to see some of the students come here as immature freshmen and leave realizing there's so much more to sports than winning and losing."