My first teaching assignment many years ago was in a Catholic school in the neighborhood where I lived. I had been in Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania studying to be a priest, but dropped out because I couldn’t imagine a life without a wife, a family and children.
Fortunately for me, at that time in my home parish, the local school was one teacher short. As a result, a nun served both as principal and one of the school’s teachers. I knew nothing about teaching except that I loved kids. A phone call from my pastor asked me if I’d be willing to teach the second grade. “You must be kidding!”
Since I had no money and no job and couldn’t stand the idea of spending any more of my parents hard earned money, I hesitated hardly a moment and then said, “Ah, yes, when do I start?” Not a man of many words, my pastor said, “Come on over here.” Arriving at the priest house, he took me across busy Lincoln Avenue into what was then, Corpus Christi School and introduced me to the school principal.
What fascinated me most was that this nun never made me feel in any way unqualified to do the job. She in turn introduced me to another sister who taught the first grade in the room next to what would become mine. We talked for a while; she showed me the children’s books; where paper and pencils were kept; and more or less gave me the run-down on how to keep a roll book; how much time I should spend each day on various subjects; and how to teach kids.
I remember her telling me that a good part of each morning should be dedicated to teaching reading, while the first part of the afternoon was arithmetic time. All of the books I would be using had teacher’s guides in them, so as long as I followed these guides and could keep the children interested, I assumed I would be teaching and kids would be learning.
I don’t remember being overly concerned about starting the following Monday Morning. I had read through the guides. Came Monday, I just went in and started to teach. The second graders, of course, thought they had died and gone to heaven-they had a man teacher. The only other lay teacher was a woman who doubled as the church organist. I fell in love with teaching.
For some reason, I had no problem organizing my class even though there were several reading levels and several math levels. What bothered me within a very short time was this. Second graders need to move around. They get antsy. And when they get antsy, scolding will make them quiet, but not make them sit still wanting to do schoolwork. When I talked to the sister next door, she told me to “Just make them sit still. That’s something they have to learn.”
I watched another first grade sister through her classroom door window to see how she truly ran a tight ship. It was obvious that her students were scared to death of her. I also noticed that although they were silent, they weren’t necessarily paying a lot of attention.
So, I did what I guessed any good parent would do. I decided to have daily exercise in my classroom to keep children alert. From the front wall of our room to the back wall, I tied a thick heavy cord that was high enough that students could not reach it when standing. There were an equal number of children in desks on each side of that cord.
Then I blew up a balloon and demonstrated how students were to stand up and smack the balloon from one side of the cord to the other without letting it touch the ground. Imagine the uproar this caused because I never expected my kids would play the game in silence. The learning effect this had on a group of 38 second graders was tremendous. They loved it! They loved exercise time. If a student cheated and reached across under the cord to wallop the balloon, that child had to sit on one hand while the others played un-handicapped.
Although our noise caused lots of stares from nuns on the building’s first floor, no one ever told us to stop. Many of the sisters including the principal would look in and shake their heads. With the success of this exercise program judging by how attentive and well-behaved students were afterward, I eventually started taking the students down to the dank, crypt-like church basement for exercise. Here we played a variety of camp-like games rather than any traditional competitive games.
So here is my suggestion for teachers who have no physical education program in their school or have students who simply need a physical break. Find some way to get your charges to exercise every morning and every afternoon if you really want them to maintain a better attention span. The game we played with the balloon truly helped me out as a fledgling second grade teacher, and I’m convinced it made the kids better learners.