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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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On a Mission to Link the Body and Brain in Education -- One Push-up at a Time

Editor's Note: Joel Kirsch, age 62, is two weeks into an arduous journey, half of it on his hands and knees, that could last four to six weeks more -- all in the name of better education. Kirsch is a former sports psychologist for the San Francisco Giants and president of the Northern California-based American Sports Institute, a nonprofit educational organization that applies the principles and practices of sport culture and wellness to other kinds of challenges. He has previously contributed to Edutopia in words and video.

Kirsch and the Institute are working to create the Arete School of Sport Culture and Wellness, a tuition-free, privately funded school in California that will integrate sports practices to generate high marks on academics, health, and motivation for its students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It's part of Kirsch's bigger vision for how to revive American education. And now he's traveling the length of a county, one push-up at a time, to make his point.

Why am I doing this? It's so grueling. Six hours a day, five days a week, for as long as it takes. Right now, as you read this, I'm probably on the Highway 101 frontage road in Marin County, California. I'm traveling (more like inching my way) some 40 to 50 miles from the northern end of Marin to its southern border on the Golden Gate Bridge. Less than 100 feet to my left cars are rushing by me at 60-70 miles an hour. The noise is deafening; the fumes choking. I hate freeways.

Joel Kirsch with two Novato firefighter friends.

Credit: Courtesy of Joel Kirsch

This is my mantra: Stand straight, inhale and step forward with the right foot. Exhale and go down on the left knee. The carpenter's knee guard will protect it (so far, so good). Glove-covered hands down in a push-up position, both feet straight back. I go down for a push-up, inhale-exhale. Breathing in, I step forward with the left knee, then right foot. Exhale. Stand straight. Repeat.

How many times am I going to do this -- 40,000 to 50,000? I only cover about a mile a day. Why?

I tell myself: Let go of all that. You know what to do. Stay focused. Keep going.

Of course, I know why I'm doing this -- and it's working.

We had to focus a spotlight on the fact that students need to be engaged in sustained, high levels of physical activity, especially aerobic activity, in order to realize their full academic and health and fitness potential. The ancient Greeks instinctively knew this. Great figures throughout history have known it. Studies over the past quarter century have proven it. Recent and emerging research in neuroscience is validating it and explaining in detail how it happens. The Arete School is going to incorporate all of this.

This is the Arete School Pilgrimage, a journey in prostration push-ups. We've gotten a bunch of publicity on it, which will raise the visibility of our message and our efforts to create the school. It's all going to be worth it.

The bottom line is: Engaging in high levels of physical activity increases academic achievement; maximizes health and fitness; improves attitude, behavior, and mood; promotes longevity; reduces medical-care costs; and helps you get a good night's sleep without taking a pill. What educator wouldn't want all this for his or her students and their families? However, despite these irrefutable truths, the physical domain has been given either only passing interest or has been left out of the discussion entirely in the half-century old, educational-change movement. Paradigms and perspectives are difficult to change.

What's been so uplifting doing the pilgrimage has been the support from those I know and from strangers who have read the articles and seen the television stories. My dentist has come out twice, several hours each time, to do the pilgrimage with me. There were the Novato firefighters who came out of their station to do prostration push-ups with me. And Maria Lashinger, a graduate student in sports management at the University of San Francisco, has been with me most of the way as a support person.

I've learned that when you're really willing to put yourself on the line for a worthy cause, it brings out the best in others. There was the woman who had a front tooth missing, someone who seemed to be struggling to hold her life together. She said she read the front-page article in the Marin Independent Journal, the county newspaper. When she saw me doing the pilgrimage on the sun-baked sidewalk, she said, "Good for you and what you're doing for the kids." I responded, "You just made my day."

There was the dad who had seen the article and came out of his office as I prostrated and pushed-up by, to tell me about his high-school swimmer son who had heart surgery as a young boy, and again about a year ago. He told me how important physical activity has been to his son, just to keep him here on the planet.

Then there was the elementary-school teacher in her car who pulled up alongside me and said she had put the IJ article on her refrigerator so her seven-year-old daughter could see it. Mom wants her daughter to be more physically active, to get outside more and enjoy life, to be better prepared for school. Then she drove off, only to show up a few minutes later with an ice-cold bottle of water.

So many people have told me that they've never felt more human than when they're physically engaged. Whether it's being able to do better in school, more focused and energized at work, feeling good about and within yourself, and being able to get along better with others, those who are physically active know what the ancient Greeks knew.

If you are so inclined, I'd love to hear from you about all this. What's your take on the role of physical activity in your life, and for our kids in America's schools?

I believe that the degree to which a society or an institution values the mind over the body or spirit is the degree to which that society/institution is in a state of dis-ease. Given what the research is trying to tell us, what's going on in our troubled public-school system and America at large is not a problem but the symptom of a problem.

Joel Kirsch alone on the highway doing a push-up

Joel Kirsch makes his way down Highway 101.

Credit: Alan Gray

The real problem is that, as a nation, we continue to deny the fundamental role of the physical in the education of the whole child in our public schools and in our daily lives. While well-intentioned, our schools are not allowing our children to realize their full potential. Is it any wonder why the children cry out to us through their chronic disengagement, underachievement, attitude and behavior issues, and poor health? The very essence of our humanity is crying out to us through our children.

The full integration of the physical domain into the total learning experience of every child may be the essential element that has been missing in the half-century effort to turn around America's public-school system.

Half a century is long enough. We can do this.

Now, where was I? Oh yeah, inhale and step forward with the right foot. Exhale and go down on the left knee . . .

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Joel Kirsch's picture
Joel Kirsch
American Sports Institute

[quote]Mr Kirsch-

I wish I had the motivation to do something that was so selfless and uplifting for others. I am a gym rat, so physical education is not an issue for me, but I have always wanted to create awareness about it's positive effect on your body and soul. My co-workers think I am crazy b/c I never eat the birthday cakes or fast food that live on. Instead, I stick to a strict diet, and am never too far away from a protein shake! Education, nutrition, and physical fitness are passions of mine, and I am envious that you have tied them all together in this one philanthropic venture. I salute you sir, and let me know how I can help. I am not in northern CA, but in the deserts of Phoenix, AZ. If there is a way to get involved, I would love to do so.[/quote]

Joel Kirsch's picture
Joel Kirsch
American Sports Institute

Hi Ian,

You're a special person in the way you discipline yourself. Self-discipline is humanity's way of transcending our limitations, and that's exactly what you're doing. Your co-workers may think you're crazy, but I promise you, they respect you, and may even be envious.

I, too, eat in a healthy way. The better I eat, the better I feel. But I don't compromise on taste. I eat very savory meals and foods.

If you'd like to get involved, we're putting together a database to which we'll be sending articles, reports, research studies, interviews, personal examples like yours, and other relevant information related to education, wellness, and sport culture. If you and others reading these posts would like to receive this kind of information, you can send your email address to: info@amersports.org

Ian, I promise you, there will come a day when most Americans will be eating and engaging in physical activity just as you do. Medical care costs alone will be a huge factor in making this happen. But it's people like you who are ahead of the curve. You're a trailblazer.

Keep blazing,

Joel

Iain Steeves's picture

Thank you for the positive feedback and kind words Joel! Best of luck in your campaign, and I will certainly sign up with your database! Your words just inspired me to stop sitting on my couch watching the World Cup and hit the gym!

Joel Kirsch's picture
Joel Kirsch
American Sports Institute

[quote]
Thank you for the positive feedback and kind words Joel! Best of luck in your campaign, and I will certainly sign up with your database! Your words just inspired me to stop sitting on my couch watching the World Cup and hit the gym!
[/quote]

Hi Iain,

First, I apologize for misspelling your name. It was after I responded to your first comment that I noticed my error.

We'll certainly add you to the database. I encourage you to ask others if they would like to be added.

By the way, it's fine that you watch the World Cup. It's another way in which people from around the world come together at one place to give their very best. Just continue doing your workouts. In this way, you and the World Cup players are doing the same thing.

Be well,

Joel

bonnie shams's picture

dear joel
you are an inspiration! every day when i come into school and pick up my patients i begin with fifteen minutes of exercise and only then can we begin doing "therapy". My kids have progressed rapidly. I have a personal trainer working out with my private patients who can not believe how their attention and function has improved with their improved strength, core control, self esteem and cognition! I have implemented movement programs in 2 private schools and u have inspired me to keep on moving! Your classroom exercises are wonderful!thank you!moving and learning go hand in hand!thank you!

Joel Kirsch's picture
Joel Kirsch
American Sports Institute

[quote]dear joel

you are an inspiration! every day when i come into school and pick up my patients i begin with fifteen minutes of exercise and only then can we begin doing "therapy". My kids have progressed rapidly. I have a personal trainer working out with my private patients who can not believe how their attention and function has improved with their improved strength, core control, self esteem and cognition! I have implemented movement programs in 2 private schools and u have inspired me to keep on moving! Your classroom exercises are wonderful!thank you!moving and learning go hand in hand!thank you![/quote]

Joel Kirsch's picture
Joel Kirsch
American Sports Institute

Hi Bonnie,

Thanks for your kind words. Too often people dismiss the physical domain's influence in the learning process. You certainly are someone who has seen what can happen when the body and mind work together. You're a hero for what you're doing for you kids.

papanas's picture

Educating both body and brain is essential for a healthy living, but we shouldn't forget about the preventive part of our health. It's true that a person who is practicing sports and eats healthy is less subjected to health problems, but you can really never know. In my state, I have been trying to come up with some programs to educate people that having medical and dental insurance in Maryland is just as important as going to the gym every week or taking a morning run. People don't take insurances seriously yet, and this can really be the downfall for many of them! Education is essential as people don't realize the everyday risks they are exposed to!

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