It’s 7:40 a.m. on a frigid, midweek day and the Mammoth Middle School gymnasium is bumping like a dance club, full of smiling pre-teens jumping rope, unicycling, riding sideways skates, and playing ping-pong, basketball, dodgeball, and volleyball.
Classes haven’t started yet, but teacher Todd Hensley is here early to supervise. He is lean and fit, with an engaging, active posture. When students break a rule, he calls them out and gives them 20 push-ups. Without protest, the busted students pump out the pushups, and rush back to their game of choice.
Traditional Physical Education (P.E.) classes miss the majority of kids, Hensley said, meaning classes in the past have not inspired them or taught them the importance of physical activity.
And yet, he said, studies have shown how important physical exercise is, and how the combination of physical and mental challenges in certain sports can transfer to academic success.
“I’m going to serve 98 percent of the kids because they’re going to find something they enjoy,” he said, pointing out a group of girls playing volleyball in one corner, a couple of boys practicing a complicated jump rope routine, and a girl cruising around on sideways skates.
Hensley said he’s introducing the kids to the owner’s manuals of themselves. His class, he said, is centered on the “whats, whys, and hows in relation to exercise, nutrition, and sport.”
Another boy hops on a unicycle and rides around the room. He practiced for six weeks to learn to ride it, he said.
That boy, for example, Hensley said, may have been one of the students a traditional P.E. class would have missed.
“Not all of us are academics, and not all of us are athletes.”
Students who struggle academically, he said, even those with learning disabilities, benefit greatly from the mental and physical combination in his class.
“Todd is the best physical education teacher I’ve ever observed,” said Mike Agnitch, interim principal.
“It’s an all-around class,” said secretary Jeanne Woo. “He changed the name of the class from P.E. to exercise science.”
Hensley includes a wide variety of activities, Woo said, and makes use of the area’s myriad outdoor resources.
It’s the variable nature of the class that keeps kids interested, Hensley said.
“You get to do a lot of stuff,” said Cary Walker, one of Hensley’s eighth graders. “It’s fun for everybody.”
Tanner Bissonette, also an eighth grader at Mammoth Middle School, said Mr. Hensley’s class is one of his favorite classes.
“He makes it fun. The stuff he teaches, he makes it stick.”
“And if you try,” he added, “it’s easy to pass.”
Hensley started this class with a short lecture on heart rate, explaining that it is a way to gauge the intensity of an activity.
He introduced resting, maximum, and target heart rates, and how to find them.
Written on the white board next to calculations for target heart rate (a percentage range of maximum heart rate), he wrote: “This is why you need math!”
Hensley passed out little finger clips that measure heart rate, and asked the students when they would expect heart rates to be high or low, and why.
Really fit people, he said, usually have very low resting heart rates.
One girl even pointed out that she would expect her heart rate to be lower when she goes to Bishop, because it is a lower elevation.
Hensley explained the rules for the day’s activity—it’s a sort of flag football, capture-the-flag hybrid game—and instructed the students to start once the music started playing.
At the first break, Hensley told a few students to measure their heart rate. Are they in the target zone?
At the end of class, Hensley gave the students a few minutes to practice their ongoing jump rope routine. Some students lined up to take the jump rope test.
Again starting the music, he asked the class, “Can you jump rope to the beat?”
The music helps motivate the students, he said. He will often let them choose a station on Pandora.
At first, Hensley said, parents called to complain about his changes to the traditional P.E. class.
“The more years a program has been going on, the more buy in there is,” he said.
The school’s administration, however, has been a key supporter, Hensley said.
“They want a good program.”
Hensley then pointed to a poster-sized check for $20,000 from Mammoth Mountain hanging in the gym.
That, he said, has given him a lot of freedom to do what he wants with his class.
In December 2008, Mammoth Mountain sent Mammoth Middle School a check for $20,000. It was an award for the highest participation rate of any Inyo or Mono county school in the California Governor’s Challenge—given to the winning school’s recreation and physical fitness departments, according to a Mammoth Mountain news release.
Ninety-three percent of Mammoth Middle School students participated in the Governor’s Challenge, the press release stated.
The annual California Governor’s Challenge requires students to engage in some sort of physical activity (other than in P.E. class) for 30-60 minutes, at least three days a week, for four weeks, according to the California Teachers Association website.
Seventh grader Joel Guillen said he knows why Hensley’s class is important. “I think without exercise you’d just be a potato on the couch,” he said.
Joel said he really likes Hensley’s extreme capture the flag game.
To keep things fresh, Hensley said he has sought out different and unusual games, such as tchoukball, a Swiss game that looks like handball with a rebounding net to complicate matters.
“It’s something none of the kids have done before, so the kids are on an even playing field,” he said.
With variety, kids can find what they like, and are motivated to improve. With his class structure, kids can also see their progress in a given time period, he said, proving to themselves that “you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
“The athlete is going to succeed [in exercise science] no matter what.”
He wants to reach that kid who might have hid in the corner, he said.
Hensley said he is enthusiastic about his subject, and he does a lot of cycling, running, swimming, and cross-country skiing—lots of variety, he said.
“He practices what he preaches,” Woo said, adding that they see him head out on his bike nearly every day after school.
When asked about riding during blizzards, the office staff chorused.
“If not for the high winds, he would.”