by Justine Pechuzal for Seward City News-
Over fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy deemed ‘Chicken Fat’ the theme song for his national youth fitness program. It seems unlikely now that a song named after poultry pudge would inspire fitness, but the 1960’s were a different era. A sensation vocalized by Robert Preston of the Music Man was born. Kids in school gyms across the country moved their way through the six minute recording with toe-touches and push-ups, ending with the bouncy refrain ‘Go, you chicken fat, go!’
Though he was a man of vision, it is unlikely that JFK could have foreseen the students, teachers and staff of Seward Elementary revisiting this classic in 2018. Yet that is exactly what happened when physical education instructor Mark Fraad decided to create an original movement program for Seward Elementary as part of the statewide PLAAY exercise initiative. Organized by the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, PLAAY connects youth from Ketchikan to Kaktovik in simultaneous physical activity that is virtually connected through videoconferencing. The program has the potential to move to national platform.
During a thirty minute period on a designated date, Alaska role model athletes lead and encourage students through pre-planned exercise routines. In the past, over 20,000 children from almost 200 schools around the state have participated. This year the event took place from 10:00-10:30 a.m. on February 22.
While Fraad knew he wanted to be part of the PLAAY event, he took the extra step of collaborating with Seward Elementary teachers to determine what kind of program would be most meaningful for their students after mixed results the previous year. Teachers voiced their desire to exercise in a large group setting, as opposed to individually in their classrooms. They also requested a custom exercise program led by Fraad to increase kids’ enthusiasm about participating. No stranger to going the extra mile for his passion, Fraad went right to work developing the event. Student teacher Tara Swanson agreed to assist, and found short dance videos that would appeal to the students, including a hip hop routine and and upbeat movement exercise from the popular ‘Go Noodle’ program. And what about that ‘Chicken Song’?
“I could remember doing it as a kid,” Fraad said, and decided to make Chicken Song the first element of the program. Swanson unearthed a Chicken Fat recording, which they played with a video graphic of a 45 LP.
At the start of the program, with lights lowered, students were ushered to specified exercise spots on the gym floor. As more kids arrived and recognized one another, anticipation grew. Fraad and Swanson, dressed in athletic gear, stood at the front by a large projector screen. Four different songs with various movements were played, and suddenly, the Seward gymnasium was full of shared movement.
“It was very powerful,” Fraad said, “looking behind you and seeing two hundred kids with their teachers exercising.”
Fraad compared the event to a production, much grander in scale than a regular gym class.
“I like kids to come to things,” Fraad said. “Any time I do something different, like Friday Dodge Ball with a few classes, I want the kids to walk into the gym and gasp, ‘Oh, it’s something out of the ordinary!’ Education is entertainment, motivating and exciting kids.”
After the event, many teachers and students expressed how much they enjoyed participating in the event—even the school principal who made room in a busy schedule to participate, further affirming the importance of shared movement. Having teachers exercise with their students, instead of supervising them, likewise made an impression on the kids.
Fraad is already considering options for expanding next year’s PLAAY, such as involving high school cheerleaders, or handing out t-shirts and water bottles. But physical fitness fun for the year doesn’t stop there. Fraad and Seward Elementary music teacher Dr. Mark are collaborating on a music circus for late March that will feature students folk dancing.
“Whenever I can inject more dance into the program, I do. It bridges all cultures, gets you sweating, adds the element of music,” Fraad said.
It is clear why Seward Elementary is a model for physical education statewide.