By Sarah Hall
Fourth grade teacher Julia Oschwald and her class of 22 students at Pigeon River Elementary School in Sheboygan are in the midst of conducting a classroom marathon.
But it’s not all about athleticism.
Although the students are running a total of 26 miles – the length of an actual marathon – over the course of the school year, they are also reading 26 books and completing 26 documented acts of kindness, ranging from making chew toys for shelter dogs, to assembling bagged lunches for the Salvation Army, to helping out at the Nu Dawn social club for adults with special needs.
Instead of doing classwork all the time, “we’re running and being active, we’re helping a lot of people and we’re reading books to get more smart,” explained fourth grader Ava Jonas.
Their teacher, Ms. Oschwald, first learned about classroom marathons nearly a decade ago when she was student-teaching in Madison, where they were a district-wide activity all third-grade teachers had the option to do.
She saw how the project engaged and inspired students, so she implemented the idea in her own classroom while teaching in Wauwatosa last year, then refined it after moving to Sheboygan this summer and starting to teach there this fall.
“About two years ago, I had this epiphany that if I’m going to work so hard at this job, I want to do the things that bring me joy, because I think I’ll be a better teacher if I’m excited about what is going on in the classroom,” Oschwald said.
Her class is active and bustling – students are often moving around – but also orderly, goal-driven and efficient. When they performed their most recent service project, spending two hours sorting, organizing and boxing items at the busy Sheboygan County Food Bank, it was obvious to the reporter observing them that they were bustling around as productively as any adult would be.
There seems to be a certain motivational magic to that number 26: “It’s a big enough number that at first it seems unattainable, but it really drives them … and it’s sustainable for the whole year,” Oschwald noted.
Oschwald pointed out that “sometimes the focus on high-stakes academics takes away from some of those things that kids really need, such as movement. They are always more calm and engaged when they come in from 15 minutes of running around or doing something.”
“I really love the acts of kindness, because it gives kids an opportunity to do things in school they wouldn’t normally do and they’re very motivating and rewarding for the kids,” she said. “And it’s important to me that everyone in the classroom does it.”
Oschwald explained that not every student can participate in clubs that do service projects, and not every family is in a position contribute to bake sales and fundraising drives. But she wants every student, regardless of family situation or socio-economic status, “to have the experience of giving back and realize that even if they don’t have lots of money, they have ways to help other people.”
She identifies some possible volunteer projects – it’s a challenge to find ones that are affordable and feasible given the constraints of the school day – but lets her students lead the way as to which they actually pursue.
When this reporter interviewed the entire class and asked students about their favorite marathon activity, acts of kindness were frequently mentioned.
“I am proud of all the acts of kindness we have done because I like to help other people,” said fourth grader Han Ngo.
“I never thought that I would ever be packing lunches for the Salvation Army or anything like that,” added Danya Franzen.
“I never thought that I would be so kind to other people!” chimed in classmate Michael Kaquatosh.
Many students commented on all the fun they were having with the marathon, and one boy even ventured that “we don’t have to do any learning at all,” although he conceded, when questioned about that statement, that some may have sneaked in nonetheless.
When asked for one word to describe their experiences so far, students said they were “exciting,” “incredible,” “amazing,” “cool” and “spectacular.”
Grace Jacoby offered the term “wild,” and said it was eye-opening for her to work in the sauce section at the food bank and find out how hard it was just to keep up with the rest of the student production line.
“Not a lot of other students are doing this, so it’s kind of special for us to be,” Jacoby added. Her favorite part of the project was getting to read so many books.
Students were quick to point out that they still have to work hard, and noted that sometimes the marathon has stretched them in unexpected ways.
Almost every sunny day, they run half a mile at recess. Kayla Greger said she liked all the running “because it keeps up our stamina and helps us do more activities,” but added that “it’s been hard for me because I have arthritis and can’t keep up that well with everyone.” But the more she runs, the easier it gets, she noted.
Although she comes from a family of marathon runners, Oschwald is not one herself, and said it’s good for the students to witness her extending herself in new directions and struggling with something, too.
Actual marathons may not be her thing, but she has nonetheless travelled far, and her experiences have an impact on her teaching.
“I’ve taught all over the world,” she admitted, when asked what else she did in between student teaching and now.
On a whim, after completing her degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she went to rural Alaska to teach third through sixth grade.
Then she and her best friend, who is also a teacher, wound up in Tanzania, where Oschwald taught students ages nine through 15. She was also an instructor at a small college there.
“My friend and I decided we wanted to do something together, so we bought a one-way ticket,” Oschwald laughed.
Her next stop was on an island of 700 people in American Samoa, where she taught fifth grade. Then she worked in a library in Bolivia before settling back down in Wisconsin.
“Real-life, hands-on experiences are important to me,” said Oschwald. She got so in the habit of incorporating art, music and physical education into her lessons when she was the only teacher for a range of subjects in various other countries that now it comes naturally.
“One of the things I tell my kids every year is how different and yet how similar kids all over the world are,” she said. That has influenced some of her choices of 26 books her students read – she picks some of them, while the students themselves select others – and one of her favorites is “Home of the Brave,” about a refugee from Sudan who moves to Minnesota.
When asked what drives all the effort she puts into the program, Oschwald said “I hope that they’ll learn to enjoy setting long-term goals and working towards them, and to persevere when things are difficult.”
All the academic things I’m teaching kids are important and I value those a lot, too,” she pointed out. “But when I look back on my own school years, I don’t remember any math lessons. It’s really the experiences like the ones we’re having now that are memorable to me and made me love school and want to become a teacher.”
“Different kids have different strengths,” she added. “It’s great to see kids shine in different areas and cheer each other on. And a huge benefit of public education is learning to work with people who are different from you.” Pigeon River Elementary, she said, offers students exposure to a great deal of cultural and socio-economic diversity.
She wants to leave students with “a sense of community as well as a sense of self-esteem that they have accomplished something big together.”
Students agreed that learning to work as a team is one of the biggest benefits of the project. They said that they are looking forward to making a holiday visit to the Nu Dawn Club and also to learning to knit so they can donate scarves to people who need them.
“I like that our whole class is doing everything together. Probably by the end of the year, everyone will be better at running and everything else,” said Ava Jonas.