Ginny Popiolek tips over the green plastic soda bottle, and the stuffed bear attached to it by a wire starts rolling back and forth on a tiny skateboard to the synthesized tune of "It's a Small, Small World."
It's one of the creative devices that she uses to teach physical education at the John Archer School for disabled children. The child that can throw a ball that hits the bottle gets an immediate visual and musical reward for success.
Not every child in the typical class can throw so accurately. One with cerebral palsy may be able only to drop the ball to tip the container, others to roll a ball at the bottle; some will stand closer to the target, and a visually impaired child may have a ball with a rattle inside to gauge direction and distance.
That's the kind of innovation and enthusiasm in her 15 years teaching at the Bel Air school that recently won Mrs. Popiolek state honors as elementary physical education teacher of the year.
The award by the Maryland Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance recognized her significant achievements, but also the important role of adaptive physical education for students with disabilities. She teaches elementary and pre-schooler phys ed for youngsters at John Archer, then travels to other Harford County elementary schools to advise them on activities and physical evaluations of disabled children.
"This is extremely rewarding work, always challenging you to find a way to expand the capabilities of these children," says the New York native. "You make them feel successful, to feel good about themselves, and that's the greatest reward you can get."
Patience is not a virtue for her job, she says. In fact, one thing she stresses to parents and to other teachers is to set reasonable physical goals for disabled children and to motivate them to want to do it, instead of letting them give up. "I'm certainly not patient in any way, and I don't want them to be either."
Rather, excitement and motivation and a sense of humor are the prerequisites.
"You have to have fun with them, so they can have fun and enjoy the activity," Mrs. Popiolek believes. "Kids know what you're feeling, they can see right through you. So you better enjoy it yourself if you're going to teach it."
Her kids earn "fitness dollars" -- greenbacks with pictures of her and colleague Ron Hill -- for phys ed accomplishments that can be converted into a place on the fitness honor roll. The "money" is counted by students in their math classes, an integration of phys ed with classroom curricula that is the basis of Mrs. Popiolek's holistic belief in "education through the physical."
In fact, classroom teachers often attend her PE classes to see just what physical capabilities and limitations their children have. Working together with other teachers, sharing techniques and reinforcing concepts taught in the classroom are important parts of Ginny Popiolek's routine.
She credits the Harford County system and Archer Principal Rodney Ewing with giving her the freedom to try new ideas, which have gained recognition for the school. "New doesn't always work better but it keeps you thinking about improvements to the old," she said.
The technology room is another plus in developing the electronic learning aids for adaptive education, such as the musical bear, she added.
She's constantly trying to make phys ed a meaningful part of children's lives, to make the activities something the students can use in real life. So instead of contrived motor skill tests for teen-agers, for example, Mrs. Popiolek tries to teach them bowling with adaptive techniques and devices. Last Sunday, she was with students at the bowling alley for a learning party.
"We try to take a lot of field trips, to get kids out into the community," she said. Younger children will visit, with their parents, local playgrounds so they can learn how to use equipment that is available in neighborhoods. Older students learn about fitness equipment and visit health clubs to see what facilities are available to them as adults.
Mrs. Popiolek started teaching in Garrett County, after graduating from Frostburg State, and became involved with getting disabled elementary students to participate in phys ed classes. Graduate work on motor skills development at West Virginia University led to her applying for the phys ed job at Archer.
Over the years, the number of children with multiple disabilities FTC entering the system has increased, she noted, which keeps her looking for new ways to make physical education and fitness exciting and achievable. She tries out ideas and games at home on her own two school-age children, who are not disabled.
Mr. Ewing, a former phys ed instructor for special education students in Baltimore County, pointed out that enrollment at Archer (now 175 students plus 60 outside the school) is declining, as more disabled children are placed in regular schools under a five-year plan by the Harford school board.
Because of her skills and experience, that will likely mean more consulting and traveling to other schools for Mrs. Popiolek. While she enjoys the exchange with other teachers, and likes to conduct workshops in her field, Ginny Popiolek's first love is teaching her own students in her own school. "I like to teach and I hope I don't ever have to give that up."
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.