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Finding fun in fitness at Mount Airy school


Teachers Robin Townsend and Linda Coons are dedicated to making fitness fantastic for the 540 first- through fifth-grade students at Mount Airy Elementary School.

The physical education instructors, who have team-taught at Mount Airy Elementary for the past five years, share a talent for creating positive fitness experiences that motivate and mobilize their students.

From the Haunted House in October to the recent school Winter Olympics, the emphasis in all their activities is for children to do their best.

Scores are never kept when games are played and often more than one ball is used to keep the action going.

"Everything is based on a child's improvement and effort," Mrs. Townsend said. "Linda and I both share the same philosophy -- there is never a winner or loser. They need to feel good when they leave here."

Said Ms. Coons: "The four aspects of fitness are covered in every class -- strength, agility, flexibility and endurance. We also have a muscle and a bone of the month."

A small cabinet in their cramped office holds a 4-by-6-inch index card for each student taking physical education. Complete records on each child's fitness progress are kept from first to fifth grade, Mrs. Townsend said.

Each child's improvements in several fitness categories are regularly noted and praised. Whether a child performs the distance run in 11 or seven minutes, "we make as big a deal," Mrs. Townsend said. "The kids sense that, and their self-esteem goes up when they realize they don't have to be first."

Having a healthy heart for life is a continuing focus that Mrs. Townsend and Ms. Coons impart to their students through a creative curriculum and personal example.

"Robin and I both feel we have to set a good example for the kids," Ms. Coons said. "We feel that's very important."

Horseback riding has been a favorite activity of Mrs. Townsend since childhood. She and her husband own a horse farm, where they live and care for their 14 thoroughbreds and foal horses for other people. She also shows horses and judges horse shows.

In the fall, she finds time to play on the Carroll County Women's Volleyball League.

Mrs. Townsend added that she loves to teach. "I think it's the best job in the world, especially at the elementary level," she said.

Fitness has also been a way of life for Ms. Coons since childhood. She was competitive in swimming and gymnastics when growing up and served as a gymnastics judge for 14 years.

In addition to running four miles daily, Ms. Coons swims and does a weight-lifting program three times each week.

She also teaches swimming one night each week, and her daughters, Brianne, 10, and Kelsey, 5, are swim team members. She said being a teacher was something she "always wanted to do."

"I'm having fun," she said. "I like to see the kids grow up and develop in all ways."

Mrs. Townsend and Ms. Coons first met in 1971 as freshmen at Western Maryland College. "We were anatomy lab partners," Ms. Coons said. "We shared the same cat -- we go a long way back.

Although they did not teach together until 1989, they often saw each other around Carroll County. Mrs. Townsend, who previously taught at Francis Scott Key and Liberty high schools, transferred to Mount Airy Elementary in 1984.

Ms. Coons taught at the Friends School in Baltimore before teaching in Carroll County. When she returned from sabbatical after earning her second master's degree, Mount Airy Elementary was one of four schools to which she was assigned. When gym days were increased from two to three days a week in 1990, she was able to teach full time at Mount Airy Elementary.

Mount Airy Elementary experienced a decrease in enrollment this school year when 180 students were redistricted to the newly expanded Winfield Elementary, so both teachers received part-time teaching assignments at nearby schools. But the majority of their teaching time is spent at Mount Airy Elementary.

The teachers enjoy surprising their students with fitness activities relating to the seasons or current events. Last week, with the help of art teacher Pat Aaron, they set up seven stations corresponding to Olympic events taking place in Norway.

Students jumped, tumbled and performed feats such as the "luge" (riding a scooter down a ramp) and the "ski jump" (doing somersaults down an incline mat and then making gold, silver or bronze broad jumps.)

"They loved it," Mrs. Townsend said. "They had a ball."

More fun was featured for students at a physical fitness after-school fund-raiser yesterday to benefit the American Heart Association. About 210 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classmates participated in Mount Airy Elementary's "Jump Rope for Heart" event.

The participants, grouped in teams of six, collected pledges from friends and relatives. At the event, the children jumped, two at a time, for a group total of 180 minutes. Shiny apples, snappy tunes, snazzy jump ropes and cookie snacks for each participant added more fun to the event.

The fund-raiser ties in with an aerobics curriculum that uses rope jumping as the daily warm-up. As an introduction, students see a kid-pleasing video about a variety of jumping skills and then try to reach "Hop 'til You Drop" time goals set for each grade level -- without missing or stopping.

Student enthusiasm for the fund-raiser, in its seventh year at Mount Airy Elementary, is reflected by the amount the school has raised for the American Heart Association -- more than $55,000. Two years ago, 230 participants raised $14,000 -- its biggest total of pledges for a single event.

The tally for yesterday's event won't be available until all pledges have been turned in by students, which usually takes three weeks, Ms. Coons said.

From dance steps to learn in preparation for the school's annual Family Sock Hop to new routines for the Fourth Grade Gym Show, Mrs. Townsend and Ms. Coons are always looking for new fitness activities.

The school also has a running program performed outside of physical education classes, during directed play time, where classroom teachers keep track of each student's mileage and students earn T-shirts for reaching goals.

"Last year the students ran 24,000 miles," Ms. Coons said.

"There are many good physical education programs in the county. We get good support from our administration, supervisor and superintendents," she said. "The teachers share and borrow ideas from each other, which makes all the programs stronger."

"We are so fortunate here because we do have such wonderful kids," Mrs. Townsend said. "They're easy to motivate and get excited over small things, which makes our job easier."

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