ith obesity fast becoming one of America's major health problems, John Taylor, the physical education teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary School is trying to do something about it at least locally. Last Friday, he single-handedly taught over 600 children in the first through fifth grades at his school the dance to Michael Jackson's song, "Thriller", and then pulled off the biggest surprise in the school's history.
As first-year Principal (and former Foothill High vice principal) Jon Vranesh walked onto the playground thinking he was to address a rally, the kids all dropped onto the tarmac. Then as Michael Jackson's "Thriller" boomed from the loudspeakers, they rose in waves of bodies and moved into a stirring flashmob performance that had been carefully choreographed and practiced in Taylor's PE classes for several weeks. More than 150 parents, many with video cameras in hand, applauded and recorded the 10 minute spectacle that was as good as they come.
That started the second annual Fun Day at Walnut Grove, where Taylor brings together his 90 minutes of PE time he has each week with Walnut Grove students into a daylong, costume event that has kids running laps for pledges and smiling all the way. Last year, the event raised $50,000 for the school, which hopes more will be the result of last week's event.
Fitness is an obsession for Taylor who believes that if we can encourage elementary school-age children to exercise and develop healthy eating habits, the dire predictions that 30-40% of Americans in the coming years will be dangerously obese might be avoided. He admits that he has an advantage at Walnut Grove where more than 80% of the kids are in soccer clubs, Little League, dance troupes and more. Still, as much as he hopes his healthy living messages get carried home, he finds many parents bringing cupcakes to school for birthday parties. Few children want to celebrate their birthday with a sliced apple, he laments.
Always physically fit himself, Taylor planned to pursue a career as a PE instructor when he graduated from San Ramon Valley High School in 1974. After spending a few years in sales, he returned to CalState Hayward (now CalState East Bay) for a teaching credential and PE certificate, joining the Walnut Grove faculty 15 years ago.
Kids weren't distracted by smart phones and Game Boys in those days with more of them heading outdoors for sandlot baseball. Even television sets were generally in the family room only. Now with cell phones, laptops and a laundry list of other technology options, he says many of his students spend more time "alone," punching iPhone keys even as they walk with friends. Except for organized sports, they're exercising less.
Besides teaching students about the need to keep their bodies physically fit, he also has a message he'll ask them to take home to the rest of their families when they leave school for summer vacation on June 8:
"Remember that you'll have to run 100 yards just to burn off the calories from eating just one M&M - not a package, just one." Now there's something for all of us to remember.