Kewaunee, L-C, Door Co. students to learn resiliency through martial art classes
KEWAUNEE – Physical education teachers and law enforcement officers from Kewaunee and Door counties were on the receiving end of special lessons last week. Now, they'll pass those lessons and more on to middle school students in the area this year.
They went through training for the COREMatters Project, which has school staffers and officers team up to teach middle schoolers physical balance, flexibility and strength through martial arts and use that as a gateway to mental and emotional balance, flexibility and strength. It's meant to help the children develop respect, empathy and self-esteem, stand up to bullying and avoid becoming victims of it.
Susan Barnes, COREMatters co-founder and project coordinator, said it boils down to teaching children how to develop resilience.
"We like to call ourselves a resiliency initiative," Barnes said. "Research shows if a child feels valued, the child will value others. It's a way to replace bullying with resiliency."
In the schools, COREMatters classes are held once a week over 13 consecutive weeks during regularly scheduled physical education classes. Students will take part at Kewaunee and Luxemburg-Casco middle schools in Kewaunee County and Southern Door, Sevastopol and Gibraltar schools in Door County. COREMatters is based in the Chicago suburb of Crestwood, Illinois, and has had its classes taught in a number of districts in Illinois and Iowa, but this is the first time it'll take place in Wisconsin.
It takes place in physical education classes because students will learn the basics of taekwondo, a Korean martial art that not only develops tone, balance and agility but also has a code of conduct that emphasizes respect for others, controlling one's actions and reactions and staying strong when faced with adversity.
"It's teaching how to use your inner core strength, outer core strength, how to use these traits to become respectful, combat bullying, say no to peer pressure and stand up for yourself," said Amber Binney, the physical education instructor for kindergarten through eighth grade in the Kewaunee school system. Binney will lead a class for Kewaunee fifth graders starting in October.
Barnes said the physical attributes the students develop are used to relate to them how to develop the same attributes for their mental and emotional cores. She said analogies built around that have been more effective than simply working directly on children's inner strengths.
"We chose the old tenets of martial arts (for COREMatters). It's all about the code of conduct," Barnes said. "We talk about the oak tree, how it has strength, flexibility, balance, so we can talk to the kids about having that solid foundation. And now that we've done the outside, can we take that and strengthen our inner core? Now it makes sense to them. If we can have them feel it with their muscles and then use it in a metaphor, they understand it.
"It's the hook that sets kids into it. They're coming in thinking they're going to learn to fight, but they're not. They're coming in to learn to resolve conflict."
"When you block in taekwondo, you think how you can block verbally or emotionally," Binney said.
Teaching takes place in teams, with the school physical education instructor joined by its resource officer or other member of local law enforcement. Barnes said there's more to it than having two sets of eyes on the class.
"One primary goal is, we want to be part of the solution of mending police-community relations if (the children) can see police officers in a positive light," she said. "And it adds something new to the class. The teacher has already set the tone for the classroom, so it's kinda nice to have someone new for that mystique."
"I'm really excited to have our Resource Officer (Scott) Szydel come in," Binney said about the Kewaunee officer who'll help in the class. "It's a great community involvement tool. Sometimes officers get a bad rap, so I think it's great to have them come into the school and show the kids they're our friends."
Classes are aimed at grades four through six because the students are old enough to understand the lessons but not too set in their ways.
"They're targeting (middle schoolers) because they feel that is the age where they're most receptive," said Kewaunee County Sheriff Matt Joski, who took part in training last week. "You want to find an age when they're mature enough and receptive enough."
Barnes said COREMatters comes to the area mainly through the efforts of Joski, who's known Barnes for many years. Joski applied for and received a federal grant to fund the local programming, then reached out to the schools.
COREMatters staff came to Kewaunee Elementary School last week to lead 40 hours of training to learn how to teach the program. Involved were members of the Kewaunee and Door County sheriff's departments and Kewaunee Police Department and staff from the five participating school districts.
Binney said they learned taekwondo fundamentals, then how to teach their students to be respectful.
"That was the main thing, what is respect," Binney said. "Teaching kids to reflect, think about, well, so-and-so did this to me, how do I want to be treated in this situation?"
COREMatters was founded by Barnes and Christy Pace, who knew each other from their work in the Chicago area. Barnes worked for 22 years with charitable organizations on law enforcement child safety programs and Pace was a police officer.
"We talked all the time about what would work with kids," Barnes said. "She had a great perspective, being out there with the kids in the classrooms."
Their first effort was publishing 181 books on preventing bullying. Then they got a call from the Cook County School District, which had one of their anti-bullying books and was interested in doing more.
"We went in there knowing there was no quick fix. There's many layers to (bullying)," Barnes said. "You're not going to do a school assembly; it's not something you're going to fix in 40 minutes in the gym."
Barnes and Pace then partnered in 2011 with Governors State University in Illinois for research and to develop a curriculum for COREMatters, which Barnes said evolved in that time from a bullying program to one building resiliency. They launched a three-year pilot program that produced not just positive results but consistent results across different demographics.
"We piloted it in very wealthy areas, (another) one with a 20-percent homeless rate. The results were the same," Barnes said. "That shows kids are kids and pain is pain."
As for its results, Barnes said the data from one school showed a 30-percent decrease in referrals of children to the school office as well as significant decreases in teasing and bullying and increases in self-esteem and respect. She said students taking part locally will be tested before and after the classes to measure the program's effectiveness.
Binney is one of the teachers looking forward to teaching the program to her fifth graders this fall.
"I think this is a great tool," she said. "It's a great umbrella, it covers a lot of areas."
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee, L-C, Door Co. students to learn resiliency through martial art classes