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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
March 27, 2006
DeKalb — Sandy Noel, who teaches physical education at Hatch Elementary School in Oak Park, is working on her Ed.D. degree in curriculum and instruction at Northern Illinois University.
And on Thursday, March 16, the educator of more than 30 years became one of 10 Chicago-area teachers to receive a prestigious Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching in pre-kindergarten through third grade.
But neither of those things can or will coax Noel out of the gym.
“I want to stay with the children. I would never leave the classroom,” says Noel, a doctoral student in the NIU College of Education's Department of Teaching and Learning.
“I'm at NIU because I want to help write curriculum so that other people can use what I do. I've piloted programs here in nutrition and connected that to social studies. In addition to learning about the continents in the classroom, we travel to them in the gym. We take a trip to Italy and eat bruschetta,” she adds. “We don't take a paper-and-pencil test on why this is good for us. We learn about good nutrition by eating.”
A total of 850 teachers from Cook, Lake and DuPage counties were nominated for the award, first presented in 1986. In addition to $3,000, each will receive a tuition-free fall-term sabbatical at Northwestern University, a personal computer from Apple and membership in the Golden Apple Academy.
For Noel, however, the true reward is the recognition given to P.E.
“I am so thrilled for physical education because this really validates what the special area teachers do,” she says. “I am so much into the mind-body connection and getting into a zone through experiential learning, and I hope that this puts physical education in the forefront so that everyone understands that children, to perform better, need enough sleep, need to stay hydrated, need to eat right and need to exercise during the day.”
Noel traces her career path to her own school days, long before Title IX.
As a small girl in Catholic school with a uniform, there were no P.E. classes. The only exercise she and her classmates had came on the playground during recess and after school. Summer camp at Our Lady of Sunset Point in Eagle River, Wis., changed her life.
“Sister Joseph Mary, a petite nun in a habit, was teaching me how to flip and how to swim and pulling all these things out of me that I didn't know I could do. It was really an inspiration to me: I could try, and accomplish, things,” she says. “I went from being somewhat of a shy young woman to becoming a confident person through the sports.”
She played basketball and volleyball in high school, but found no teams for women at Marquette University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English and psychology.
After graduation, she pondered what “would make my life joyous to do all the time.” The answer: to teach P.E.
“I went to DePaul for my teaching certification in physical education, and for the first time in my life, at age 21, I got on a balance beam and played field hockey and soccer. A whole new world was opened up to me,” she says.
The new world offered a good fit.
“I teach kindergarten through fifth-grade,” she says, “and when you look at those bright-eyed children who come in and are so excited and are waiting to learn what we are going to do today, it makes you want to get up and go every day. We have fun with learning.”
The federal No Child Left Behind legislation dismays her, however.
“What we seem to be focusing on in No Child Left Behind is that testing is so important, but we're leaving the children's health behind. There's so much research that shows that healthy, active children learn more. Exercise grows brain cells,” she says.
“What I think makes me different is the fact that I don't just teach skills. There are many concepts that I'm teaching. When we play tag games, all my tag games are learning games. If you get tagged, you have to stop and play ‘patty cake' with your partner. ‘7, 12, 5, 5, 4, 33 vertebrae and no more.' We're learning about bones,” she adds. “I teach many concepts about the body, and I incorporate the arts program so the children learn music, movement and drama, and they're getting fit while they're learning.”
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