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At the top of her class
Vorwald gets state physical education teaching award
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Platteville High School physical education teacher Maureen Vorwald (right) makes a point about the best way to score points in badminton during a class.

The Platteville High School physical education classes Maureen Vorwald teaches are not the classes the students’ parents probably remember.

A recent class featured a series of six-minute-long badminton games, with pauses only to record who won as individuals and doubles teams played each other. There was no time for anyone to sit down, particularly Vorwald, who jogged from the white board where standings were kept to observe and pass on points of the game.

“That’s the goal — to have them independently do an activity,” said Vorwald, to keep students “moderately physically active … so they can learn to exercise at a healthy intensity regardless what the activity might be. If they can figure out how to move their body in a healthy way, it could carry over into other activities.”

Vorwald is one of the few nationally certified physical education teachers in the state, and one of five nationally certified teachers in the Platteville School District. She teaches freshman and sophomore physical education at PHS and is the school district’s wellness coordinator.

As of last month, Vorwald could add another line on her résumé. She received the Wisconsin Health and Physical Education Teaching Honor Award as the state’s top high school physical education teacher.

That is not the first teaching honor Vorwald has earned. She was selected for a Kohl Teacher Fellowship Award in 2012. Vorwald was involved in revising state school physical education standards, and she was one of 13 teachers nationwide to work on the National Board for Professional Standards for Physical Education.

Vorwald graduated from West Grant High School, where she played for the school’s only two state basketball tournament teams, in 1982 and 1984.

“It’s just changed so much,” she said. “When you explain all the different things people do now … all the lifetime things they can fit in, people are amazed because when we were students, physical education was only for athletes. Now, it’s for everyone. We don’t grade on skill; we grade on participation.”

Vorwald then went to UW–La Crosse to play basketball. After she graduated, she was a substitute teacher for Milwaukee Catholic schools and worked at a health club before she started working in Platteville in 1993.

“When I went to college, the fitness movement was just starting, but it wasn’t until I went to conferences and got on the computer and learned how to do this better,” she said.

Vorwald’s classes include bicycling, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, inline skating, archery, badminton, pickleball, Frisbee golf, and the more traditional activities of basketball and volleyball.

“Everything is around fitness,” she said. “If you’re playing badminton, how would it fit? I think that makes it more relevant for kids. It’s about being healthy and fit for life.

“I enjoyed basketball when I was younger, but now I don’t have that ability. It’s important I learned how to play golf or pickleball or another sport.”

It’s also about eliminating the ability to hide during a class activity. “Instead of one game of soccer, we’ll play two or three games,” she said. “We don’t have students try to hide because we make it fun.”

It’s also about dealing with students’ limited “attention span — we don’t stick at anything for very long,” she said. “They like things to be quick. They need to be engaged. It needs to be social, it needs to be fun, it needs to be engaging.”

It’s even about finding out what worked and what didn’t during class. Vorwald asks about the extent to which students enjoyed a particular class’ activity. She also uses pedometers to measure how much physical activity the students got.

“If they go through and they didn’t get up to 20 minutes, I didn’t do a very good lesson plan,” she said.

All but two of Vorwald’s students in her afternoon sophomore phy ed class are on Hillmen teams. “For the size of our school, we have pretty large participation rates,” she said.

But the classes aren’t geared to athletes. “We have an awesome program that is fitness-based,” she said. “Not every team are you going to get that. Just because you’re a varsity athlete doesn’t mean you’ll make good decisions about your health.”

Though Vorwald’s days as a college athlete ended in the late 1980s, in one sense she still sounds like one.

“Every day I try to get better,” she said. “No matter whether I get recognized … teaching is an art, and you never perfect an art. I need to keep improving and find ways to motivate kids.”

To keep improving, she picks the brains of other teachers throughout the state and the nation “when I’m looking for new ideas — as a teacher you have to be in a professional learning community, and I know there are people who are doing it better than I am.”

Vorwald also works with student–teachers, and even other physical education teachers. She is planning on a clinic for Southwest Wisconsin physical education teachers this spring.

Vorwald formerly coached high school volleyball, basketball and softball. She was an assistant coach for Platteville’s state volleyball championship team in 1994. She now coaches teams of her sons.

“I still enjoy coaching, but I don’t want to miss out on what they’re doing,” she said.

In addition to her classroom success, Vorwald has been successful raising money for physical education. She got grants of $150,000 in 2003 and $24,000 in 2010 for physical education equipment. She estimates she’s gotten more than $200,000 for school district phy ed programs.

Vorwald is pleased that Platteville emphasizes physical education more than other school districts.

“Our elementary school is probably only of about seven in the state that has every-day physical education,” she said. “That’s why we can’t cut physical education for schools — where else do you learn how to take care of your bodies? And we only have one.”