Shelf Life: Lynn Hefele, Literature to Exercise Body and Mind

Before retiring from over 30 years as physical education teacher, Lynn Hefele taught in every building in the Huntington Union Free School District.

She coached both volleyball and track and field, and was recognized for her excellence by being named the SHAPE America Eastern District 2017 Elementary Teacher of the Year and NYS AHPERD 2015 Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year.

For Hefele, working with students goes beyond the gymnasium. Her years of experience led her to create a company that publishes teacher resources and children’s books.

Hefele attended Springfield College in Massachusetts, where the physical education program embraced the integration of mind, spirit, and body. Hefele applied this philosophy early in her career, as she began teaching physical education at Woodhull Early Childhood Center. Though it was challenging to interact with 200 5-year-olds over the course of a school day, Hefele found their imagination invigorating and inspiring. She took their childhood passions and combined them with her lessons to focus her classes and get students involved. “When fitness exercises became Power Ranger training, and dinosaurs played tag, non-movers and movers alike began to sweat,” Hefele said.

She applied the same mindset when she began teaching at Flower Hill and Southdown primary schools. Her work there coincided with the debut of Harry Potter, Hefele said. “Quidditch became all the rage.” Using balloons and foam balls as the fictional game’s “snitch,” Hefele’s students found themselves thoroughly enjoying their gym throwing unit.

While similar lessons were a tremendous success, Hefele wanted to expand literature beyond Harry Potter. “That’s when it dawned on me that if I were to create my own stories, then not only would the children be able to pretend, but I could also embed verbal cues into the storyline, and include visual cues in the illustrations.” Hefele made her idea a reality, and in 2009 Literature Enhanced Physical Education (LEPE) was born.

Hefele launched LEPE with a book called Clean Up Your Backyard, based on a popular PE activity of the same name. “The book includes a whimsical story about two neighboring families attempting to clean up their yard by tossing their garbage over the neighbor’s fence,” Hefele said. “The book includes verbal cues to help children remember to step in opposition, and illustrations depict the phases of overhand throwing.” In addition, the book also includes lesson plans, creative equipment ideas, and assessment rubrics for teachers.

Since its foundation, LEPE has published eight teacher resources and seven children’s books, including: Cereal Soccer, Hamburger Hockey, and, P.E. Under the Sea.

While Hefele’s stories were successful with students in the gymnasium, they also stirred up controversy with some adults. “I have been both applauded and chastised for bringing literature into the gymnasium,” Hefele said. “My response to both is the same: LEPE is not about teaching literature in the gym, but about using literature to motivate and educate children to move.”

Hefele acknowledges that finding time for children to receive quality physical education, even without literature, can be a challenge. “For some, taking the time to read is either unrealistic or undesirable,” Hefele said. As a possible solution, she suggests teachers integrate the stories into classroom reading before gym, perhaps even promoting extra credit writing assignments or drawing contests based on the readings. The books are strong candidate to include in an interdisciplinary curriculum; after writing Clean Up Your Backyard, Hefele discovered that her book met New York State ELA standards one and two.

Hefele said her proudest writing moments come from student reactions, especially those who were not necessarily drawn to sports in the first place. “[A former student] stopped me in the hall of Jack Abrams while he was at fencing practice,” Hefele said. “He told me, ‘My favorite part of PE at Jefferson was when you read those stories to us.’ He was not the type of child that one would consider an athlete, and I was elated to hear I had made an impact on him.”

In the end, that’s what matters to Hefele. “My feeling is that physical education will always be the favorite class to the athletic or coordinated child. My stories resonate to the children that aren’t typically motivated to move. They are my target audience.”

Despite LEPE and its success, Hefele has difficulty seeing herself in the “writer” role. “I think the term ‘writer’ is a scary term for me,” she said. “I am a physical education teacher who writes fictional stories to introduce physical education units.” Still, she encourages those who have a something to say or share to go out and do it.  “It may not make you rich and famous, but it will give you a sense of accomplishment and pride.”

If you would like to take the LEPE into Literature Enhanced Physical Education, check out LEPE’s website, Facebook, or Hefele’s Twitter. Hefele also runs her own YouTube channel, and posts student exercise demonstrations on the SouthdownPE channel.

HuntingtonNow.com supports literacy efforts. If you have book-related information you’d like to share, email Molly Prep.

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