Narrowing the Achievement Gap and Promoting Healthy Lifestyles with The Walking Classroom

What if children from low incomes were ALL energized and able to really engage in school, AND discuss character and health at the same time?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

After a tough day at school, Fifth Grade Teacher Laura Fenn downloaded some podcasts and went for a walk. She returned feeling energized, in a better mood and informed. She thought, “my students could do this!”. Laura loaded MP3 players with podcasts she found and went walking with her students. They loved it and kids who struggled the most in school benefitted the most. She wanted to make it possible for children everywhere to have this experience in school. She developed kid friendly content, sourced an audio device, and created a 501 c 3 so that teachers could get the program for free. In many instances, students wake up, take the bus to school, stay inside for recess for academic remediation (not supposed to happen….but it does), get on the bus to go home, and then stay inside while they wait for mom/dad to come home from work. Sadly, it is not uncommon for students to go days on end with no outside time. The Walking Classroom is a way to bring some of the JOY back into students’ school days. Since 2011, we have distributed about 30,000 audio devices and now have about 1,000 teachers using The Walking Classroom program. Feedback is consistently great from teachers who have used the program: "The Walking Classroom has changed how I teach. I have always known that movement is good for the body, mind and soul. Why is it that we lose focus of that basic idea and let tests take over what we know is best practice?" Tina Criste, 5th grade teacher.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • North Carolina

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Chapel Hill, NC

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • North Carolina

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Poor, rural counties in North Carolina including Burke, McDowell, Rockingham, Halifax, Edgecombe, Nash and Duplin counties.

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

How do you get kids more interested in school, willing to exercise, and engaged in class discussions? Children raised in poverty are more likely to have higher rates of learning difficulties, increased absenteeism, and higher rates of depression and anxiety. In addition to a well-documented achievement gap there is also typically lower health status for low-income kids. It is vital that children learn to enjoy exercise, learn healthy lifestyle habits to help prevent obesity in adulthood, and learn to discuss important character values. Reading comprehension hinges on understanding of vocabulary and the cultural and historic references in written materials, many of which are lost on low-income kids. Kids who perform poorly on end of grade reading tests are likely to disengage from school. Once that happens, their future prospects are so adversely impacted…..a vicious cycle.

A more educated populace could expect longer life expectancy, reduced burden of illness and improved opportunities and quality of life.  Research indicates that students who are physically active have better grades, better school attendance, and better classroom behaviors. Schools and teachers play a vital role as influencers in the life of young children, and provide a venue to educate, and to start introducing healthy behaviors and discussions in early childhood.  Discussions around character values like determination, honesty, accountability and learning from failure are great life lessons and contribute mightily to civil discourse and self awareness.   The Walking Classroom podcasts are an innovative way to teach children while they move.   More than 100 Podcasts that cover topics that include a wide variety of history, biographies, science, and language arts--all of which align to curriculum--come preloaded on audio devices.  Importantly, each 15-minute podcast includes a brief health message AND there is a character value woven into the podcast with discussion questions included in the companion Teacher’s Guide. 

The Walking Classroom was created by Laura Fenn when she was a 5th grade teacher.  Time for PE and recess was being cut or eliminated, and the students who needed recess the most were often required to stay inside for academic remediation.   Fenn began recording some of her lessons so her students could get some desperately needed fresh air and exercise without sacrificing instructional time.  The walk, listen, and learn method was an instant hit with all of her students, and Fenn started The Walking Classroom Institute as a nonprofit organization in 2011.  The program has evolved over the past five years.  We have a fourth grade curriculum and a 5th grade curriculum.  The 4th and 5th grade curricula align to standards teachers must address and cover a wide variety of history, science, and language arts topics like the Boston Massacre, Hurricanes, Prepositions, Rosa Parks, and many more, including a Careers in Science series created with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.  More than 100 kid-friendly, educational podcasts come pre-loaded on audio devices, and each podcast is about 15-16 minutes long.  Podcasts begin with a brief health literacy message (the importance of sleep, limiting screen time, exercise and concentration, etc.) , transition into the main content area, and include a character value (patience, integrity, tolerance, self-respect, etc.).  Podcasts are supported by extensive lesson plans in the companion Teacher's Guide that include discussion questions about the content, the health message and the character value.  There is also a comprehension quiz for each podcast.   TWCI provides free online training for all adults who will be using the program with students.    

The following is a testimonial from Josh Montero, a 5th grade teacher in Stockton, California, about his experience with The Walking Classroom:

"Over 80% of our school's population are living in poverty, and over 70% are English learners.  Sadly, we lack the resources to make enough of a difference for these kids, all of whom are below grade level in most everything.  Being able to take them out with our WalkKits gets them engaged in a way even my best in-class instruction cannot.  It doesn't feel like school, and as their brains open up to new things, it has helped me engage them better when we are in class.  The topics and questions presented via the podcasts have gotten them to think differently, to be more analytical and introspective.  Not only are my kids moving and walking, but we have finally found a catalyst to help them begin to catch up and narrow the gap between their education and that of the kids in wealthier schools.  I am absolutely in love with The Walking Classroom, and so are my students.  Every Wednesday and Friday they ask me as soon as I see them if we are walking, which we always are.  It may only be a small start, but these are kids who need to be taught to be excited about school.  And who know, sometimes a small ember can become a raging inferno!"

Our program has grown exponentially over the years mainly due to word-of-mouth from teacher to teacher and their social media postings about the program.  Teachers LOVE our program, and they are eager to share the fun and beneficial things that their students are doing.  Today nearly 35,000 students nationwide improve their physical, mental, and academic health as they listen to educational podcasts as they walk several times a week throughout the school year.  And, due to popular demand, we have recently introduced a STEM curriculum that combines all the science related podcasts from the 4th grade and 5th grade curricula.  Demand is strong for these WalkKits, too.

The Walking Classroom provides a way for ALL kids to feel successful in the classroom.  Fourth grade and fifth grade is a time when children are transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn.  In any given public school classroom, there is a wide range of reading abilities.   By age 4, children from low income families have heard 32 million fewer words than their higher income peers, which impacts their ability to read and comprehend.  The Walking Classroom, with its long list of history and biography podcasts, provides many of the cultural and historical references that are important in understanding many vocabulary words and reading passages.   The Walking Classroom podcasts provide a way for ALL students to access information and, therefore, participate in class discussions. We consistently hear in survey responses that kids are interested in finding out more about the topic after listening to a Walking Classroom podcast.

In addition to the core content areas (history, science, language arts), each podcast begins with a health literacy message.  Each time students walk, their knowledge of health and healthy choices improves and they are able to make better, more informed, choices.  And, integrating a discussion about the character value seems natural and allows the students to reflect on what they heard and how they may have responded in similar situations.  This leads to rich, reflective and introspective in class discussions.

 Kids love the program because they think they’re “getting out of something,” and teachers love the program because it enables them to cover the required curriculum content, engage different learning styles, and get the students some desperately needed fresh air and exercise.  Teachers can conduct some engaging discussions about the content including the important character values woven in.  Students come back to the class refreshed and with oxygenated brains that are ready to learn even more! 

"I think even the trouble makers are learning more with The Walking Classroom and that is a miracle!", Ashley, 4th grader in North Carolina.

Finally, The Walking Classroom is not a one time intervention, but is designed to be used several times per week throughout the year.  The WalkKit audio devices are easily shared between teachers and classrooms maximizing the impact.  And, the devices have an estimated life of 3 to 5 years, with a low cost replacement (fully preloaded with all podcasts) available from the manufacturer.  There, once in place, this program could be impacting many many children over several years.  We have proposed that is it possible to reach and influence a generation of elementary school kids and, in fact, received private grant funding to put The Walking Classroom in all 4th and 5th grade classrooms throughout 7 poor rural counties in North Carolina.  The objective is to move the needle--health literacy wise and academically--for an entire generation of elementary school kids who will be using the program over the next several years.  Feedback from the over 100 teachers currently involved in this initiative is great with high enthusiasm to use the program going forward.

We rely on our partnership with teachers.  This is working for us, because once teachers see what a great and easy-to-use program this is, they want to use it:

"Students get excited when they hear we are going to do The Walking Classroom.  Some students even come to me at the beginning of the day asking if we will be doing The Walking Classroom.  Having students ask to learn….what an awesome experience for a teacher.  

The choice of stories was also very well thought out.  There are plenty of opportunities to match them to what we were studying or integrate with our current lesson plans.  The students and I also liked how the message was more than just the stories.  We not only learned the content but how to discuss that content and what made the story or passage worth listening to.

It has been a worthwhile experience on so many levels.  From my non-readers to my advanced learners…Using The Walking Classroom WalkKits with my classroom has been an awesome experience." Mrs. Watson, 5th grade teacher

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Education
  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

In schools, in after school programs and summer programs.

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

We feel strongly that the best sort of adopter is a teacher that is truly interested in using the program. Teachers can go to our website and fill out an application to receive a donated class set of Walking Classroom audio devices and a Teacher’s Guide. When we have funding available, we select the best candidates (typically in schools that are low-income and struggling academically) and invite them to take a one-hour online training course. Once they have completed the training, we ship their class set to them. We strongly encourage teachers to use the program 2 – 3 times per week. Once they and their students are in the routine of using the program, they all love it! It is used throughout the year and is great for after school, too.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

At the end of the 2015/2016 school year we received survey responses from over 400 teachers and over 4,000 students. Summary of the Teacher responses: 99% of teachers trusted the educational content of The Walking Classroom (TWC) 97% agreed that listening to TWC podcasts while walking strengthens student understanding of curriculum content 97% agreed TWC engages different learning styles 85% agreed their students had an increase in health awareness and healthy choices. “I want to say thank you for the opportunity to enrich my students with not only the lessons in the podcasts but the way you have changed out lives” Summary of Student responses: 89% agreed TWC helps them understand content 87% agreed TWC makes learning more fun 76% agreed they try to make healthier choices now. “My mind wanders in the classroom. When I walk and listen it makes me concentrate."

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $500k - $1m

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We fund operations and class set donations through a combination of private foundation grant funding and sales of products. Important to our ongoing sustainability is sales of our program to schools and OST programs that want materials right away. WalkKit audio devices carry a one year warranty and the manufacturer provides a low cost replacement for devices after the warranty period. WalkKits can be used year after year for maximum impact.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

We embrace the power of our partnership with classroom teachers and afterschool professionals. The Walking Classroom was originally designed as a classroom tool, but demand in afterschool programs is surging as they endeavor to make academics, health and character development a part of afterschool time and summertime programs. Engagement in school is such an important lifeline for kids in poverty. Also, it is vitally important that children have the opportunity to learn important life lessons and character values that will help them understand what real kindness and real success are.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

A growing recognition that kids need to get more exercise during the day, they need a safe place like school to do this, and that out of school time could be a more productive venue for kids to supplement their learning and character development is all very important for children, but especially kids in poverty. There broad recognition that grit and determination can make a huge difference in a child’s life experience. Many approaches need to be used to address the achievement gap, poor health status of low-income kids, and character development. The Walking Classroom podcasts and Teacher’s

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

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Attachments (2)

Program 5 Discussion Guide Matrix.pdf

Listing of Podcasts with Character Values and Health Messages for 5th grade Program


Join the conversation:

Photo of Nicole Forsyth

What a great idea! I love that this gets at different learning styles and helps connect kids to all the benefits of exercise and gives kids a chance to practice listening skills. I'd like to see more stats on measurable outcomes connected to wellbeing, rather than just the survey results. Clearly physical activity is a foundation to wellbeing, but what about using this to get at broader, more holistic wellbeing? Are kids feeling empowered to control their own fitness or learning? Have you tried this with social and emotional curriculum or fiction? I would love to see a controlled study comparing quality of discussion (measured by student engagement) via reading to themselves or having teacher read while students sit vs. listening via audio while walking. That would be really interesting! Thanks for your work in this area!

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