Elementary school teacher Kelby Krefting knows his messages about health and fitness have gotten through when he hears parents say they learned something about muscles from their children who are in his class.

Krefting, who teaches physical education to kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Ben Franklin Elementary School, uses a 6-foot laminated likeness of a bear, taped to the gym wall, to teach students about muscles in the human body.

“I think their parents are pretty impressed with that, when their first-grader can come home and say ‘the quadriceps got a workout today’ – and they’re like, 'wow, OK.'”

And a lot of his students can do that, he said, especially the older ones he’s taught since kindergarten.

Teaching the muscles’ specific names “is a nice way to get across some health and wellness knowledge,” he said. The anatomical visual aid “makes it easier for students to get a concept of the whole picture of the health and wellness stuff.”

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Every week, he adds a muscle to the “Muscle Bear,” explaining how to stretch and exercise it. “We tie that in with the components of health and fitness (so) it helps them understand it when they know their body a little bit better,” said Krefting, a Minot native who’s in his 17th year teaching at Ben Franklin.

In the age of COVID, the bear also is an important tool to promote safety, especially to his youngest students, who may be hesitant about masks, Krefting said.

“When the little ones can see that the Muscle Bear is wearing it, they have a better relationship with the mask,” Krefting said. “They say, 'OK, I’ll wear it. The Muscle Bear is wearing it.'”

The message Krefting tries to convey is “if the Muscle Bear can be safe, the kids can be safe,” he said. “They’re good about it; they’ve accepted it. It’s not a battle. We just make sure they take extra breaks.

“We want to leave them happy and smiling, rather than exhausted and not having a good experience with it.”

Students and staff are required to wear masks most of the time in Grand Forks public schools, in compliance with public health recommendations, to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

COVID and phys-ed

Since the onset of the pandemic, Krefting has tweaked his approach to teaching.

He has to be “more mindful” about keeping groups of kids together “and not mixing everybody up, so (public health staff) can do contact tracing if they need to,” he said.

Kids are kept spaced widely apart on the gym floor, and he makes sure that equipment is frequently sanitized, he said. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Not too much has changed though.

“Basically, I’ve been able to do a lot of what I’ve done in the past – not everything, but a lot of what I’ve done in the past – because I have enough equipment and the class sizes to be able to do that,” he said.

Krefting’s class size is 18, but can be smaller if kids are absent due to being identified as a close contact or testing positive for COVID-19. As a teacher, he isn’t informed of the reasons for absences, he said. “We kind of treat everybody the same.”

He’s generally upbeat about how Grand Forks schools are handling the COVID challenge.

“I think the kids are making it work though. The school district is making it work – it’s not really working at other places, and so far it’s working for us,” Krefting said. “No one really knew what to expect, and we’re still here.”

Among the largest school districts in the state, Grand Forks is the only one that has maintained the option of face-to-face learning, Superintendent Terry Brenner has said.

Teaching tool

Krefting credits Carmen Bachmeier, a teacher at Burlington, N.D., for the Muscle Bear teaching-aid idea. She was his mentor when he was a student teacher there for two years.

Bachmeier, an award-winning teacher who retired after a 48-year career, used a similar bear figure to teach kids about specific muscles as well as wellness and flexibility, she said.

“(Physical activity and) muscle strength are not just for athletes,” Bachmeier said, but are important “to protect you from injury.”

Krefting’s twin brother, Kirby, who also was a student teacher with Bachmeier, is a physical education teacher at Schroeder Middle School. The brothers serve as athletic coaches in the school system.

In his classes, Kelby Krefting focuses on three goals: “Be highly active, have fun and be safe – those are three things I reiterate often,” he said. “If we can do all three of those things each day, then we’ve had a successful gym day.”

He hopes that, through physical education, students “learn how to keep their bodies safe, with the knowledge of health and wellness, and to be active,” he said. “They can carry that with them through a lifetime. That’s the intent, the knowledge.”

And he’s pleased to hear about students exhibiting that knowledge outside of school.

“Anytime we can get kids to talk about physical education and our programs at home – as long as it’s positive – we love it,” he said.

“I do encourage them to show off a little bit to their doctors and to their parents and their grandpa and grandma.”