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Kelly Smith, Published April 13 2009

Students learn reading, fitness habits for life

Fargo middle school students longing for the beloved days of recess don’t have a reason to long anymore.

A new program started this year at Fargo middle schools strives to combat the TV-watching, video-game-playing youth – getting kids behind a book or out the door instead.

“Everybody needs recess,” said Ryan Gravalin, who teaches eighth-grade social studies. “It gives them the chance to get reloaded.”

As some Ben Franklin Middle School students walked around the block, Gravalin’s class chose their own activities – everything from hula-hooping to soccer.

It’s part of the district-wide “Exercise the Right to Read” program – encouraging the more than 2,500 middle school students to each read and exercise for 26 minutes a day.

It leads up to the Fargo Marathon – a 26.2-mile run, hence the program’s requirements. The students won’t run that long, but some will celebrate the end of the program by running the 5k race instead.

They’ll run with California author Wendelin Van Draanen, who writes books geared toward middle school students. Already, she’s impressed with Fargo’s program.

“There has never been a district that has coordinated this to this degree,” she said. “They’re basically instilling in kids a habit. And you hope it sticks with them.”

Van Draanen, also a runner, started the “Exercise the Right to Read” program nationally to raise money for school libraries that couldn’t afford books. She’s flying in to talk to Fargo students May 6-8, hoping to “inspire kids to read and exercise and think outside themselves a little,” she said.

“Whenever we have an author come in, we see a distinct interest in reading,” added Carl Ben Eielson Middle School librarian Judy Seibel, one of the program organizers.

She and other organizers modified Van Draanen’s program, focusing solely on getting these middle school students in the habit of stretching both their legs and their minds.

“Middle school students tend to make or break habits,” said Lois Mauch, the district PE specialist and fellow organizer.

Seibel added about reading: “It really needs to increase as you get older,” she said. “If you are a struggling reader in sixth, seventh grade, you’re going to be left behind in high school.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515