Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning

Naperville Central High School’s Paul Zeintarski on “Transforming Students Using Physical Education and Neuroscience”

April 7, 2021

Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast, episode #121 with the former PE teacher from Naperville, IL, Paul Zientarski.

Watch the interview on YouTube here.

Hello and Welcome back! I’m Andrea Samadi, a former educator who has been fascinated with learning the science behind high performance strategies in schools, sports and the workplace, for the past 20 years. If you have been listening to our podcast for some time, you will know that we’ve uncovered that if we want to improve our social and emotional skills, and experience success in our work and personal lives, it all begins with putting our brain health first. We’ve mentioned that exercise is one of the top 5 health staples that’s a known brain-health and Alzheimer’s prevention strategy, from our episode #87[i]  helping us to take our results, productivity and health to these higher levels.  Ever since I came across John J Ratey’s book Spark[ii], I have been drawn in, wanting to learn more, so that I can share his research you, with the hope that something he has uncovered, inspires you, like it inspired me, and that together, we make improvements, even small ones, in our lives, that lean us closer towards the health and wellness that we need these days.

Today, I am so excited to introduce you to Paul Zientarski, the physical education coordinator from Naperville’s Central High School as well as the football coach who worked closely with Phil Lawler to attain the profound results that put Naperville on the map for outstanding academic achievement with their Zero Hour PE Program. John Ratey described Paul Zientarksi in Spark as “a grey-haired furnace of a man with steady eyes and a fact-is fact delivery with the presence of Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells rolled into one figure of authority.”(Spark, Page 18).  This paints the picture of one tough coach, with high expectations and no room for messing around. I have worked with a couple of PE teachers who had this same reputation in the toughest schools in the West end of Toronto, and found that there was always a softer side to this tough exterior, that I felt when I watched Mr. Zientarski’s TED TALK.[iii] You can see for yourself or go to his website where you can learn more about his Learning Readiness PE Program[iv] that reveals the passion he has for his students to learn, and be healthy at the same time.

What excites me the most as I am preparing my interview questions for coach, they called Mr. Z, is that not only did he have the vision for what he expected of his team, school and players, but that he had the vision of the “Smart Jock” back then, before everyone was talking about the importance of neuroscience in the classroom. Dr. Ratey recalled saying that when he first met Mr. Z, he was shocked that he heard these coaches saying things he never expected coaches to be saying. He quoted Mr. Z saying, “In our department, we create the brain cells, and it’s up to the other teachers to fill them” (Spark, Page 19) with regards to their academics.

I’ve thought long and hard about the questions I want to ask Paul Zientarski, whose presence has been described as that of “a seasoned U-boat commander” (Spark, Page 22) with the hopes that something he says, lights a Spark for the listener, to do something, take some action, using the immense wisdom that transformed Naperville’s well-oiled PE Program.

Let’s hear from Mr. Z!

Welcome Paul Zientarski! What an honor to have this opportunity to speak with you. Thank you very much for joining me on the podcast today. What part of the country have we reached you today?

Q1: Paul, can you take us back to when Phil Lawler[v] (who I was sorry to see lost his battle with Cancer in April, 2010) first came to you with this idea for this new PE program. Dr. Ratey said that it took the longest time to convince you. What do you remember about this new PE idea and what made you want to give it a shot?

Q2: As the movement grew, and the media attention caught a hold of what you were building at Naperville, from Newsweek, to your appearance in Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me Documentary[vi],  how did you start to make the connection between what you were doing, the results you were creating, and the brain, to begin your work studying neuroscience back then?

Q3: Who were you studying? What were other teachers saying as you began to share what you were learning? Did you receive any pushback from anywhere?

Q4: When schools began cutting PE, how did you make sure your vision that I see you’ve created with your Learning Readiness PE[vii] kept going?

Q5: What drew me in when I first heard about you, was your vision for the “Smart Jock” years before it was “in.” I hear all the researchers talking about how it’s the kids who look after their brain, who might have not be the coolest kid in school because they are kind of nerdy, not the typical jock we might have remembered back in school, but nerdy is in, and smart, from what I see, are those kids who work hard, with an understanding of their brain (health, nutrition etc). When did you first notice the need to recognize and reinforce this new stereotype?

Q6: What exactly did zero-hour PE entail and how did you motivate students to put in the hard work needed to attain the results?

Q7: I liked seeing a student mention that she took the skills you taught her in high school into college, and when she was stressed with her work in college, would run up the stairs to manage this stress. What do you think it was that took these students, and made them life-long exercisers?

Q8: Were there any concerns with pushing these students too hard and causing injury? (liability) and did any parents protest this rigorous PE program before the results were clear?

Q9: I love how Dr. Ratey compared you to Mike Ditka and Bill Parcels, 2 of the toughest head coaches in football history. With that being said, and knowing there’s always a soft side to the toughest coaches, how did you know how hard to push these kids? I know we can all go a bit more than our limits, but what was your strategy for this?

Q10: If someone is listening to this podcast, and wants to learn more about you and your program Learning Readiness PE, what’s the best way? https://learningreadinesspe.com/

Thank you so much for your time today Paul, for sharing the legacy you have built redefining PE class, reinforcing the “Smart Jock” with our next generation’s brain health in mind. It’s a true honor to have had this opportunity to speak with you.

Have a wonderful day!

RESOURCES:

Exercise Appears to Improve Brain Function Among Younger People Dec. 18, 2006 by Melissa Mitchell https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/206773

Dr. Chuck Hillman https://cos.northeastern.edu/people/charles-hillman/  

REFERENCES:

[i] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #87 with Andrea Samadi on “The Top 5 Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Strategies”   https://www.achieveit360.com/the-top-5-brain-health-and-alzheimers-prevention-strategies-with-andrea-samadi/ 

[ii] Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD (January 10, 2008) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07D7GQ887/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

[iii] Want Smarter, Healthier Kids? Try Physical Education! Paul Zientarski Published on YouTube May 26, 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V81cO8xyMaI

[iv] https://learningreadinesspe.com/

[v] Remembering PE Advocate Phil Lawler by Michael Popke for Athletic Business April 2010 https://www.athleticbusiness.com/people/remembering-p-e-advocate-phil-lawler.html

[vi] http://wjhmspe.weebly.com/super-size-me.html

[vii] https://learningreadinesspe.com/

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