Students climb to new heights in West High School’s adventures gym class

The Challenges and Adventures class at West High School is not your typical gym class.

Students use the high ropes elements at West and play other challenging games and also take part in activities getting to know and trust each other.

Junior Riley Weil said it came as a surprise during a discussion at the parent-teacher conference that she did not previously know the other students that she has connected with in class.

“It happened so fast and it works so well,” she said.

Aaron O’Neill, the West physical education teacher who runs the class, said students need to build a relationship and be comfortable with one another as they do high ropes and learn to belay — secure a rope around a cleat.

They spend the first month of the semester on team building, activities aimed at getting to know each other and name games.

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“The more comfortable (they are) the more risk they are willing to take and the more they get out of it,” he said. “My strengths are getting to know all of the students a little bit and building a good foundation for the class.”

O’Neill said the class typically climbs the high ropes at the school Tuesday and Thursday, and on the other three days of the week will play some kind of game, like volleyball, using a much larger ball, or some other activity that has been modified.

While East, La Follette and Memorial high schools offer a similar class, there are some differences in part due to the high ropes equipment at the schools. The locations of the schools also has an impact on what field trips can be offered. West is by a bus line, making it easier to take a trip Downtown to the Boulders Climbing Gym, and students also can walk to Lake Wingra and paddle to Olin Park.

In the past, the West classes have gone to the Madison School Forest to do the ropes course there as part of camping trips. Students also went to the ropes course at Kennedy Elementary School and went caving at Eagle Cave in Richland County. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficulty and cost of obtaining buses have impacted the current feasibility of such trips.

The class went to Boulders on Dec. 14.

“It’s definitely harder and it’s a different kind of climbing than we do in class, so it is a fun, new experience,” junior Elly Wallace said.

Senior Dani Hueth said he has been to Boulder, has a friend who works there, and was “super excited” that the class would be going there on a field trip. He also said he really enjoyed when the class went canoeing.

Senior Shriya Khullar said she likes the climate created in class by students working together and the culture at Boulders.

“I don’t feel like I will be judged,” she said.

Junior Eleanor Byrnes said the Challenges and Adventures class is a change from other gym classes, where she has felt judged. The class is referred to as the “friendship class” because of the lack of judgment and minimum competition, she said. She credits the team-building activities and the way O’Neill promotes teamwork.

Weil said the class itself feels like a field trip because of the activities the students get to do.

O’Neill has been teaching the class since he came to West eight years ago. He is currently teaching three sections each semester, and there’s usually a waiting list. It’s an elective phy ed class generally for juniors and seniors, who are mixed in each section. The class was previously taught by Laura Colbert after a Physical Education Programs grant paid for the high ropes equipment, O’Neill said.

The classes are a mix of students who go out for sports and others who aren’t into playing team sports, O’Neill said. Most foreign exchange students are enrolled in the class because of what it offers. Counselors also might recommend the class to students who are struggling, with hopes they will have success in the class, he said.

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to climb,” senior Ren Talerico said about why she signed up for the class.

Junior Mason Merline is one of those students who isn’t into team sports but likes the activities in the Challenges and Adventures class.

“What kid doesn’t like to climb and swing? Most kids just enjoy the stuff we do,” O’Neill said. “All of the stuff we do in class I enjoy doing on my own and with my family.”

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