Were they bald and sporting white robes with black cloth belts, one might think a band of pint-sized Shaolin monks had invaded Geraldine J. Mann Elementary School last week.
Moving up and down the gym floor making synchronized punches, kicks and blocks, they turned out to be fifth-graders taking karate.
That's brand new to the Niagara Falls City School District, which is using the martial art as part of its health and physical education curriculum.
It was incorporated districtwide last summer when Deputy Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco, with School Board approval, had physical education teachers trained in what is called the Educational Karate Program, or EKP.
"The kids love it," said Stan Wojton, physical education teacher -- or "Sensei," if you will -- for the pupils.
Wojton at first had reservations about the program. He feared youngsters might use karate on each other outside of class, but he said no such thing happened.
Pupils "take it seriously as a strictly self-defense discipline," not to be used under any other circumstance, their teacher said. "We've had no problems."
The students explain it best.
While Ali Mayes, 10, kicks and punches what looks like an extremely large foam popsicle on a stick, called a blocker, Daniel Talarico, 11, explained the karate philosophy.
"You kick and punch that way for self-defense. We use these blockers [the one in question held by Matthew Gilmer, 10, so Ali doesn't hurt him] because we don't want to hurt people when we practice," Daniel said.
"We're not doing this for violence," he said. "The teachers are teaching us to do this for self-defense, in case somebody ever tries to grab us or hurt us. It's a way to stop them, to break their hold and get away."
Pupils seem serious about not using the skills they are learning unless it's a last resort. They say it's all about discipline, protecting one's self and respecting yourself and others.
"We don't use it to beat each other up or fight with other people. That's not what it's for. It's just for self-defense," said Alexis Aughtman, 10.
While noble ideals drive the program, the kids say they love the punching and kicking and other moves. They are intrigued they are learning something "cool" like karate.
Asked what type of karate activities she likes best, Cassandra Banks, 10, said, "They are all cool. I like the grabbing and twisting because it's good to know how to get away from someone if you need to."
Cassandra was one member of a group of pupils who were going up and down the gym floor using a combination of karate moves in unison. "We were doing a kata," she said. "It's a mixture of all different kinds of karate moves, like different punches and kicks and right and left upper blocks and downward blocks."
She said the kata helps a student use different moves in combinations so they become second nature. "It's fun," Cassandra said, "because you get to yell when you punch. It helps you do it with more force."
Zachary Chambers and Alik Matthews, both 10, were practicing different grabs and twists on each other, the main techniques of escaping someone who is trying to grab you.
"We're practicing the cross grip, the straight grip and the two-handed grip," Zachary said. "You can use them if somebody grabs you and tries to take you away. You can grip their arm or wrist and twist so it hurts [an attacker] long enough to make them let you go so you can get away. You learn those techniques to break free and run."
"I like it because I know how to protect myself," Alik said.
Betsy Sojka, a physical-education teacher, said the whole point of the program is to get away, run away, right away, to a safe place.
"It's not fighting," Sojka said. "We don't teach any aggressive counter moves, just self-defense and the discipline of karate. Compared to other programs we've taught before, like 'Stranger Danger' and that kind of idea, this actually teaches physical skills the kids can use to try to get away from someone."
She said the whole idea is to teach them the skills and philosophy and "hope they never have to use it."
>Movies play a role
On the fun side, Sojka said, "[The pupils] like it. They've seen all kinds of karate movies, and it's exciting to them."
She said they seem to especially like the "Kiai. That's the vocal part where they yell as they go into motion. It's designed to give them the confidence to punch harder."
Wojton said he and many teachers were skeptical when the program was first introduced and doubted it would work.
"But it's been great. . .," he said. "They understand this is all for a purpose."
Besides, he said, "Everyone's seen the 'Karate Kid' movies, so they're interested, and this gives them a chance to be exposed to an activity that a lot of them wouldn't normally have had an opportunity to have."
Wojton says he feels like "Mr. Miyagi" -- the "Karate Kid's" Sensei -- at times, but added he has never made his students clean or polish his car like Miyagi made Ralph Macchio, the movie's kid star, do.
"I probably should," he joked. "My car's covered with salt."