Move. Learn. Live. Day 2

I guess I forgot how fun it can be to do physical education lessons with adults. On Day 2 of the ECIS PE Conference hosted by the Vienna International School I tried a bunch of different things: I looked into some fresh ways of approaching functional mechanics and got to dance as if no one was watching. In the afternoon I tried my hand at parkour and finished off the day engaging my vestibular system by spending some time upside down.

I had conversations about philosophy and methods, about what we do at my school that I think works well, and questions I have about what we might consider doing differently. All day, all manner of stimulation and processing. I suppose it’s what we educators come to conferences for. But this getting active and doing stuff together, often quickly, just can’t be beat. I tightened my buttocks, rolled my spine, twirled to the right, and galloped to the left. I got to be Sleeping Beauty when my group created a 90 second drama dance. I learned how to squat properly, leading with the hips, not the knees and my push-up just received an overdue upgrade.

I learned some Scottish folk dances, felt like an expert when we got to practice handstands and cartwheels, and noticed how my bravery went on recess when trying some of the parkour obstacles. There more dudes at this conference than women but the degree of mutual respect and shared interests makes the imbalance a non-issue. At least two times today I heard mention of capitalism in a critical context. Imagine what may be on tomorrow’s agenda.

Truth be told: I can hardly wait!

Move.Learn.Live Day 1

It just so happens that there’s a PE conference going on this week. In my town. During my spring break. And I decided to attend. It’s been a few years since my last PE gathering so this opportunity was hard to ignore.

From the opening session to the end of this first day, I can feel that something has already shifted.

I’ve been teaching elementary PE for 20 years and I value the time I get to spend with my students and colleagues building my repertoire and broadening my vision in the field. But when I come together with my colleagues from other schools, I need a surprising amount of time to settle in and feel like I truly belong. There may be may reasons for this but I imagine it has something to do with having come to the discipline through different doors than most other PE professionals.

In the opening keynote, one colleague mentioned the sense of community that he enjoyed at these conferences. And I knew what he meant. When I arrive, I may feel somewhat awkward and a little shy but before the event is over, I’ve always managed to meet great people, learn a lot of new things and get my PE groove on all over again. This conference is already living up to that ideal after the first day.

And this sense of community is different than at other conferences I’ve been to. PE teachers at PE conferences need to do a lot of moving, and game playing, and demonstrating and testing out. We all try the games we want to share with our classes. We take instruction as we would hope our students would. We (re)discover our strengths and weaknesses as we explore various activities. When we do that with each other it creates very different bonds than if we just had a couple of minutes to turn and talk during an hour long lecture. This is how we build community over the course of a few days.

My selection of activities today included: Turbo Touch ( a rugby related invasion game), a team building set of challenges, basic ice skating and hockey, and a session on voice care. Every session involved movement, conversation, trying some new things.

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Ice Hockey was my stretch session today. I thought I knew how to skate. I’ve been working on speed skating for a few years now. But, oh my. Hockey skates are entirely different. And I had on a helmet that made it hard for me to see and a stick in strangely fitting gloves that I didn’t really know how to handle while trying to focusing on staying upright in my skating. (Add a slight whining tone to that last sentence to get the full effect.)

So I tried as many of the drills as I could. In our group of about 15 there were about 4-5 of us who were relative novices. All good until we played a short informal game of hockey (with a tennis ball). As a middle aged woman of limited confidence on the ice I proved largely able to keep myself out of harm’s way which was my primary strategy. I stayed back on defense and when the ball came in my immediate vicinity I moved in that direction but was usually so slow that the action passed me by without consequence. (Yes!) The game itself could not have lasted more than 7 or 8 minutes max. But as I stayed out there and fell at least once in pursuit of the ball, I reacquainted myself with the sting of incompetence shame. Yes, I felt embarrassed that I literally was of no use to my team but I also felt grateful for the experience.

This is what my students must feel in the face of a scary challenge. The bravery they and I need to muster to stay with the task even when we doubt our capacity to do anything correctly is huge. That is what I learned out there on the ice: It’s hard to be a beginner sometimes. When I was last in finishing a drill, the instructor Sam said, “Great effort!” And that mix of pride and mild embarrassment was so tangible.

So I’m glad that I tried the hockey session, even gladder that I came away injury-free but not without falling. I reminded myself what it means for me to be brave. What risk feels like. And what a good feeling it can be to know that you managed something you weren’t sure you could do. This is professional development that really counts because it’s so very personal.

That’s what this conference is for. It’s why I need to be here. And doing this together with a bunch of PE professionals is how we build community, one blunder, one mix-up at a time.

Resourced Learning

I’m almost finished with the springtime cycle of parent-teacher conferences. This is a part of my job which I really enjoy. Meeting parents provides that rare opportunity to communicate in person how marvelous and amazing my students, their children, are. It’s a chance to share my specific observations and to hear particular concerns or questions.

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One parent said at the end of our talk, “You really know my son, you really do.” A compliment of the highest order. This is what I am here for.

I ask myself ‘How do I know this child? How do I get to know each child?”

First of all, I have the benefit of frequency. I see students between 2-4 times per week, depending on the grade level. That’s a lot of contact time. Time is a resource.

Next, I teach in an environment in which although there is relatively high turnover in our student body (about 1/3 on average per year), I often get to teach or at least see many children over the course of a few years. I get to participate in their development. Shared history is a resource.

I spend time observing students. As the years have gone by, I have stepped back from extensive direct instruction and encouraged more student-led and independent activities. Besides cultivating a culture of choice and self-direction, these opportunities allow me to stop and look, to study and analyze student behaviors. Children reveal a great deal about themselves their tendencies during these times. Creating space for observation is a resource.

In my PE classes, I am who I am. My students get to know me in a unique and deeply individual fashion. The multiple filters and mental models each child brings to our encounters shapes the development of our relationships in unimaginable and hard to document ways. When I teach I show a ridiculous number of behaviors, emotions, capabilities which all reach students differently. Over time, kids develop ideas about who I am and what I represent to them. And these ideas are constantly being updated, revised and reworked to accommodate new input and fresh perspectives. Awareness of dynamic, evolving relationships is a resource.

Above all, my students share themselves with me. They talk to me, they ask questions, they run wild with their peers and hang back by the water fountains. They buddy up quickly or pace around the margins, they shout out their favorites and broadcast their dislikes. In everything they do, they are tireless communicators. And it’s not that I understand everything they are saying, offering or demonstrating at the time. Rather, I take their input into account when attempting to grasp their intentions and determine how best to meet their needs.

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Students compel my curiosity and I learn. I learn about them. I learn from them. I learn through them. This is how I get to know my students: I open myself to what they can teach me.

When we look for resources in teaching, we tend to bypass our students.

What if we recognized our students as the most precious resources available to us in developing our teaching and learning?

What if we learned to ask students more often about what they know and understand about the world so far?

What if students were in the habit of being able to tell us who they are before we rush to categorize and file them?

Imagine a world where “the educated” believed that their mission was to stoke the fires of curiosity wherever they went and see the potential for learning in everything that came their way.

Imagine then how well resourced education would be.

About Fear

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I think it’s time we had a talk about fear.

Yes, fear. The stuff that makes you afraid,

that provokes anxiety, that keeps you up at night

Or makes it seem impossible to get out of bed.

Fear.

I have a couple of books on the topic.

Whole books dedicated to helping me

cope with,

understand,

manage,

and investigate

my very own special, unique and distinct

fears.

And I’ll be honest,

my fears are not for my safety

or that of my loved ones.

They are not about having enough

of what one needs to survive.

Rather they are more about

being enough.

About my capacity to measure up,

follow through,

deliver as promised,

and smile at the end.

Those nagging fears about

leaving things undone,

failing to finish

in time,

of not satisfying

someone else’s requirements of

my time, energy and talent.

*Suddenly I’m getting all warm

and beginning to perspire under my sweatshirt

as I write this

because fear of telling the truth

sparks a nerve.

There’s something at stake,

something at risk,

something to be afraid of

because that’s how fear works

expertly curving back on itself

always leaving the heavy residue of doubt

and misgivings

and sense of loss.

Isn’t it funny and isn’t it typical

that I would ask myself:

what’s a nice way to end this post?

so no one needs to feel too uncomfortable;

already afraid again

that I might upset the apple cart by

telling you what happens

so often,

so reliably,

so stubbornly

to me.

It’s only fear and it has a name

and so many faces and forms.

My fears like to dress up

and show up in disguise under an assumed name.

I can’t always recognize them at first.

But I can recognize their whispers after a time

and respond accordingly.

A Sight to Behold

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My students are always a sight to behold.

Sometimes when I meet a line of students and lead them through the hallway to the gym, I turn around to look at them. Often, I admit, I am giving them the “Don’t-make-me-ask-another-rhetorical-question-about-our-understanding-of-line-behavior” look. And sometimes I look at them and smile.

I look at them and actually see them in their 6, 7 and 8 year old bodies. I see them smile back at me. I see them skip and wiggle at the same time. I see them jostle to get closer to their closest friends. I see them doing what kids do. I see them being who they are.

My students surprise and amaze me. They race into the gym whooping and hollering because they are HAPPY. They chat with each other because they know friendship. They will stop and listen to me for a hot minute because we practice respect.

I have first graders who can pair up and do their own set of stretches together. I have students at all levels of the elementary for whom a handstand or cartwheel is no big deal. I have fifth graders who have shown me tricks for juggling a soccer ball and managing a back walkover.

My students blossom and bubble when they talk, when they move, when they share. How quickly they comfort one another when someone is hurt, how sincerely they apologize to each other when feelings have been bruised. How open they are when they feel listened to.

How often I forget to drink in the beauty of the students I have before me. How accustomed I become to our habits of discourse that I forget that each child who tells me a bit of news is sharing part of their very special story, their very distinct view of the world WITH ME. I should feel honored and humbled. I forget that sometimes.

My students are lovely and wonderful and miraculous and sometimes I forget to look at them. I forget to see them. But when I remember, they are always a sight to behold.

 

image: courtesy of AISVienna

Not Another Think Piece

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Old story, never ending

let me tell you about all the think pieces in my head.

they are circulating and bubbling, surfacing then submerging.

They are the last thing you and I need:

one more carefully phrased analysis of the %&+## fix we are in.

And I have several,

just waiting, gathering steam or dust or mold or I don’t know what.

Think piece upon think piece that we don’t need right now

or tomorrow or next week.

But let me say this:

If kellyanne puts her feet on the sofa while important company is over,

it doesn’t matter.

If he says ‘you people are doing amazing work’ and means it,

it doesn’t matter.

If he says ‘you people are doing amazing work’ and doesn’t mean it,

it’s what we expect

and it doesn’t matter.

Or that picture of all those grinning white men

again in expensive suits plus one white woman using thumbs up

to indicate their satisfaction at agreeing to pollute more streams more thoroughly from now on.

Seems grim.

But it doesn’t matter.

And what doesn’t matter doesn’t score change.

We can raise our eyebrows to the high heavens,

quote one official falsehood after another ALL DAY LONG and into the night,

And still it does not matter.

 

There is talk of blood and soil and unity because

you and I know most likely whose blood will flow,

whose soil will be lost

and that unity is for decoration.

The only honesty to be found is in the hate that rises,

the agency morale that soars,

the billions of clicks this reality show is generating

daily.

 

meanwhile some ridiculously wealthy men (or perhaps just one named Robert who cares a lot about what he cares about and we are definitely not in that mix)

find more avenues than they can count to

impose their narrow lily white vision of a future

we won’t want to be a part of.

If it’s too much trouble (and expense) to kill us all,

general subjugation will do.

So cleverly shackled by chains of our own making:

unlimited streams of data which belong to them

not us.

which earn them profits, but not us.

yes we will keep paying into our demise click by clickety click click while they

(the bad guys) steal our elections,

manipulate our emotions,

corrupt our media and feed us our own helplessness

in the face of white male mediocrity gone wild.

 

So many think pieces I might pen

to report, compare and contrast

the devastation of what is and will be.

I will spare you.

 

We could talk about the white male effect

which seems to explain a lot

but doesn’t account for all the white sisters who sold us out.

There’s of course this rise of extremism

among the ‘lost boys’ who have turned to Pepe and 4chan

as symbols of their defeatist indifference.

There are too many explanations

and more understanding no longer feels like a help.

I will think my piece

and save you the trouble of too many more thousands of keystrokes to decipher.

Because in contrast to all this

your time is valuable

and matters

so use it

for good.

please.

Thank you.

 

image: NY Public Library Digital Collections

 

 

 

 

The Undercover Familiar

“Ich habe gedacht, Sie sind Oesterreicherin!”

Someone said this to me today (“I thought you were Austrian!”). Yes, they genuinely thought I was an Austrian, that I grew up here. And the reality is not so far from the truth. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio but Vienna is where I came of age. Surprising, though, even post 50 how muddled and mixed I portray my own identity in this special context – on Austrian soil, in my adopted homeland.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“I live in Vienna but grew up in the US.”

That was a new description. It felt a bit like flipping the script. Where I previously tended to confess the American citizenship first before adding up my decades of residence in this German speaking country, I decided on the spot that this description is far more accurate. Vienna is home, home, home.

Vienna is where I have lived in one district for 15 out of 25 years, where both of my sons were born, where I’ve worked at the same school for two decades – home. But I’ve never been Austrian. I neither have citizenship nor do I look the part (stereotypically speaking). I am an immigrant, not an expat. I am here by choice and this is my life.

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So while I’m out at my favorite mountain lake in a very different part of the country, enjoying the best speedskating conditions one could hope for, my unexpected presence as black woman traveling in the singular raises questions among fellow hotel guests and skaters. The attention I receive is friendly curiosity from the Dutch and German table neighbors. It’s funny to recognize that we belong to a common age range of well past 40 and maxing out probably under 65. Middle-agers mostly in couple formations, I probably fit right in – economically, socially.

Meanwhile, my language usage gives me away. I no longer sound very American when I speak German. Austrian service personnel usually need a moment to size me up and make that split second guess as to whether I will understand whatever query they might have in store for me:

“Sind Sie Frau Spelic?” (Are you Ms. Spelic?)

“Zum trinken, was moechten Sie?” (To drink, what would you like?)

“Haben Sie eine angenehme Anreise gehabt?” (Did you have a pleasant trip here?)

The relief when I respond without hesitation in a clear and comprehensible German is immediate  and visible. This often gives rise to another, different level of curiosity. Often people want to understand how this is possible: such clear German, so colloquial and familiar. That’s what throws people – the familiarity. How could she, how does she seem so comfortable, so at home here?

I left home without my passport as I usually do when I travel within the country. I’m driving my own car, I have an Austrian driver’s license and my residence permit with me. I also know where I’m going. I’ve been in this particular place often. Just yesterday I ran into the owner of another hotel down the road who greeted me warmly and we shared news of our respective children. Another reminder that my presence here is not incidental, it has a history and background. This place is familiar and so too am I.

I am a domestic foreigner. Outwardly, because of my skin color I am readily perceived as a foreigner, a non-native for sure. Once I speak and engage in easy conversation, then things change. I am that unexpected foreigner who defies the stereotype. I become a source of fascination. Internally however, I am working with a full deck of previous experience and local savvy. When I move about in this country I become the undercover familiar.

images ©Sherri Spelic / @edifiedlistener 2017