I used to think…

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I used to think that I understood children and that therefore I could become a good teacher. Now I see that my understanding of children is only partial, and with regards to individual children, actually illusory. I think I understand them but really I’m just applying rough proxies which don’t work for this child. Or this child. So for some children I need to go back to square one and rethink everything I thought I knew about children and learn some new things about this child and break down my myths about understanding children and becoming a good teacher. I used to think I knew kids and now I see that my purpose is to learn kids, one at a time, always ready for a surprise.

 

I used to think that my strength as a teacher required standing my ground in the classroom; being firm and confident. Now I believe that my strength as a teacher requires being firm and confident in my capacity to be imperfect. I can admit mistakes. I can ask for help. I can do things over. I can apologize and ask how to be better. These things don’t just help me teach more effectively, they allow me to become a better colleague, friend, adult.

 

I used to think that in order to lead, you needed to have a title and get paid more. Now I see that it is possible to lead effectively by example; that people often find it easier to emulate and follow behaviors that they like and appreciate in others. I also see that leadership by example can go either way; it doesn’t have to be positive and constructive. Negative leadership is equally possible. That’s the conundrum. (Although few would admit to liking destructive behaviors, every time that we tolerate and accommodate them, we demonstrate where we really stand.) Given that, I try to set the example I (hope to) observe in others. I envision leadership less as a tower of relative importance and more of a circle of engagement with added facilitation responsibilities. There are no titles or formal recognition in this mode of leadership and it has the potential to have influence in some of the most unlikely places.

 

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I have some thoughts about parent-teacher conferences

As a teacher I enjoy the opportunity to sit with the parents of my individual students and to talk about their accomplishments their challenges and our relationship. There’s a similar structure to each of my conferences and although I teach about 130 students on average I feel like I know each of them well enough to speak to parents and say some things about each child individually.

First of all, I thank parents for coming.

Next, I ask: what have you heard about PE so far?

Whatever the response, the question puts the parents and their child in the spotlight. My task is to listen carefully.

Based on their responses I can begin to share my observations about their child or children with them. Most often I have plenty of good news to share with a few anecdotes of recent wins.

When I have difficulties to share or describe I spend a considerable amount of time providing context. I tell parents about the structure of our class: what the expectations are, where their child shows signs of struggle and I always emphasize the expectation of change over time. It’s vitally important to me that parents understand that each child is working on something; each child faces or will face a challenge of one kind or another. As will their teacher. Process, process, that’s what we’re about.

While it seems that conferences are built up as a sort of reporting structure where teachers prepare a sort of ‘show and tell’ about students and their progress to date, it’s also an opportunity for teachers to learn about families. In my case, parents are often eager to share some information about themselves and their child’s sport enthusiasms and disappointments; previous injuries or wonderings about potential areas of brilliance. In fact, parents often want to know if I perhaps have a hot tip as to which activity might offer their child the greatest joy or opportunity to shine, or both.

In these listening moments, I find all kinds of inspiration. These are the windows which allow me to envision a student more fully and accurately with plenty of light and the proper shading.  This is where the conversation becomes animated and we’re no longer focused on the nuts and bolts of Physical Education but the blossoming of a wonderful young person. I enjoy exploring possibilities with parents by asking about previous sports experiences and learning more about how students see themselves in various physical contexts.

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“So what does your child enjoy doing?”

10 minutes. That’s how long I have to talk with parents about their child in my PE classes. For new parents I often focus on my observations of the child seems to have landed in their new school and how this seems to be playing out in PE. For veteran parents we can talk about new demands in the program and how their child is adjusting. What I love is the back and forth, the element of surprise for either of us at learning something new, the chance to put a concerned parent’s mind at ease about a difficulty.

This round I hosted about 40 conferences over two days. In the spring there will be more students in the mix as student-led versions become the norm. In these bursts of dialogue, I feed my calling to listen and respond with care. Honesty is at the forefront of my mind along with compassion and good will. I want us all – students, parents, teachers – to be successful because of each other.  Conferences are a chance for me to truly “use my words” and lay the foundation for student successes that stretch well beyond the gym and gallop all the way home.

 

image CC0 via Pixabay.

Going Back to School Thoughts

I’m not ready. I’ve never been all-the-way ready.

The first day is always exciting, year, after year, after year. Imagine a career full of fresh starts annually. That’s teaching.

Spending a few prep days with adult colleagues feels comforting.

Yet nothing compares to the arrival of children in all shapes and sizes. Big sisters, little brothers, eager dads and well informed moms – all these people pouring into the building, filling it with life, giving the school a purpose.

We teachers and staff members hold our collective breath in anticipation and then celebrate an enormous exhale as the first hour breezes by, then lunchtime, then recess and already the first day is history and we can hardly believe our luck at the incredible people we will get to spend the year with.

So many smiles and excited conversations, so much catching up to do, so many friendships to renew. The hallways are loud with laughter and questions.

New students have a special look of awe about them. Taking it all in, finding the familiar faces they met the day before – such a relief to be recognized and waved to, encouraged that yes, this school might actually be OK after all.

While I think about routines and first impressions, setting the right tone and helping students feel at home, all it takes is one encounter – unanticipated, spontaneous- I’m helping a misdirected middle schooler find his health class or stop to chat with a new parent who is waiting around (in case of emergency) or meet a former student who stops to give me the most generous hug ever en route to her brand new classroom in 4th grade, not 3rd – one encounter and suddenly I am back. I am immersed in the flow of what we will call a new school year.

There is no agenda for these moments that make up the heartbeat of a school and I am grateful. For all the structures that schools embody and uphold, part of what keeps calling me back is the way young humans consistently resist, refashion and reclaim school structures to create space for their unique ways of being.

Every year I am witness to this 180 day ritual and I cannot imagine a better, more rewarding use of my time.

I’m ready. Let’s do this.

 

 

Fully Human and Hello, Belongingness

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Spotted in Vienna’s First District

On a recent #ClearTheAir Twitter chat discussing themes in the book Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby,  Val Brown raised this question:

And my first response was to talk about the music I use in class:

I also rely on my body to do a lot of my “talking.” The way I sometimes clown during my demonstrations and make silly faces to get my point across, these actions remind me of how much not only my students but also I am seeking connection. This goes beyond being liked, it means being a source of interest, curiosity, trust, care, even surprise and finding those characteristics in others.

When I have struggled with students in class – when their behaviors felt hard for me to handle, when they regularly tried my patience and we got into power struggles that left us only resentful of each other – writing has often helped me step back and see more of that child and my own behaviors. I’ve kept stacks of notes on students and re-reading them reminds me of a few things:

  1. The information at my disposal about a child and their circumstances is always incomplete.
  2. Change is always in progress and my judgments about a child’s behaviors can cloud and confuse my observations of changes because of what I want or am trying to achieve.
  3. My writing only includes my voice (even if I imagine or think of the voice of the other).

That said, I want to revisit some old notes from way back and think about seeing children as “fully human” and what that can look like. I’ve left out the names to maintain privacy.

I feel that I have gotten to know T. a little better this quarter and I’m glad. While we have had our difficulties, I have learned to appreciate her resilient and resolute character. She has had to make some difficult choices in terms of in-class behavior but recently I have noted a significant change for the better. She is far more aware of her decision-making and as a result is making better choices increasingly often. She is no longer indifferent to the choices and their consequences. I also see her enjoying activities more and even when something is not to her liking (which she openly expresses) she has learned to carry on. I am encouraged by the progress I am witnessing and sincerely hope to see it continue.

It’s pretty safe to assume that “better choices” means in compliance with my expectations and that “no longer indifferent to choices and their consequences” means that she has learned to avoid punishment by exclusion. It could be that I’m learning to like T a bit more because she challenges my authority less, so in school we call that progress.

Here’s another:

D’s overall behavior has improved since our last conversation. He is more amenable to following the regular plan and obviously enjoys the positive recognition that goes with it. No day’s behavior is quite the same as the last but the fluctuation between extremes seems to have diminished for the time being. D’s ability to read fluently strikes me as a possible source of some of his general tension. He’s so far ahead of many of his peers on that account that I can understand why he feels a natural tendency to want to speed things up whenever possible.

Again, a greater degree of compliance has obviously been reached although here I am looking for ways to understand what might be fueling this student’s need to “get ahead of the game” in my eyes. That does not mean that my guess is at all correct but it might be part of the picture.

C. is a lively and tireless communicator. He is quick to let you know what’s on his mind either verbally or more frequently with his very distinctive facial expressions and body language. Often his expression tends towards the extreme: he either loves an activity or refuses to participate. He wants to work with one person but will hardly consider and alternative. Thankfully, PE involves lots of movement and opportunities for animated contact so that C. is usually very keen to participate and enjoy the fun.

This last one feels a bit more like the observation note that helps me paint the picture of the child I actually taught. My greatest challenge remains being able to see children as they are rather than how I wish they were. And given that reality of who they are, asking the question sincerely: What can we create together?

When I have asked kids at the beginning of the year what they want from PE, some of the most common answers are:

  • fun
  • excitement
  • games
  • to learn some new skills
  • to get better at…
  • To be with friends

They don’t typically mention being seen, recognized, appreciated, cared for, respected – because these are understood as part of the (at least potential) package of school, of being members of a community, of belonging.

Math educator, Ilana Horn, describes the concept of belonginness in her book Motivated and this blog post and I cannot stop thinking about it:

For most students, alienation can be overcome by teachers who create a sense of belongingness. Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher. It also comes about with the sense that others are concerned for who they are and for their wellbeing.

My task as the teacher is precisely to insure as steady a supply of belongingness as possible to all of my students all year and that is something we have to develop with each other. I cannot demand or decree it. Nor will it happen organically by itself. It will be something we create. Together. Again and again. This is one way to interpret Carla Shalaby’s call to “be love” in our classrooms with students.

Belongingness helps me get closer to understanding what specifically needs to happen as we build our classroom culture for the year:

To support belongingness, then, teachers need to do more than create strong relationships. In addition, they need to create norms and expectations about how students treat each other.

In order to move beyond compliance and exclusion-avoidance, I will need to involve my students a whole lot more in setting the parameters (and pie in the sky!) for our time together than I ever have.  If I ask them, I also have to listen. If they offer ideas, we need to discuss them. I am convinced we can explore belongingness together. And practice being fully human with each other, with the music on or off.

 

image (c) edifiedlistener 2018

What I would tell you about #ECISPE18

I want to tell you about my last couple of days at a PE conference and it’s late and I imagine sleep would be a good idea about now.

I want to tell you how invigorating these days have been, how busy my mind has been, what a high it is to spend time with people who share the same kind of work and love it. What it’s like to be chatting with someone at the break and then crawling between their legs 30 minutes later in a volleyball drill.

Or what it feels like to meet an old friend whom I first met 13 years ago in Budapest at this conference, and who has taught on 4 continents since and yes, came here to Dusseldorf from Shanghai because she likes this conference better. Joy.

I could describe the apprehension I felt arriving on the first day, hand luggage still in tow, heading into the first session with nary a clue what to expect. And then how that hesitation melted away within minutes of moving gently to music with a roomful of men and women who also work in gyms and pools and on fields with kids.

Maybe I’d share a little bit about having Amanda Stanec walk up to me and give me the warmest welcome ever and how cool it is to be acknowledged and appreciated by someone whose work I sincerely admire.

I would definitely tell you about the morning I spent in a session on judo where I really, really wondered if I made the right choice. But then, Greg, our instructor playfully and gently led us from simple partner games to a couple of technique exercises to sparring. by the end I was twisting, turning, grabbing my partner; pushing, pulling and rolling to defend and attack. I laughed as I struggled to flip my partner, laughed even more when she lifted and flipped me like a hamburger. I learned more about myself in 40 seconds of full on sparring than in hours and hours of school organized professional development.

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And that’s the thing: this whole conference is dedicated to professional development. We are physical educators working to improve our teaching practice by practicing teaching, learning, demonstrating, discussing, and observing. This conference is professionals’ development – the kind we create for ourselves, the kind that sustains us for the long haul, the kind that invites us to question and re-evalute our practices, the kind that makes us leave loving our work, the kind that makes us come back for more year after year, if we can.

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Oh yeah, and maybe I’d tell you about the workshop I led and how well it was received and what great people showed up to share that time with me. But you know it’s late and all and it would take another blog post, but in the meantime here’s a link to a padlet which has some pics and the handout.

I’d tell you what a fantastic time I am having but instead, I think I’ll turn in.

Team Time

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It’s Monday afternoon. My team colleague and I have some time off together. Our desks adjoin in the arms of a L-shape. Down time, catch-up time, chatting time. We talk about some upcoming scheduling for an event we’re hosting. That reminds me of what I wanted to ask him about single balances in 3rd grade.

“Have you already assessed 3rd grade in single balances?” I venture.

Of course, he has.  – Here comes the good part: he explains how he did it and when I ask if he has some videos we could look at together, he pulls up a couple. We look at them together. We discuss the finer and weaker points and discover that we are pretty much in agreement about what constitutes a 3 or a 4 (on a 4 point scale).  He tells me how he used video to share with the kids to help them see where they might improve and what a difference it made to how they were able to perform and also enjoy their improvement.

Great! Now I feel all ready to tackle this bit with my groups.

Then I ask him for the dance video he was using in class the other day. We find it and look at a bit together and talk about why this worked so well (simple, easy to imitate steps, goes on for quite a while). I describe the options I’ve found and used on Go Noodle. He mentions a break dance tutorial he watched that was pretty cool. We have a look. And before you know it, we’re both on our feet practicing this basic six step, side by side.

Laughing, I leave the office to grab a hot chocolate before my last class.

Think about it: in my break time I had

  • an assessment consultation with my teaching partner,
  • a teaching resource exchange,
  • content-specific professional development, and
  • an end of the day energy boost.

We often talk about teaching as a lonely endeavor which it certainly can be. My greatest fortune has been sharing the load and the love of the work with four excellent partners throughout my 20+ year career. They have supported and challenged me, generously shared their expertise and welcomed mine, cared about kids beyond measure and always made space for fun.

While I am in my classroom with kids, yes, I am usually the only adult. And having team members who’ve got my back, who will share in my struggles and celebrations means I am bringing more than just myself to the party. I rely on and use the resources we’ve culled and created. We take each others’ ideas and build on them.

This is how teaching becomes sustainable. This is how we become better teachers.

 

 

Adept Dodgers and Other Tales

Kids together in jumping competition

Teaching Kindergarten.

We’re working on dodging today. Philippe defines: “Dodging is what you do when someone throws a ball at you and you jump out of the way” (jumping as he speaks to illustrate).

“Right, and not only that but when you’re walking on a busy sidewalk, (I walk as I talk here) do you do this?” (I imitate bumping into people every few steps, complete with sound effects.) They laugh. “No, right? You don’t walk around bumping into people on purpose, do you? What do you do?”

“You walk around!” they shout.

“Exactly, so dodging means that we move out of the way instead of bumping or crashing into other things, even without touching them.” I use lots of arm motions to illustrate this.

So we practice crossing the gym space using different locomotor patterns and different pathways. And they manage it all really well without bumping into each other. Cool.

I introduce a new tagging game: safety base dodge. Long story short: 8 safety bases are scattered on the floor. Players can rest on these for 5 seconds at a time but then must move and avoid being tagged. If tagged, players go to the edge of the play area and perform a wall walk for 10 seconds. 2 taggers and each holds a shortened swim noodle for tagging.

We play a few rounds. We stop after the first round to clarify some understandings.

“OK, friends. For a first go at a new game I thought you handled it all very well. However, at the end (you can tell they knew this part was coming) I stopped the music and said, “Freeze!” Then what happened?

“The game stopped?” one student ventures.

“Did you see everyone stop on the signal? I didn’t. I said, “Freeze!” and here’s what I saw: (I get up and run from one base to another with my hands in the air).” They laugh. I come back to our huddle. “Is that what a freeze looks like?”

“No.” They giggle as they say it.

I show it again. “A freeze looks like this (dramatic freeze), right? Not like this (more running around). There’s a difference. So now on the count of three, show me a freeze pose. One, two, three!”

Great moment, excellent poses. I pick two new taggers and we start a new round.

We finish the game. We come back together. I congratulate them on a job well done. I tell them that I can see that they are adept at dodging.

“What’s adept?”

“It means you’re good at something.”

Adept dodgers. Could be a rock band.

During another break in the action one student revealed that she had owies on her leg and hand. I answered back: “You have owies on your hands and leg. Are you also telling me that this will impair you ability to participate in our upcoming game?” She scrunched her face up and I suppose making her best guess about what I was saying, shook her head and said “no.” She played all rounds without complaint.

I relate all this I suppose perhaps above all to remind myself of what it’s like when I interact with small children. On the one hand, it involves considerable theatrical investment and display. On the other hand, a fairly firm commitment to remain true to my own character. I like to use a broad vocabulary. I enjoy acting out ideas for children to get my point across. I appreciate the relationships we develop over time that allow us to have these kinds of conversations where we both learn something.

Yes, I’m teaching content. Dodging. And we are learning about how to play well with each other. We are practicing remembering rules and making decisions about how we’ll apply the rules in the way we and others play.

Two students had a crash near the end of our game. After apologies were offered and each recovered, I asked them in our large group about their crash. “What kind of pathway were you using when you crashed?” (We practiced this earlier in our warm up activity.) They both answered, “straight.” After that both were ready to describe the crash in greater detail, illustrating for the rest of us how it came to pass.

My young students each offer a world of experiences. Part of my job involves inviting those worlds into our classes and providing them with air time and stage time and activity time. All the time we have to be and become so much more than adept dodgers.

image: CC0 Lukas via Pixels