Stretch Yourself

It’s surprising but I have more to say about my teaching this week. Well, perhaps not exactly about my teaching, rather more about my students’ doings. I guess this is likely going to be a post about what students do with the directions I give them.

Typically, in most of my physical education classes we spend a few minutes on stretching – hopefully building our flexibility and movement vocabulary as we go. At the beginning of the year my colleague and I usually introduce this routine in a traditional teacher-at-the-front, all-kids-follow-along arrangement. That’s fine for getting things started, for setting up routines and providing everyone with a basic stock of stretches they can use. But it doesn’t take long for this ritual to become boring for a number of kids.

(This is also a fine opportunity to discover who my more divergent thinkers in the group may be – they tend to resist teacher-led whole group stretching with remarkable consistency and I get it now.)

So within a couple of weeks we try to release kids to lead their own stretching in a few different ways:

  • in 1st grade selecting 3 leaders who each share 3 stretches with the whole group
  • in 2nd – 5th asking students to make small groups of 4-6 and be responsible for completing a total number of stretches (8 -12).
  • At any grade level, partner stretching for the length of a song. (We use a lot of Kidz Bop).

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The main thing is that kids learn to organize themselves. They decide who will begin, they learn to offer each other ideas, and sort out their own disagreements. It also means that I can step back and observe, give pointers and a few reminders. They are not reliant on me to deliver ideas but I’m visible enough to provide the occasional nudge.

The quality of the stretching can vary widely which it would in any case, I suppose. But I no longer get hung up on those kinds of details. I may temporarily join a group and demonstrate a more accurate version of a stretch rather than say something. More important is that students can show me that they understand what kinds of movements count as stretching, that they have their own internal repertoire of these movements to draw upon and can work with others safely and cooperatively.

My colleague have been using this method for a few years now which means that we also have an increasing number of veterans who take up a lot of the slack in helping new students figure out how it all works.

Again, stretching is just a short episode in a whole lesson – maybe 5-6 minutes tops. At the same time it’s another space for student choice and autonomy that still requires negotiating with others! Every time I watch a group of 1st or 2nd or 3rd graders accomplish this task successfully, I imagine one less soft tissue injury in the world is suffered on that day. And my teacher hear does a little victory dance to Kidz Bop tunes.

Open for Tweaking

Veteran teachers, have you ever suddenly decided to put a little twist on something that you have been doing for a long time more or less the same way and have it feel like you just rediscovered fire?

*pause*

No?

Me neither.

I did, however, recently notice that by tweaking my approach to certain things I might make my teaching life a little more enjoyable and my students’ experiences a little less teacher-mandated. Here’s what I did:

I like to set up fairly simple obstacle courses that include things like speed ladders, benches, maybe a couple of tires, and a soft balance beam. I try to insure when I plan it that there is always ample space for us to do other things like stretching or tossing and catching with a partner before or afterwards. For most of my students, this kind of activity is familiar and many of them already have some ideas about what they will likely be asked to do.

Today, instead of going through and demonstrating what needs to be done, I offered a few parameters to students and let them make it up as they went. I told them:

  • in the speed ladders you should stay on your feet at a high level and aim to hit the spaces between the rungs. You can skip, run, grapevine, hop, jump or move in another way as long as you stay upright and use the spaces.
  • On the benches, you can decide which movements you want to do but you need to put your hands on the benches. You might try a bear, seal or crab walk; or jump side to side, or pull yourself forward on your tummy. It’s up to you.
  • You may step into the tires or on top of them.
  • Be sure to leave space between yourself and the person in front of you. You may have to wait at some points.
  • You may start wherever you like and we’re all traveling counter-clockwise.

Guess what?

My students knew what to do. They had ideas and tried things out. Different children made different choices. Some hopped while others skipped and tiptoed through the ladders. I saw a few kids change their movement every time they arrived at a ladder or a bench. No one was bored. No one complained. And aside from the occasional safety warning (usually about maintaining space), I spent much more time and energy observing than policing behavior and jogging memories.

Which grade levels?

Here’s a surprise – I used it with Pre-Kindergarten through 4th grade today! It worked for each group because 1) all groups had some previous obstacle course experience and 2) all children have ideas about how they want to do things and many are only waiting for a chance to show and try and experiment.

So, while I didn’t rediscover fire in my classroom, per se, I did reconnect with some creative energy in myself that let me give up some control and recognize which gifts my students are dying to share. The obstacle course piece didn’t take up a whole lesson but it provided that middle ground for me and my students to meet each other halfway. By letting them go rather than constantly applying the brakes, my brakes, they showed me how much farther they are willing to go.

Kids are awesome!