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.

In Session

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School’s been in session for almost 10 days. By now I have had a chance to meet just about all of the students in my classes. They are multiple and magnificent. The youngest are at least 4 years old, and the oldest nearly 11. A handful of my students are just beginning to learn English. The vast majority speak another language at home and so far it looks like everyone has found friends.

Every day that I arrive to work something is a little different. Some of my kids are in strings class instead of PE. I’m teaching in the smaller activities room instead of the lower gym. My team colleague is playing tough cop instead of me. (I think it’s safe to say that neither of us qualify as bad cops.) My current Spotify playlists work better for the upper grades than for early childhood.

As I am going through these moments, I am struck by two things: on the one hand, details matter. It matters how students feel received in my class. Does it look like I’ve prepared for them and have been awaiting their arrival? Do my students trust me to know who they are? On the other hand, my big picture goals require massive reinforcement.

How frequently I ask my students at every level:

Is that safe?

Is that kind?

Is that respectful?

Safe, kind, respectful. This is my mantra and one I hope that my students can internalize based on their experiences in our class and our school. Their experiences are the details that matter, both seen and unseen; both planned for and utterly spontaneous. While we can only steer so much as educators, we can tip the scales significantly in favor of safe, kind and respectful environments and opportunities for our students.

Now that school is fully back in session, there is no shortage of chances to prioritize the right details.

 

image CC0 via Pixabay.com

 

No Stranger’s Words

Through the marvels of technology, I am now in the habit of listening to strangers talk about education: how to teach, how to learn, how to teach students how to learn, and so on. That said, I am thinking now about reading the words of someone whom I know and work with.

Listen to this:

Our Elementary School

“In the Elementary School we strive to ensure that each year at AIS is the best year in every child’s life. As educators we make decisions based on the understanding that we are not only guiding children towards learning but building experiences and creating memories that will serve to inform futures not yet imagined. At AIS our goal is for children to love school and for this love to translate into lifelong learning.”

This quote is taken from a recent proposal submitted by our principal, Sacha McVean, to the school’s Executive Board in support of the construction of a full elementary science lab and library extension. (A full introduction to the elementary school can be found here.) In the document, she describes the history of facilities decisions taken over the years which have led to the current project proposal and provides a brief overview of global education trends which speak in favor of this bold step. She draws attention to recent shifts in education practice which require our active response: from knowing to doing, from teacher centered instruction to student directed learning, from one right answer to multiple possibilities and from independent work to teamwork.

She concludes with this:

“While you learn to read in the classroom, you go the the library to instill a love of reading. In this same way, the construction of a new Science lab will instill a love of science in our students and this will help them meet the challenges that tomorrow promises.”

Every day I read the words of so many strangers on all things education. Yet this document, written by my own principal, gave me pause in a new way.  She was talking about education and she was talking about us – what we offer, what we strive for, what we value. And in these words, especially in those opening sentences describing Our Elementary School, I could in fact see myself and my colleagues and all of our students.

That, my friends, is a rare and wonderful gift. In reading the full document which included great visual contrasts illustrating other facility changes which would take place and further reinforce the goals of meeting student needs to an even greater degree, I was surprised by my own sense of pride at being a member of this school, our school. I was struck by the sense that the planning, persistence, and ultimately, the pay-off (the board approved the plan for the science lab construction) is fully in service to current and future students. Maybe that is, in truth, the real miracle – knowing that at the center of the vision, the plan and the decisions – are kids: their needs, aspirations and curiosity.

Alas, this episode captures a slice of the miracle so many of us in education are striving for: visions, plans and decisions which place children and their needs at the center – and then deliver.

School Is Going To Be Awesome!

The Start (Pixabay.com)

The Start (Pixabay.com)

One of the greatest insights I have ever received on the topic of school answers the question of why kids continue to go to school day after day, school year after school year without more protest. Put simply: because school is where all the other kids are.  (I am inclined to credit psychologist and author, Michael Thompson, PhD, with this insight, but I have not yet been able to retrieve the specific passage.)

And if we think about it honestly, as parents, teachers, or just as grown-ups, doesn’t that make perfect sense? Of course kids want to be where other kids are. That’s where the action is. It’s where they can really learn the stuff that interests them. With other kids is where kids learn how (and how not) to be themselves. They develop their own idiosyncratic metrics to determine who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, what’s cool and what’s not. What’s going on at school for kids has everything to do with these factors first and foremost and all else (i.e., academic achievement) has to be viewed within this critical context.

For this reason I love reading Michael Thompson on the topic of child development and school. In The Pressured Child  (2004) he describes why he feels that the psychological aspects of school are missing in most talk about education.

We always talk about what we’re trying to teach children in school, and whether they are learning what they need.  However, this is only the first of three different levels at which children experience school: The Lesson, The Strategy and Self-Knowledge.

The Lesson is the adult agenda for children. The Strategy is what children develop in order to cope with both the reality of The Lesson and the many other things they are interested in learning from school…Self-Knowledge is what children actually achieve in school.” (p. 14-15)

As adults we typically have a very hard time seeing things from the child’s perspective. We have forgotten what it was like being a child. We can no longer fathom the way they think and how on earth they reach the conclusions that they do.  And we have responsibilities: to make sure they are safe, warm and fed, that they are educated, and that they are loved. We’re working so hard to make sure they get what they need and often a fair amount of what they want. Why can’t they see that?

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Getting back to my own thoughts on school, I realized that my own positioning is decidedly ambiguous. Having my six year old start first grade in September has thrown this ambiguity into stark relief.  While I want my son to have a great school experience, I am clearly braced for the possibility that this may not materialize. In fact, I am sure that my grown-up reservations about school being the perfect place for children are as plain to my son as the nose on my face. This led me to wonder about adjusting my message.  What if I told my son, “School is going to be awesome!” and actually meant it?

What if I consciously added this perspective to the mix of messages he is receiving? He is six years old. The song, “Everything is Awesome” makes sense to him. So much of his world is still occupied by magic, miracles and super-hero powers. In his mind, school could become like the secret lair of a bunch of mini masterminds or the enchanted forests of a distant planet. All of that is still so possible – in his mind.

Yet my maternal, adult, educator mind is still saying: “You’ve got to be ready” and “You’re starting school in September” which are both ways of saying, “There are expectations you’ll need to meet, there are challenges you’re going to face” and actually meaning “I hope you’ll be OK,” and “I sure hope it goes well.” And deep down, “Yeah, I’m pretty scared, too.”

Maybe there’s the crux. And I think Michael Thompson would agree: My fears are my own and they surface as I watch my own child venture into new territory. Having that awareness and acknowledging it puts me in a real position to grant my son license to create his own adventure, both with school and without.  It’s possible for kids to absolutely love school. And for so many reasons I need to do all I can to support that possibility, to keep it alive in my son’s mind as well as in my own.

 

I highly recommend just about anything written by Michael Thompson, PhD. Especially, however,

The Pressured Child (2004) NY, NY: Ballantine Books (w/Teresa Barker) or

Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson, PhD and Catherine O’Neill Grace with Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD. (2001) also Ballantine Books.

An Unusual Honor

On Wednesday at my school it was “Dress up as your favorite teacher day” and it was a surprise for teachers.  The Elementary Student Council, comprised of some very clever 4th and 5th graders, came up with the idea and organized the whole activity without the knowledge of their teachers.  Parents were informed through the secretary and the results were simply amazing.  Imagine coming to work and being greeted by 3 or 4 (or more) younger versions of your professional self!

My colleague, the art teacher, managed to get a picture of her assembled fan club – many of them sporting colorful smocks and aprons.  So many inspired Ms. Sabinas laughing into the camera. I can hardly express the thrill of having students tell me: “I’m you today!”  There simply can be no higher compliment than that.

Dress up as your favorite teacher Day!

Dress up as your favorite teacher Day!

Heading into the Thanksgiving holiday, this remarkable display of student ingenuity and generosity struck me as a powerful reminder of how much there is to be grateful for and that who I am and what I do as an educator matters. What an unusual honor.

Finding Open Space

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One of the most critical concepts that I teach students is that of space.  It starts early in PK and KG by first defining it: “an area in the gym where you are not touching a wall, any equipment or anyone else.”  We usually start activities with “Please go find a space.” To Margaret who heads straight for the nearest wall: “Is that a good space?”  To Bruce and Will who remain essentially attached at the hip: “Boys, can you show me what a good space looks like?”  The concept itself makes sense to kids, although it may cramp their social inclinations on some occasions.

At the upper elementary level we expand the concept of space in order to apply it in game situations. This is where we explore the notion of open space: finding it, recognizing it, using it, and repeating those steps over and over again. Here’s the thing: open space is entirely transitory.  As long as players are moving and changing directions, a space may open and close in seconds.  I can move into what appears to be open space and quickly realize as I arrive it is gone again.  This makes open space a uniquely challenging and interesting concept to convey to students.

A light goes on for many students when we begin playing invasion games such as speedball ( a beanbag form of ultimate frisbee), basketball, hockey and soccer.  If I can help my students get comfortable with the ideas that 1) in order to receive a pass, they first need to find a space away from the ball handler; and 2) the space they claim is only theirs if they keep moving, then I know that the games we play will reflect this. My goal in all this is to equip students with a tool they can use in a variety of game contexts. I like to think of it as one of the big keys to the kingdom (in invasion games, at least); a useful secret that travels well.

While I was mulling over open space and how and why I teach it, some ideas from a very different angle struck me:

What do I do to find and claim open space? 

What do I need to move away from in order to get closer to what I want?

In what areas do I need to keep moving in order to reclaim open space?

So, there it was: teacher, teach yourself.  How many years have I been peddling this tool without recognizing its potency for unlocking some doors in my own kingdom?

It’s no wonder my kids struggle in applying this concept. They may understand it but acting on that understanding requires another cognitive (and emotional) leap.  In my own practice I am finding that creating space for others allows me to recognize and appreciate the very space I inhabit.  My sense of open space can also expand when I give myself the gift of time: for simply being and breathing. When I truly listen to my students’ questions that often start with “what if…” I am sent to a place of infinite possibilities and sometimes that can feel like the best open space of all.

Where are you looking for open space?

And what will you do with it once you’ve found it?