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.


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.

Repetition Works Wonders

Let’s do that again!     (image via

Although I write about a number of different topics, what I do, how I earn my living, is teaching. Elementary physical education, in fact, from Pre-K up to 5th grade. For the most part, my students love PE. They are excited to be in the gym, to play the games we play, to be active and loud and even silly with each other. I have a lot working in my favor before I even start class.

I’ve been at this for a while and feel reasonably confident in my teaching abilities, although I keep learning new things and rediscovering ideas I had set aside. Recently I’ve been aiming for more repetition in my lessons. That doesn’t sound very progressive but here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Because I teach PE all day every day, I tend to forget that this is not true for my students.  They see me mostly 3 times per week for 30-40 minutes. That means that they may get to practice a group of skills 1-2 times, while I have gone through the instruction of those skills 4-6 times in the same week.
  • Students who repeat the same lesson are not bored!  Rather, they are able to concentrate on the actual tasks instead of the format details (stations, practice sequence, etc.).
  • Students who repeat the same lesson derive confidence from knowing what to expect. The exclamations: “We did this!” “I know this one!” often indicate a positive familiarity.
  • Performance improves, often dramatically. From one lesson to the next, my colleague and I often brag to each other about how much better our students performed in a lesson the second or third time around. Over time, these add up to produce movement learning.
  • Repetition invites challenge. As students recognize patterns and feel increasingly confident they will, often without additional prompting, find ways to make the task more challenging.

In elementary PE, my colleagues and I aim to cover a lot of ground. We want to expose kids to wide variety of movement options and possibilities, and we do. At the same time, we  must remain sensitive to their needs for competency, control, enjoyment and challenge in the PE setting. Repeating lessons, circling back to previously covered skills, playing a familiar game – these all help students establish their own sense of progress and growth over time.

I used to think that my students needed lots of novelty to stay motivated and excited. Sure they like some novelty, but not all the time. Like so many other aspects of teaching and learning, what is healthy and beneficial for students will have elements of routine and novelty, will offer repetition and introduce new tasks, embrace big challenges and celebrate the easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

The longer I teach, the more I learn. The better I learn, the greater the chances that my students will be able to do the same.


Shout out to my PE colleague, @imSporticus, whose posts on movement performance vs. movement learning and the Flaw of Linearity Within PE have helped me reach a much better understanding of the why’s behind lots of my practice.


Spikeball for Everyone?

I’m not sure I really want to write this post. Part of me says, “c’mon, get over yourself.” While another part is saying, “it’s bothering you, get it off your chest, move on.”
Here’s the deal. I like fun, I like movement and games, I like people from lots of different backgrounds – put all those together and I consider myself extremely fortunate to be working as physical education specialist in an international school – all the bases are covered.

Recently, I learned about a new product which looks and sounds particularly interesting for middle and high school students. One of my PE tweeps showed some of the positive student feedback she got after introducing the game. Cool! So I found the company’s twitter profile which led me to their website which told and showed me all I needed to know about the game, the product and options for purchase. For further orientation, I clicked on a couple of their videos to see the game in action.

This is where my internal conflict kicks in. The videos that I watched featured young fit males and one or two young women in the 18-24 age range I’m guessing, all white. Several clips show players on a beach but there are clips of people playing in other spaces, too. Everyone in the videos is white. Everyone is the videos seems especially physically adept and coordinated, to the degree that I wondered, would this make any sense for less athletic school populations?

I was reminded of an article touting the benefits of an anti-obesity program entitled “Operation Pull Your Weight” where I couldn’t help but notice that the promotional video included no one who could be considered obese. Product marketing I suppose often produces such messaging mismatches: saying one thing, yet showing something else. In the case of Spikeball I pick up the message “This game is for everyone” and we’ll only show it being played by white guys.

My point here is not complain or point fingers of accusation. I am simply noticing and observing. The target demographic of this game appears evident and as such, their current marketing materials absolutely reflect that. As someone who does not fit that particular demographic, yet finds an interest in the product and the novelty it may offer students, I note a peculiar reaction. Not seeing people like myself or my students or my colleagues represented among the product’s demonstrations, I take away the feeling that this game is not really intended for us (people of color, people over 40, less coordinated players). We do not belong to the intended audience, so no great loss to the company if we don’t purchase or promote this particular game (That’s my gut take-away).

At the same time, I see a familiar trend. This is a new product, aiming to build its user community quickly. The founders appear to be young white dudes who are crazy enthusiastic about their product and the sport and they seem poised to appeal first and foremost to folks of similar backgrounds: white, college educated, athletically inclined and socially active (because you do need friends in order to play). Neither their strategy nor their visible reach so far should come as a surprise. They seem to be fully on course for doing what they’ve come to do: popularize a trendy new sport and sell the inventory.

If we’re simply talking markets here, catering to the caucasian college crowd may be all this company needs to claim success. Good luck to them. What strikes me is how the experience simply reinforces my sense that this is the norm. White people play certain games and enjoy certain forms of entertainment with other white people, while Blacks do their own thing and Latinos do theirs. And so the marketing of everything from beverages to TV shows to popular games reflects this “differentiated” or “targeted” approach.

To be fair, while writing this, my PE buddy encouraged me to seek out some of the instructional videos on the company’s YouTube channel. I found some and while still very vanilla, I at least could see kids playing and the game introduced in a more approachable fashion for beginners. Here’s a sample clip created by high school students: and here’s a group of junior high kids playing.

In many ways, it would be so easy to just skip over this episode. And that’s exactly the point: for most of us this is normal. We don’t find it odd that there are no people of color and few women or girls to be seen playing this game in the company’s videos. But this time, I just needed to say something.

I bet I’ll like Spikeball just fine if I ever get a chance to play with students or my sons. It looks like fun and like something you can easily find new ways to challenge yourself over time. Maybe the sport and the Spikeball community will grow its diversity over time. Even though this may present a challenge.

Choreographing Pop Danthology

Last spring I made an offer to the 5th graders:  If any students were interested in forming a group to create a dance to perform in the annual all-school dance performance, I would gladly coach them and help them prepare.  About 2 weeks later, one student handed me a list of names plus titles of the songs they were considering.  Wow! Not only were there about 10 names on the list but they included boys and girls!  Apparently they had already begun organizing at recess and negotiating which moves to which music.

This was an entirely new experience for me. Traditionally, the whole grade had worked during PE on a choreography that I created and that we usually performed at some end-of-the-year event. And while this model proved efficient in several ways, turning the project over to the students to organize and develop unleashed all kinds of unexpected benefits.

So after about three weeks, the group had run into problems.  The boys were suggesting movements that the girls didn’t want to do and vice-versa. And they had changed the music from a summer hit to a popular youtube mash-up. I invited them in at lunchtime to show me what they had. The group had shrunk from the original 10 down to about 8 with a couple of hangers on.  Still I was  impressed with their initiative and bravery.  I listened and watched. There were several good ideas, especially for the beginning, and all of the students seemed to like the music. I made a proposal: Over the weekend I would study the music, think about some possible movements which might fit and then we would come back together on Monday and see where we were.  There were some sighs of relief and a renewed sense of faith that all would be well.

Initially I was overwhelmed with the speed of the music and the constant changes. How am I supposed to choreograph anything to this?  It took a few listening run-throughs before I understood that by listening to the lyrics and getting the mood for each section, the dance practically choreographed itself. Even better, because the kids already knew the mash-up by heart, matching steps to lyrics made all of it much easier to memorize and perform the first 3 minutes and 30 seconds of it. Bringing my suggestions back to the group turned out to be an easy sell. They were happy with the moves and they also knew that time was running out.

Our performance in front of families and students from the whole school community became an instant hit. The crowd loved the music, began clapping as the dancers became more animated and overall, we could hardly have celebrated a more successful experience.

With all the talk in education circles about what kids need in order to be prepared and ready for their next stages of life, I often feel overwhelmed with all the demands to simultaneously increase engagement, rigor, critical thinking, joy, academic outcomes, media literacy, social responsibility, fitness results, health awareness, differentiation, and so on and so on.  Taking a chance on kids by handing over the controls, offering some guidance both in the process and the product, allowing myself to learn a new thing or two*, and having fun with my students – The whole thing made for an exceptional unit of work – in learning, in performing, in collaborating, in accomplishing.  My students and I did more than choreograph moves to music, we created a whole new pattern of interaction that bears repeating, refining and remembering.


*I also investigated Daniel Kim’s story (He’s the creator of the mash-up) which you can see here. Well worth watching in understanding how a highly gifted individual managed and manages his intolerance for boredom.

What I hope I am teaching

people-31339_640Let’s face it, when we teach, we never really know for sure what we’ve accomplished. We may see or hear fairly convincing evidence of our students’ learning. But determining exactly how much or which parts of that learning are actually attributable to our daily heroic efforts remains elusive. The space between teacher teaching and sudent learning strikes me as remarkably mysterious and ultimately unknowable territory. And I think that is part of what can make teaching feel so frustrating. Teach as much as we may – we can never control the learning.

Here’s what brought me to this cluster of thoughts: Working with my 4th and 5th graders on volleyball skills. So far, the majority of my students have been having a lot of fun with this unit and also a surprising amount of success. They have a nice selection of softer, lightweight volleyballs to work with. Several show signs of previous exposure and playing experience and we’ve been working on volleyball elements in fits and starts for a couple of weeks now. So today when I asked them to make small groups and practice returning a tossed ball over the net, they learned some new things (or so they said): “That it’s harder than it looks.” and “We need to call the ball.”

The critical piece for me was in recognizing that this lesson had less to do with improving those individual skills of serving, bumping and setting and everything to do with encouraging their intrinsic desire to act – to respond to the ball – to do something and feel confident in making any attempt. And so I found myself in the middle of the gym cheering wildly for a team managing more than one hit in their return and celebrating a first hesitant bump by my currently least skilled student. I told one group: “Of course I could go around and correct you all the time, looking for proper technique – but then you wouldn’t learn how to play. I really just want you to figure out how to respond to the ball each time, because it’s always going to be different – where you are, where the ball is, where your teammates are… I want you to do something, anything…”

I am not in control of their learning and (not but) I have a great deal of influence on the conditions and context for their learning. What I hope I am teaching is that my teaching is not the point. Rather, what I actually do is set up structured opportunities for my students to practice their many skills. I provide context, material, space, time, some frameworks and my enthusiasm for each of them. What lessons they take away from those experiences are theirs entirely, not mine.