(Un)Prepared.

Nine contact days in and I’m ok. The kids are great, my colleagues are helpful, our schedule is more or less settled, the year is truly underway. I’ve done this ritual at least 20 times before: started a school year of teaching elementary physical education. At this same school. I have experience. One might even say I’m a seasoned faculty member.

And yet.

My plans are rough. Not vague, but rough although we have a fairly detailed curriculum map with plenty of supporting documents and resources. The google doc planning sheet that I share with my team colleague is prepared week for week. Every class, I write my agenda on the board for students to read and work with. I prepare.

And yet.

It seems no matter how long I work at this, how many students I shepherd through a school year’s worth of physical education, I never, ever feel well prepared. Into every class, each section, in contact with each student, there’s a portion of doubt that stays in attendance. Like a spying question mark that sits heavily on my shoulder, at times whispering: “Was that really necessary?” “What makes you think that idea will work?” or “That’s your best solution?”

This heap of doubt I carry around lives to judge and dissemble.

I have thousands of class periods under my belt; by now also hundreds of students whom I’ve taught for multiple years. I know some stuff and I’m constantly learning and evolving. Every group is different, each child so wonderfully unique, and I of course have changed, too. In this way I have dedicated a significant portion of my life and livelihood to coping with and courting change; to making the most of and coming to terms with development.

My little heap of doubt is resilient, reliable and robust. Teaspoon sized today, boulder heavy the next, my heap can grow or shrink as the context and my reactions warrant.

So I plan and envision. I record and document. Confer and rehash. I also improvise on the spot. Change my mind in the moment. I decide to run the risk of failing miserably, succeeding wildly or both. I watch what happens. I encounter the unexpected along with the strongly probable and respond to the best of my ability. At the end of the day, we all emerge on the other side: the experience behind us and our options for reflection before us. We choose. (And even when we don’t choose we’re making a choice.)

I believe my students are going to be all right. Some of them, no, many of them will be fabulous. We are going to make some discoveries this year. We’ll run into some surprises. We’ll reach an impasse or two and get beyond it. I’ll make some mistakes right before their very eyes. Some of the mistakes they’ll notice and others they won’t.

The year won’t be perfect. It will be full of learning and growth and doubt for me and my students. It will be entirely our year. We are prepared and we’re not. It’s on, ready or not.

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Learning involves stretching…still, again.

image:  (c) @edifiedlistener Sherri Spelic

Pay Dirt in Advance

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I don’t know how you start off your school year but I’m just realizing that my colleague and I manage a small miracle with our first few classes. Let me explain.

I teach in an international school where elementary students enjoy the benefit of several specialists. In our schedule Physical Education is taught opposite German language and English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes. Strings classes also enter the scheduling mix for all 2nd graders and some 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students. We see most of our students 4 days out of a six day cycle (which is to say frequently) and on some days with strings classes, my colleague and I will collapse two sections into one.

The schedule is complex and confusing, has lots of moving parts and amazingly it works pretty well for kids.

At the start of the year, as a team of specialists, the EAL and German teachers only have partial information about new students so that they need a couple of days in the first week to screen and place students into the correct levels. What this means is that in the 2-3 days of the school year, my colleague and I welcome a whole grade level  (45-60+ students) into the gym for 60 minutes while our three German-speaking colleagues work with small groups in a nearby room. This is a process we adopted some years ago and it has a some real advantages.

Right now I want to focus on that miracle I mentioned: 45-60 kids in a gym with 2 teachers for 1 hour on the first and/or second day of school. We introduce ourselves as the PE teachers, clarify a few essential cues they will need to participate successfully (start, stop & ‘come in’ signals; toilet locations) and slowly we get started. We practice finding a space, checking it at different levels, moving safely without bumping. We play stop and go with the music signal and have them try different locomotor movements. We do a round of whole group stretching and then practice making groups of different sizes. In a nutshell my colleague and I run an introductory class almost as if we were on our own with a group of 12-18 students (normal ratio).

The miracle is that this is possible. Not once, not twice, but every time, with every grade level. On their first day in the gym.

It’s possible because…

  • the majority of the students are returning and entirely familiar with our protocols.
  • new students take their cues from veterans and see among their peers that PE is something to look forward to and celebrate.
  • new students find a culture of inclusion where they find partners and groups who are welcoming and kind.
  • there is consistency from teacher to teacher. Whether returning students had me or my colleague the year before, the general expectations are the same so kids can feel confident in their anticipation of how things will work.
  • My colleague and I are comfortable sharing the planning, the “mic”, the follow-up work.
  • My colleague and I share an appreciation for what kids need during the lesson (i.e. time to talk and have fun with their friends and make new ones; more action and less talk).
  • We’ve built this program over several years and while my current colleague and I are only on our 2nd year of direct collaboration, the pattern of team teaching and shared planning has been in place for almost a decade.
  • My colleague and I like our jobs, enjoy kids, understand fun and build on each others’ strengths.

The results are actually amazing and worth highlighting. They are not accidental; rather they provide clear evidence that sustained teacher collaboration and team consistency are fruitful endeavors that benefit students and teachers.

In another day we will separate big groups into class sections and assign ourselves as teachers. Students will know who their teacher is and the school year will proceed as planned (more or less). They will also be happy and able to combine into big groups again from time to time. We’ll stride ahead knowing that they and we can handle both kinds of classes.

Beginning the year with this generous show of student trust, enthusiasm and relative clarity about what we are about in PE bolsters my confidence and stokes my desire to deliver on the promise we’ve already laid out. Pay Dirt in advance – may not happen often in our teaching lives but when it does, it is glorious.

 

image via Pixabay CC0

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.

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

 

School For Beginners

At my school we celebrated another first day for students on Monday. I say “celebrated” because that’s what much of the day felt like – a celebration. From most of what I saw, heard and experienced, there was a great deal of happiness. Returning students glad to see each other again, new students quickly finding friends and getting to know their teachers. Among my colleagues there seemed to be this giant collective exhale when we could finally get into our classrooms and do what we do best with students in the room.

To have a “First Day of School” year after year, now feels like a gift. I feel a sense of renewal: each day full of opportunities to change something for the better.  As I get older, I find that being the best holds little value for me any more. What I do enjoy, however, is that feeling of getting better. I could see it in my target kicking to my 8 yr old goalie son this summer. The more I kicked, the more accurate I became with both right and left. I noticed it in the way that I was able to contribute to our department’s conversation about useful apps we might try. It shows up in the way my colleague and I are able to navigate new collaborative territory as we team teach whole grade levels for a few days before our individual class schedules are set.

Getting better is also a lot more fun that agonizing over the title of “best.” Based on a recent conversation about teaching philosophy, I created a poster which I look forward to sharing with my students. Initially it had two parts: What I teach students and What I learn from students. Then I added an “essential question,” admittedly a little tongue-in-cheek. Here’s the outcome:

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Part of getting better will entail determining what awesomeness looks like for my students from PK through 5th grade. Make no mistake – they have ideas and will gladly share. My challenge will be to keep my teacher lady self flexible and sincere enough to welcome those ideas, particularly when they don’t readily align with my vision of “Elementary PE for the Ages.” For sure, being fair is harder than it looks.

In the meantime, my teacher lady self is working hard to get to bed on time, stay hydrated and remember her manners. Not yet best but always getting better.

Field Day Lessons

At my school we have a field day tradition in the elementary. For the space of almost two hours the whole population, PK-5th grade is in motion, rotating through 16 activity stations and 2 rest stops. Students are grouped into multi-aged teams of about 15-17 children, led by 5th graders. This year and last year we also offered 5th graders the opportunity to pair up to lead the activity stations. That meant, explaining the game, helping teams break into smaller groups and supervising play. Adults at each of the stations provided support where needed but generally it was up to the 5th graders to run the events and manage their younger charges.

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Field Day favorite: Freight Truck! ©ais_elementary

All in all, this year’s field day was, in the eyes of most, a great success. Teachers praised the 5th grade leaders for their fortitude and patience and perseverance in their roles of responsibility. The giggles, smiles and shrieks of joy from the PK-4th grade students were testament to the fun they were having throughout the morning. And the 5th graders, once they were officially done and able to enjoy their ice cream treat in peace, seemed satisfied and pleased with their work.

All good, right?

Well…Actually…

When I walked around the 4 spaces where the games were in progress, I noticed that the 5th graders after about 30 minutes often looked like wilted sunflowers. The group leaders seemed to be more upbeat but after an hour, many of them appeared a bit harried and pensive, rather than wilted. Some of them were having a really good time some of the time, but the impression I gained was one of overwhelm, exhaustion and a bit of boredom; which, given their assignments, was fully understandable.

On the following morning I went to their respective classrooms and asked them for feedback on field day – what they thought went well and what they felt could be improved.

This turned out to be one of the best professional moves I ever made: I got schooled in the danger of placing faith in my adult assumptions over the genuine desires of kids. While lots of kids expressed pride in their achievement, their enthusiasm for the event was audibly muted. And listening to their specific feedback I understood why:

In response to the question “What would make field day better?” Here is what they said:

“The 5th graders should get a chance to go to all the stations and play afterwards.”

“The teachers should help us control the groups at the stations.”

“You should tell the younger kids to listen to the 5th graders.”

“The 4th graders should know that they have responsibilities, too.”

“We got kind of bored. It would be good if we could switch stations after a while.”

Of course! It dawned on me. We gave them heaps of responsibility, let them lead throughout, and they got tired, bored and felt a bit shortchanged in the fun department. As I was wrapping up my reflections with the kids, one of the 5th grader teachers added the fact that as the tasks came from us, the adults, and not from them, the 5th graders lacked the same level of investment.

All along, my colleagues and I had been working on the assumption that this is what our 5th graders wanted and needed – an authentic opportunity to lead and manage. While that my have been true for some, and of significant interest to many, what they also wanted and needed was the chance to have fun like the other kids; to enjoy responsibility mixed in with distinct phases of carefree play.

Lesson learned. Next year we’ll aim for a field day which incorporates more of what students tell us that they want and work to design an experience that remains big on fun and responsive to student leadership needs.

It feels strange to make this huge event seem like such a downer. It wasn’t. Truly, much fun was had on multiple fronts. Being mindful and aware that not all students experienced the day in the ways we adults anticipated they would strikes me as precisely the work that distinguishes us as the reflective practitioners we strive to be.