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.

 

 

 

Repetition Works Wonders

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Let’s do that again!     (image via Pixabay.com)

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.

 

Dodgeball Discussions

Early this morning my 5th Graders and I had a conversation. After viewing and following their self-produced warm-up videos, I had planned on a short game of “Dodge Pop-Up” to celebrate and reward their hard work. One boy raised his hand and suggested that playing the game with a helping option was, in his words, “dumb” and made the game “boring” because it made it too easy for people to get back into the game. His back-up came from another boy who suggested that “all of us” felt that way and this offered me the cue that the conversation was just beginning.

Sometimes our teachable moments arrived gift wrapped and this seemed to be one of those occasions. As the dialogue unfolded, we discovered that in fact, not “all” students felt the same way about how the game was played. Some objections came from some of the girls who suggested that without the freedom to “free” each other by giving tagged players a ball, several students might spend the whole time sitting and waiting for that single player who tagged them to be hit and go down, thereby freeing the sitting player to get up and run again.

One boy suggested that instead of sitting out, tagged players could step out and do a series of exercises like sit-ups or jumping jacks before re-entering the game. Well, that idea just got shot down from all angles. This is where I halted the conversation and called their attention to what just happened. While the first boy’s suggestion to get rid of the helping option was listened to and backed by some, this boy’s idea was knocked off the table as soon as he put it out there. I told them that it revealed a lot about who holds power to voice an opinion in the group.

From there we moved on to who was supporting which version of the game. The strongest throwers and runners (who happened to be all male) were in favor of the ‘no-help’ version, while others in the class felt that the help option had a real purpose. I could not help but point out that the strongest members in the context of this game were speaking from a place of privilege, where the ‘no-help’ option would more likely favor their position as dominant in the game.

One girl who hadn’t spoken up yet raised her hand and began sharing an idea when she was cut off by one of the boys. I had to call that out. “Girl speaking, boy interrupting.” I encouraged her to continue and she shared the view that we were talking about a game, which shouldn’t be such a big deal. I paraphrased when another boy in the corner butted in. “Woman speaking, boy interrupting.” They were beginning to get my point.

While there was much more to the conversation – more voices, more opinions than the ones shared here – the point for me was developing their awareness. We’re talking about a game and we’re also talking about who we are in the game, and who has power in the game, and how the game makes us feel when we play it and according to whose rules. The conversation was not about dodgeball, yes or no, this conversation was about how we play and what are we creating in the way we choose to play it.

And there’s the key – how we – actually they, students, choose to play. What rules can we agree on and how do we negotiate rules which produce fair and satisfying game experiences not only for a few ‘skill privileged’ but for the entire group? These are the questions I want us to wrestle with from time to time. Because the notion that “it’s just a game” strikes me as a cop out, a way of denying how much more we invest in becoming and staying ‘players’.

The students finally played and introduced a compromise solution:  the ‘help’ option (giving tagged players a ball) was abandoned but tagged players would be able to pick up a stray ball and re-enter the game. I observed and I filmed them. I invited them to watch the playback. What did we see? They still helped each other and not only the “weaker” players, everyone used the opportunity to help out friends by rolling or tossing them a ball to get back in the game. I said “it’s almost as if you couldn’t help helping each other.” So after our lengthy discussion, it turned out that the familiar habit of helping won out and proved more beneficial to the feel of the game – for the whole group. Helping each other was the choice they actually made in practice.

That seems, indeed, like something to celebrate.