I tie their shoes*

Em, do you need help with tying your shoes?

She nods slowly and

my hands are already at work on her sprawling laces.

We can move on.

Tying shoes on small feet: an efficiency

I try to remember to ask first

L insists he can do it on his own.

His fingers labor while his brow furrows

It takes time.

He sits in the middle of the tag game

tying his laces just like he learned

one bunny ear, two bunny ears…

C kneels beside him and offers to tie the other shoe;

L weighs the option.

The game swirls all around them both.

There they plant themselves

in communion with the trouble of laces

determined

focused

suddenly successful.

I look away

and they have disappeared into

the frenzy of tag

squealing as they dash and dodge

shoes tied

and proud.

 

Shoe laces, fine motor skills, independence, asking for and receiving help. These topics populate my teaching days. When I squat down and perform the miracle of quickly tied laces, I am reminded of service as a point of connection. The child looks down at my busy fingers and can feel the care embedded in the act.

I ask if they would like some help tying their shoes. Some say yes, others no. I respect that. So often I am grateful for the material realities of learning. Shoe laces – tied and untied – ground me in my practice demanding that I remain observant, flexible and attentive to what the student in front of me requires: help or time or both or something else entirely.

 

*I found this draft in my pile. It was from September 14th, 2019. Reading it now provides a familiar comfort. Considering where we’ve been and now come back to, thinking about these small gestures matters.

 

 

See Sherri Teach.*

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Video on. I jog in front of the camera and start the exercise. A bear walk, a crab walk, bunny hops, hopscotch. I jog back to the iPad, stop the camera. Over the course of almost 8 weeks I have adjusted to putting myself, my living room and balcony on display in the interest of teaching and learning. I have tossed, caught and kicked socks, stuffed animals, t-shirts and scarves. I have crawled, rolled, skipped, jogged, hopped and galloped across the floor, the yard, my mat; sometimes smiling, other times, serious. And the constant is that I have to watch myself again and again performing a kind of instruction.

Performing instruction. Teaching by video, in my case, means creating a visual invitation to either join me directly or to watch my example as a template for practice. With video I can show things in a way that encourages imitation. My students and I are currently working with an “I do – You do” model. What we’re missing is the “we do” piece in between. They respond with a video or picture of their own, with a note or a voice message to tell me how it went. I watch, listen or read and convey my approval. I write, use emojis, or speak my appreciation. It’s a transaction, not a dialogue. It’s friendly and there’s evidence of relationship, yet we lack the opportunity to genuinely build on what has transpired. As soon as one lesson has been completed/consumed, it’s time to make space for the next.

At no other time in my teaching career have I ever spent so much time watching myself attempt to teach. And what do I see?

  • I see myself trying to remain familiar and recognizable to my students. I wear the same PE garb as usual. I’m showing the movements we’ve done before.
  • I see a healthy relationship with imperfection. I mess up, I try again.
  • Smiles that seem to come out of nowhere which means I just gave myself the internal reminder.
  • I see a surprising level of flexibility and strength and I also notice my age. Post-video I also feel my age significantly.
  • I see a repertoire of good guesses about what might work and for whom.
  • I see someone who actually enjoys a lot of what she’s trying to do.
  • A manner of presence specific to the particular audience (“Hi Pre-K!”) and not designed for universal consumption.

I’m thinking about what all this “seeing” is good for. How will it change my practice? What’s different already?

I never wanted to be that performer teacher who had all the moves and little understanding of the curse of knowledge. But on video for my kids I may seem like that, which is part of why my misses and flubs need to be in the mix. I also notice how some of my students deliver a kind of instructional video in response to my lesson prompt. Like young how-to youtubers, some will introduce their plan, narrate the steps, and of course, thank me for watching. It’s charming and also a stark reminder of this shared online reality. They recognize platform templates and begin to imitate them. And what I am shown are literally snapshots of effort. I have no control over or confirmation of how long or successfully anyone worked on a given task. So much of this emergency teaching and learning endeavor requires a new level of relational trust. I have to trust my students and they must trust me that we are all doing our best at the moment.

What makes the video “lessons” for my students different from some Youtube PE teacher? It’s the relationship. My students will watch and follow a video by me because we have some history, we know each other. They respond to me personally. What begins as a teacher to class initiative becomes a collection of unique one-to-one exchanges. When we started distance learning, I’m not sure either side, teachers nor students were fully prepared for the oddity of this dynamic. That said, through our individual interactions it’s also true that this is how we remain present for each other; entirely real, the opposite of imaginary.

When I watch my videos it’s also one way to make my efforts entirely real to myself. There I am, that middle aged Black woman moving to and fro, here and there, up and down. Hopefully doing more than entertaining. Ideally, I’m inviting, encouraging, welcoming; offering reminders of what we do and think about in PE even without mats, balls and all of our classmates. Before this I had very little visual documentation of my years in the gym. Tons of pictures and video of kids and classes but almost none of me doing what I do. Seeing myself now, 25 years in and on the daily feels like both a gift and hurdle.

It’s no longer a question of if that’s me, it’s what will I do next to shake the tree of student interest and engagement?

See Mrs. Spelic teach.

See Mrs. Spelic skip. See Mrs. Spelic run.

Watch her jump! Watch her hop!

See Mrs. Spelic turn a cartwheel!

Teach, Mrs. Spelic, teach!

 

*The jury is still out on the title, “See Sherri teach.” I keep asking myself: does showing constitute teaching?

“See Sherri Invite Her Students To Do Something, Anything Related To PE On A Given Day And Share A Response As Evidence Of Engagement” – just not as catchy, right?

image: edifiedlistener

Soccer unit inside and out

“Welcome to our soccer unit – highly anticipated for many of you – it’s on!”

(Some of them can hardly contain themselves, can’t wait to launch the ball towards the goal at record speed. Watch this one dribble like a pro, make the cross then execute that heel pass into the net right through the mystified goalie’s legs.

See how they run – chasing down that ball, beating the opponent – so much glory in 5 seconds before the ball is reclaimed by the better dribbler.

Soccer, my least favorite unit to teach. There, I said it. Yet, every year I get a little better at it. I let go of the reins a little more; observe and coach. I take on their input. I spend less time “curbing” their enthusiasm; more time letting them find their way into games they will deem satisfying. The know-it-all-bend-it-like-Beckham-watch-me-I’m-Messi Saturday morning experts can get under my skin if they press me too hard. But now I’m prepared for them: Yes, there will be games throughout the unit but small-sided. No, we’re not playing boys against girls, ever.)

*Students engage in free soccer play around the gym. No one is idle.*

(Why do I resist this unit so deeply? What am I afraid of? I can answer that. I am afraid of failing, of looking foolish, of missing the mark, of being mocked for my lack of visible expertise… Is that enough?

Every time I meet my classes, this fear is lurking beneath the surface – what if they resist my plans? What if they don’t follow the plan? What if they hate what I’ve written on the board? I am steeled for their push back and it almost never comes. Or when it does, it’s perfectly understandable. Like my Pre-K friends who resist anything with too much teacher directed structure. They all run in different directions and in their own way broadcast to me “WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR!! Which absolutely makes sense and they are simply demanding that I, too, make some sense.

So when it comes to soccer I am programmed for pushback. “Why can’t we play a game? When are we gonna play a match? This isn’t real soccer…” Feels like I have heard it all but actually, things go fine when I let them lead with their interests and introduce one bit of skill practice, a quick skill oriented activity and then another low stakes game that’s fun and lets players choose their level of active risk. It’s fine, fine, fine.  I’m ok.)

“What? It’s time to go? Are we doing soccer next time, too?”

One final kick into the goal. Smashed it.

Balls in the bag, please. Thank you. Tomorrow’s another day.

Space And Respect

“Space!”

“Find a space.”

“Is that a good space?”

“Find your own space.”

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I spend a lot of my teaching days talking about space – why we need it, what it looks like when we all have it, or when only a few of us have it. I talk about space and safety, space and movement, space as a strategy element, space as a necessity. I work in a gym where my students and I typically have an abundance of space. It would be so easy for us to spread out.

What I’ve learned, however, from watching kids in gyms for a couple of decades is that space is my priority, not necessarily theirs. My students are drawn into their classmates’ spaces like magnets. Students of all ages show a common need to be in close proximity to their peers in one way or another. On an Awesome Gym Day when kids are free to choose their activities, it is not uncommon to find the vast majority of the class in one half of the gym. Or while it would be possible for everyone to distribute themselves among the rings, ladders, ropes or trapezes, several routinely gather at one particular apparatus and wait in line, sometimes egging each other on.

I ask kids to make groups for stretching, or long jump rope, or some other activity and they huddle up near the white board or by the wall, nearly on top of each other while the middle of the gym remains empty. A circle of movers tends to shrink very quickly. Space evaporates between kids at alarming rates as they end up side by side and giggling.

It’s fascinating to me as an observer. Given a choice, most of my students choose to gather with other students even when each child has a ball, or a rope to jump in. They need to show off for each other – to see and be seen. They need to gab and catch up. They have social agendas that are complex, multifaceted and at times, uncompromising. In the space of the gym, students experience a context for engaging with each other that can accommodate serious volume, speed, and force. Many students feel unleashed when they arrive in the gym.

And coming from even the most inviting classroom, how could they not? An open gym simply begs to be run in and make noise to shake the rafters. But when they run, most still like to be in close proximity to one or two buddies. Their need is social and it tops almost all the other priorities they might have coming to PE on any given day.

I got to read an interview with a design anthropologist who is the first black and black female dean of a design school faculty. Dr. Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall’s approach to design begins with respect. She describes the curiosity that her title invokes in others:

People always say, “Design anthropologist? What do you design?” I say, “I design the conditions of possibility.”

Which reminds me of what I am trying to do in my classroom, however crudely: “design the conditions for possibility.” I want my students to see, imagine, experience all kinds of possibilities in the gym. Even if the constraints of my lesson plans appear to run counter to what they might want at that moment, this does not stop them from creating new possibilities of their own. They are constantly in the process of refashioning the instructions they have been given to best suit their immediate needs, which more often than not tend to be, social.

Part and parcel of my process is remembering to respect my students’ deep and distinct need to be social – not just to chat but to experience belonging, connection, and purpose with others. These are the very big possibilities in the gym. If I’m doing my best work, then opening up the space for belonging, connection and purpose to flourish will be at the core of what’s happening. Sometimes it means that not everyone will be in their own space when I think they should be. Again, Dr. Tunstall:

Beginning with the notion of respect or respectfulness, the debate becomes about how you stand as a designer as opposed to what you’re trying to do as a designer.

How do I stand as a designer of learning in my gym? And to what degree is my stance expressive of respect for my students and our time together? These are questions I can hold onto and explore again and again, every time my students enter the gym as I ask them to “find a space.”

 

image CC0 via Pixabay.com

View at Medium.com

I have some thoughts about parent-teacher conferences

As a teacher I enjoy the opportunity to sit with the parents of my individual students and to talk about their accomplishments their challenges and our relationship. There’s a similar structure to each of my conferences and although I teach about 130 students on average I feel like I know each of them well enough to speak to parents and say some things about each child individually.

First of all, I thank parents for coming.

Next, I ask: what have you heard about PE so far?

Whatever the response, the question puts the parents and their child in the spotlight. My task is to listen carefully.

Based on their responses I can begin to share my observations about their child or children with them. Most often I have plenty of good news to share with a few anecdotes of recent wins.

When I have difficulties to share or describe I spend a considerable amount of time providing context. I tell parents about the structure of our class: what the expectations are, where their child shows signs of struggle and I always emphasize the expectation of change over time. It’s vitally important to me that parents understand that each child is working on something; each child faces or will face a challenge of one kind or another. As will their teacher. Process, process, that’s what we’re about.

While it seems that conferences are built up as a sort of reporting structure where teachers prepare a sort of ‘show and tell’ about students and their progress to date, it’s also an opportunity for teachers to learn about families. In my case, parents are often eager to share some information about themselves and their child’s sport enthusiasms and disappointments; previous injuries or wonderings about potential areas of brilliance. In fact, parents often want to know if I perhaps have a hot tip as to which activity might offer their child the greatest joy or opportunity to shine, or both.

In these listening moments, I find all kinds of inspiration. These are the windows which allow me to envision a student more fully and accurately with plenty of light and the proper shading.  This is where the conversation becomes animated and we’re no longer focused on the nuts and bolts of Physical Education but the blossoming of a wonderful young person. I enjoy exploring possibilities with parents by asking about previous sports experiences and learning more about how students see themselves in various physical contexts.

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“So what does your child enjoy doing?”

10 minutes. That’s how long I have to talk with parents about their child in my PE classes. For new parents I often focus on my observations of the child seems to have landed in their new school and how this seems to be playing out in PE. For veteran parents we can talk about new demands in the program and how their child is adjusting. What I love is the back and forth, the element of surprise for either of us at learning something new, the chance to put a concerned parent’s mind at ease about a difficulty.

This round I hosted about 40 conferences over two days. In the spring there will be more students in the mix as student-led versions become the norm. In these bursts of dialogue, I feed my calling to listen and respond with care. Honesty is at the forefront of my mind along with compassion and good will. I want us all – students, parents, teachers – to be successful because of each other.  Conferences are a chance for me to truly “use my words” and lay the foundation for student successes that stretch well beyond the gym and gallop all the way home.

 

image CC0 via Pixabay.

#ECISPE18 Let’s Change the Conference Game

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This backpack is more than the average conference swag. It carries all the right reminders for my learning future.

If you’ve been following me on Twitter and also read this blog, you’ll know that I’m pretty jazzed about my most recent conference experience: Educational Collaborative of International Schools’ Physical Education Conference (ECISPE) 2018 held at the International School of Dusseldorf, Germany. You might be saying, “Enough, already! It was great, you met cool people, went to top sessions, we get it!”

And that could be enough. But of course there’s more. (You have to see the picture in the tweet courtesy of @MrAdamPE)

In my last post I described the collegial nature of the event which thrives thanks to a ‘teachers teaching teachers’ approach to curating workshop offerings. The event is a relatively small one, intimate even, allowing for a little over 100 international PE colleagues to actually get to know each other during those three days. With at least 35  out of 45 workshop offerings provided by teachers attending the conference, nearly half of the delegates were also presenters.

This matters. A lot.

As a structure, ‘Teachers Teaching Teachers’ attracts and sustains participant engagement. We are PE teachers who want and expect to learn from each other throughout the conference.  There’s an unspoken understanding that each of us is expert at something, perhaps several things, and the conference is literally built to facilitate that mutual exchange of expertise.

Think about how that would impact the way you show up in a shared professional space. Imagine what it would feel like to enter a community of your peers, hip to your own awesomeness as you embrace and celebrate theirs. (Thanks, @MelanieG_pl3y) for adding that spice!)

Showing up at this conference meant that I sought out challenge. I headed for the sessions where my knowledge was limited and my experience level novice. Last year it was ice hockey; this year it was judo, soccer goalkeeping and a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout. Believe me, I felt fully challenged in a variety of ways. The point is, I felt encouraged. It felt cool to be brave and also to discover. These are the experiences which generate the deepest and most wide ranging reflections. Not surprisingly, these moments excite and exhilarate me.

Imagine finding yourself in the company of colleagues who welcome both your confidence and your vulnerability. In Dusseldorf it meant that I invested a whole lot more energy connecting with people than in posturing. I engaged as if my learning future depended upon it. When I packed up to head home, I could say that I experienced the conference for all it was worth. And in exchange, my international colleagues encountered me in the fullest version of myself.

I was awesome and so were they and I don’t need to feel embarrassed saying that.

Too often we register for and attend conferences with the intent to receive. We’re primed to be able to articulate the numerous take aways; to be able share what we got out of attending. Being at ECIS PE 2018 reinforced for me the need for a ‘change in perspective’ (the conference theme) in how we understand our roles as participants in professional events. I would like to see us all more actively consider what we bring to the gathering, how we enrich and enliven the space with our presence, words and actions. And live it! Over and over again.

This is how we, as learning professionals (in all the ways that phrase can be understood), will arrive more consistently at the conference experiences we so often crave and unequivocally deserve.

 

image: (c) edifiedlistener

What I would tell you about #ECISPE18

I want to tell you about my last couple of days at a PE conference and it’s late and I imagine sleep would be a good idea about now.

I want to tell you how invigorating these days have been, how busy my mind has been, what a high it is to spend time with people who share the same kind of work and love it. What it’s like to be chatting with someone at the break and then crawling between their legs 30 minutes later in a volleyball drill.

Or what it feels like to meet an old friend whom I first met 13 years ago in Budapest at this conference, and who has taught on 4 continents since and yes, came here to Dusseldorf from Shanghai because she likes this conference better. Joy.

I could describe the apprehension I felt arriving on the first day, hand luggage still in tow, heading into the first session with nary a clue what to expect. And then how that hesitation melted away within minutes of moving gently to music with a roomful of men and women who also work in gyms and pools and on fields with kids.

Maybe I’d share a little bit about having Amanda Stanec walk up to me and give me the warmest welcome ever and how cool it is to be acknowledged and appreciated by someone whose work I sincerely admire.

I would definitely tell you about the morning I spent in a session on judo where I really, really wondered if I made the right choice. But then, Greg, our instructor playfully and gently led us from simple partner games to a couple of technique exercises to sparring. by the end I was twisting, turning, grabbing my partner; pushing, pulling and rolling to defend and attack. I laughed as I struggled to flip my partner, laughed even more when she lifted and flipped me like a hamburger. I learned more about myself in 40 seconds of full on sparring than in hours and hours of school organized professional development.

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And that’s the thing: this whole conference is dedicated to professional development. We are physical educators working to improve our teaching practice by practicing teaching, learning, demonstrating, discussing, and observing. This conference is professionals’ development – the kind we create for ourselves, the kind that sustains us for the long haul, the kind that invites us to question and re-evalute our practices, the kind that makes us leave loving our work, the kind that makes us come back for more year after year, if we can.

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Oh yeah, and maybe I’d tell you about the workshop I led and how well it was received and what great people showed up to share that time with me. But you know it’s late and all and it would take another blog post, but in the meantime here’s a link to a padlet which has some pics and the handout.

I’d tell you what a fantastic time I am having but instead, I think I’ll turn in.