Dance exploration is what I’m offering, I told them. We’ll be listening and responding to different types of music and asking ourselves ‘what makes a dance, a dance?’ Those who chose to stay at least brought their fair share of curiosity which was actually a brilliant start.
We began with crosstown traffic. Half groups line up facing each other several meters apart. The goal: to pass to the opposite side without bumping into others while also responding to the music. An easy on-ramp. I ask them to use different pathways, to try alternating levels as they go. How are they using their arms? What kinds of shapes are they making as they travel? In the process, I vary the music from West African drumming, to a lyrical romantic soundtrack, to workaday pop, to a high energy Bollywood tune. They move, they adapt.
Next, we learn to imagine our own box that is as tall as we can jump, as wide and deep as we can reach. Here is where we can experiment with non-locomotor movements: twisting, turning, curling, stretching, kicking, extending. I say we, because I find my own box and play inside it. Some students turn to watch me. And I catch them wondering. But I continue and they, too, discover the possibilities within their own boxes.
I ask them to pick two or three movements they tried in their box and really liked. They then shared their moves with a partner and found ways to combine their ideas. Again, I offered two slightly different selections of music to experiment with. Depending on the vibe, pairs were asked to share their work in progress and often we had a couple of pairs share at a time to reduce performance anxiety. Some pairs also chose not to share.
If time was left, pairs could join forces and continue to build on their creations.
In the space of 4 days of classes, seeing each grade level group two times, I learned so much about what’s possible in short time frames. Opening the door for individual discovery and creativity to then creating a shallow on-ramp for simple collaboration with the option to add complexity if students chose…
If students chose… Students experienced many, many opportunities in the 40+ minutes to choose, choose, and choose again. Which movements to each kind of music, which partner, which group, which combinations, what kind of performance? All possible because…still playful. No grades, no evaluation; instead appreciation, fun and surprise.
And it mattered that I provided guidance while also participating. I was not as separate from them as they might have expected. By modeling discovery and fun in my own box, I gave a taste of what’s possible. Even the most hesitant movers found an in to exploring their response to the environment.
My loose ideas for structuring a dance exploration workshop for elementary students evolved over the course of the week. I learned to adapt to my audience. With Pre-K I quickly found out that storytelling provided a useful frame for channeling their energies. With tough customers I had to remind myself to not take it personally and to simply ask what might help their engagement: different music? Working alone or with a different group? In most cases we were able to locate a positive solution.
I write all this now as a way to remind myself weeks, months and years later what was possible, successful and worthy. Our MADD (Music, Art, Dance and Drama) Week provided occasion for me to prepare differently. To provoke and receive students’ invention and creative energies in ways that humbled and surprised me. I gave myself and my students license to genuinely explore, test and develop our own approaches not only to dance but to collaboration and community. So much more than any lesson plan could ever articulate.
Speaker, speaker on the mic
help me understand you right
What's your point, make it clear
show me that you've earned my ear...
One speaking opportunity, several insights
You may know that I have mixed feelings about public speaking. Now that I have a little more experience, I can safely say that it is still a fraught undertaking in my mind. I enjoy being part of a panel. Facilitating groups I consider to be a fundamental calling. But the singular speaking gig still feels weird and I’m learning how to make it a far less lonely enterprise than it might be.
I was recently privileged to give my first in-person keynote talk at the ECIS (Education Collaborative of International Schools) Physical Education Conference, held at Frankfurt International School. I was last to bat, following three action-packed days of facilitating, dancing, playing, and learning. This was not my first ECIS PE Conference but it was the first in-person gathering in four years. I last attended the event in Düsseldorf in 2018, in Vienna 2017 and a couple of others before that.
Something you need to know: our PE conferences are built for active learning. The teachers-teaching-teachers model is central and we use all sorts of movement spaces to share games, techniques, and approaches over the course of our time together. That means we physically interact with each other, learn from each other; block and outwit each other. There’s laughter and listening, confusion and competition, composition and camaraderie. So giving a talk to the folks who are still with you after those many hours of active engagement feels less daunting; you know who you’re talking to.
Given that, I knew that I wanted my “talk” to feel more like a kind of focused debrief with movement interludes. In January, I already announced that I would zero in on PE teacher identity and came up with the title: “Who We Are Is What We Teach.” What I had to acknowledge was that I could not ask participants to do what I was not willing to do myself. So the talk became surprisingly personal.
I opened with a quick energizer. We did a short body percussion routine which is something I’ve always wanted to do with a group:
Next I asked the group to think about dominant culture of the PE departments in our respective international schools and identify salient characteristics. Surprise, no surprise: white, western, cis and male turned out to be the most widely represented attributes.
We turned our attention to the purpose and value of identity talk; what we gain by articulating layers and intersections of identity:
I used this as a springboard to share a bit of my own story, noting that although I am a Black woman who experiences racism and sexism, on almost all the other dimensions on the power/privilege wheel I am closer to power than not. And in my school context, I enjoy privileges that derive from being on staff for over 25 years, for instance. If nothing else, I hope people leave prepared to look beyond assumed and visible sources of power in considering the role of identity in all sorts of interactions.
How do we talk about our teacher identities and how those have come into being? We need to look back and think about what and who shaped our pathways into teaching and then specifically into Phys Ed. Here’s what I came up with for myself:
This was of course prelude to inviting my audience to think about their own experiences and then share at their tables. As I walked around, I heard folks talk about their parents, siblings, coaches, teachers, teammates -people who were significant in helping them discover who they might become. These conversations created a warm buzz in the room that I actually had time to take in and appreciate.
I chose to wrap-up with some insights I gleaned during my preparation, one of which I dare to call my purpose. I said,
In principle, very little of my writing, teaching, parenting, coaching, – you name it, is done alone or in isolation. I depend on communities and networks and other ways that folks come together to act on my purpose. My purpose is with other people.
To demonstrate how that plays out for me, I came up with what I call “Relational Standards.” These are phrases/concepts that name my priorities in working/sharing/living well with others.
Collaborative joy x 3
For each idea, I provided an image and elaborated with a few words. Loving non-negotiables connects with my parents and their laser focus on education and independence for me and my siblings. Mutual responsibility shines through my relationships to my two sons but also to the communities to which I belong. “How do we care for each other?” is a question I try to pose in every community context. For responsive accountability I chose a photo of my PE team and explained how we regularly negotiate a range of topics and that our priority must remain: student well being and learning. In order to do that we need to be able to address concerns with equanimity and care.
The final 3 slides show forms of collaborative joy: 1st graders playing with the parachute, a smiling selfie with my CEESA DEIJ co-collaborators, Meredith Klein and Kathy Stetson, and a 30 second clip of my elementary school doing a line dance for Fasching. What I realized is that I get to experience A LOT of collaborative joy: at home, at work, online, in class. There are actually many, many moments of delight and satisfaction I derive simply from teaming up with others. That’s why it shows up 3 times instead of just once. Collaborative joy is often what I’m steering towards without always recognizing it.
In closing, I offered a short recap of the main points and of course, got everyone on their feet to finish up with the line dance!
I could not have asked for a more responsive or generous audience. It mattered that we share a professional identity. It mattered that I was not speaking to a room of strangers. It mattered that movement and conversation were integral to how we spent our time together. It mattered that I shared more of myself than I am usually inclined to do. It mattered that I was able to bring my full self to the task.
Many thanks to the #ECISPE2023 team for inviting me and putting on an excellent conference from beginning to end!
Below is the text of my keynote talk for the Open Technology in Education, Society and Scholarship Association given on Tuesday, May 17th, 2022. A recording of the talk will be published later. The slides to the talk arehere.
I’m truly honored to have this opportunity to be in community with you today. I want to thank the OTESSA organizing committee of Valerie Irvine, Terry Greene, Aras Bozkurt and Kathy Snow for the kind invitation to speak.
Getting to this moment has been a process. Not just for me, I imagine, but for all of us. What have we each done and needed to do in order to be here, be present, right at this current moment?
Pause for a minute and consider all the actions you and I have taken to be in the same time and space together. I’ve closed my door, arranged my lighting and tech set-up, cued up my slides, turned my phone off, closed up all those precious tabs in my browser, had a glass of water… and that’s just within the last hour.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fact that however we got here, we relied on other people in ways large and small to make it possible.
I chose this topic or perhaps I should say the topic chose me. Around the time that I proposed the title I was faced with a problem: several of my students were resisting my instruction in a lot of different ways. And truth be told, I was struggling in deciding how to deal with it.
So, this title alludes to not only my specific situation but also the never ending context of teaching and learning systems. Even as we pursue our interests and attempt to satisfy our curiosity as learners, we are also negotiating power dynamics. As educators tasked with the responsibility of conveying knowledge and engaging students’ thinking, it’s very common for us to experience learners who resist our pedagogical offerings. There’s hiding and there’s seeking. There’s movement and there’s stalling. There’s clarity and there’s confusion.
What I hope we can do together is consider several of the ways we interpret learner resistance and also acknowledge the both helpful and hopeful means we have to lessen its reach and impact in the classroom without diminishing the personhood of our students.
A necessary digression
One of the miracles of this particular interaction – that is, me, an elementary physical education specialist addressing you, an international audience of educators, scholars, thinkers with a particular interest in open technology and education – is how unlikely it is and would have been 15 or even 10 years ago.
I am here in no small part because of a collection of networked circumstances that flow through one specific digital platform: Twitter. Without Twitter, I doubt that I would have found the types of audience and community for my writing and thinking that have enabled me to appear before you now as a keynote speaker. This is not simply about follower counts or a niche form of mircocelebrity. Rather, my engagement on Twitter has been life-altering, life- enhancing and often life-giving. The friendships, deep conversations and ongoing connections that have arisen from showing up, showing myself and showing care mean the world to me. These are the connections that I bring to bear here, today. My intellectual world is broader, brighter and emotionally sustaining because of so many connections made on a certain bird app.
That means that the recent talk of new ownership has felt threatening and surprisingly personal. Without knowing exactly what’s ahead, recognizing the frailty and vulnerability of the neighborhoods that we’ve built online has been deeply sobering but not entirely surprising.
I say this as a Black educator of young children.
I say this as a Black American woman writer who no longer shies away from the mic.
I say this as an elementary educator who has formed deep, meaningful connections with colleagues across a spectrum of institutions and disciplines.
I say this as a middle-aged Black American woman contemplating the loss of a well curated, life-changing platform.
We can all still watch, wait and hope and against hope that the worst does not transpire. At the same time, let us have no illusions about the durability of for-profit platforms as reliable containers for our dreams of social justice.
I mention all this to situate my talk in a larger, yet distinctly personal context. While we contemplate learner refusal and resistance, I am also considering my own instances of resistance and willingness to adapt to new situations.
Throughout this talk, you’ll notice that I have feelings about all of these things.
A note about the images on the slides: several of these are photographs that I have digitally altered with LunaPic to offer an artistic flair and also to preserve the privacy of my students. It means a lot to be able to share my students and our spaces with you in this way.
About me in PE
As you’ve heard, I am a PE specialist at the elementary level. Telling you about my context must also contend with the overt and covert associations happening in your mind with regard to the topic of “elementary physical education.” Consciously or not, a compare and contrast machine is running in the background. Our sense-making relies on calling forth whatever resources our minds have to offer at the moment. Before I continue, I want to ask you to please respond to this prompt:
What comes up for you when you think back to your own childhood experiences in PE?
If you’re willing, please share your reflection in the chat.
Asking adults this question is often fraught. Elementary PE can bring up really awful things for some folks, I know. I regret that but it is a frighteningly common reality: humiliation, physical injury, significant emotional damage. At the same time, it also illustrates a teaching and learning dynamic characterized by deliberate power imbalances, a frequent focus on competition and ranking, and a potentially widespread dismissal of students who do not conform to a specific athletic norm. Of course this is neither the whole nor only story, but it’s the one we are more likely to hear in the public sphere and that matters.
Physical Education as a field has come a very long way and the current mission statements, national standards and recent research, the emphasis on healthy social emotional development within and alongside physical development has become commonplace. Cooperative, team-building activities are firmly embedded in programs around the world. Wider ranges of movement options are being offered to students in the hopes of encouraging lifelong physical literacy and engagement.
The key here and in any conversation, really, is to make space for whatever ideas, perceptions, emotions we may be bringing to a topic first.
My students tend to do this automatically:
Me: Friends, we’re starting our soccer unit…
Them: “ Oh, I hate soccer!”
“Yay! Can we play a match?”
Add to that the various body language expressions of dread or exuberance. Their messages in such situations come in loud and clear.
That said, it’s important to understand that my students share a few fundamental priorities when they come to the gym. They have expectations and standards.
They arrive looking for fun.
They want to play with their friends.
They want to challenge themselves and be challenged to varying degrees but in the right measure.
[Repeat each with appropriate image]
As their teacher, I of course have choices:
I can focus on planning in ways which incorporate these priorities.
I have learned, often the hard way, what happens when I do not take student priorities into account:
They resist, they refuse, they avoid.
Examples of student resistance
Let me give you a couple of examples:
Several years ago when my training as a coaching professional was still fresh, a group of first graders were sitting on the gym floor watching me put down markers for our next activity. The longer I took, the louder they became. I stopped what I was doing and asked: You all just got very loud while I was setting up, what is it that you want me to understand?
They responded rapid fire: We want to have fun! This is boring! We want to play!
“So with your noise you’re telling me that I’m taking too long, I’m keeping you from having fun. I’m sorry. Let’s fix that!”
I remember the situation so clearly because it may have been the first time that I had ever asked students such a question and actually heard their response on a visceral level. I literally ‘stood corrected’ and we were able to proceed.
More recently among my youngest learners I was finding it hard to get them to participate in concert – meaning that they were all over the place. Herding cats syndrome. Also, my responses were not always helpful: frustration, exasperation, anger. So many individual cases of resistance and outright refusal.
I clearly needed to rethink my approach.
That’s how I landed on obstacle courses as a possible remedy. I created them for nearly every lesson. Obstacle courses satisfied several criteria:
They are fun and exciting.
Students can move through them autonomously for the most part
It’s a recognizable pattern students can quickly make sense of
They provide lots of practice of different movement skills
Watching students line up on their own without a struggle was the telltale sign that I was onto something.
In that same group I also made story time a fixture at the end of class. I read one or two picture books that I select from the library. Of all the things that I offer these learners in my PE class, nothing has been as reliably unifying and compelling as the read-aloud. I mean, who knew?
Accepting Resistance; Working Around and With It
What I’ve learned from students and experience is that resistance is part of the bargain we enter in education.
Students resist things that they fear, dread or feel they cannot handle.
Students resist not being regarded as individuals
Students resist when their contextual priorities go unacknowledged.
Now, I’m going to repeat those statements, but replace “students” with “educators”
Educators resist things that they fear, dread or feel they cannot handle.
Educators resist not being regarded as individuals
Educators resist when their contextual priorities go unacknowledged.
See what I did there? I’m talking about student resistance, yes and, I want us to also consider our own instances of resistance. There’s a connection. Just saying.
Please keep that in mind as we go.
But now, back to students.
Resistance (and refusal) are forms of power at our disposal. Children use resistance frequently in my classes. There are plenty of things they are asked to do which, in the words of Bartleby, the Scrivener, they would “prefer not to.”
Their resistance is both physical and metaphorical.
When asked to make all gender groups, they drag their feet.
When asked to create groups that are balanced in terms of skill and enthusiasm, they take their sweet time.
When asked to replicate a skill as demonstrated, they reinvent the wheel.
When asked to hustle up and get started, they dawdle …
We have on the one hand, the adult-teacher demand and expectation of certain responses and on the other hand, we have students demonstrating, well … if you really think about it:
Will, Autonomy, agency, creativity
And it drives us nuts? (ok, drives me nuts)
What I mean is, it rubs my ego the wrong way. What I mean is, I want to have things my way. I resist their resistance. There’s power and we struggle over who gets to hold it.
Let’s take a step back. I offer you this poem to illustrate.
What Is Going On?
Refusal in a world where choices are few
Or not obvious
To say no
To rather not/ also to choose otherwise
Where choice exists but is not advertised.
What is going on?
There’s a confusion
An assumption or series of assumptions
Which is an active interpretation of what we believe
What we thought should be happening.
Ah, a disconnect.
We ask about/for understanding
We are seeking clarity
A way out of the confusion
A way out of the cognitive mismatch.
What is going on?
A way of asking
Are you not doing what I expected
In the way I expected?
Don’t your actions correspond to the
Picture in my head?
Why, I am asking,
Are you not reading my mind
Are we visibly at odds between
My thinking and your doing?
Is your aim to be more you
And less me?
Let’s pause here. What do you notice? What do you wonder?
I penned this poem while asking myself what it is I really want to get across during our time together. I’m asking myself (and by extension, us) to take another look at the student behaviors we typically identify as resistance or refusal.
I often ask students: What is going on?
When I might do better by asking: What is it that you want/need me to understand?
And I would probably do well to ask: What else can I see in my students’ behaviors?
Towards an Irresistible Pedagogy
Thinking about and through all of these questions has helped me recognize what I’m trying to do in my classes. Some kind of resistance will always be there. What can I do to make this (lesson, class, experience) irresistible to students?
I use “irresistible” as aspirational rather than as fact.
Here’s what I’ve figured out so far:
It is deeply relational and requires being our whole selves
It is visibly responsive to student priorities
It includes apologies where necessary
It is inherently adaptive
Let’s talk about those in turn:
I have to develop some kind of relationship with each of my students. It begins by learning their names and how to pronounce them correctly. I observe them carefully in order to notice their unique access points. This one loves cartwheels, while that one fears balls; another one tends to blurt out during instructions, while their classmate will hardly say “boo” in class. These details form the basis of our year together. At the same time, my students get to know me. That I’m kinda strict, I remember names and I can do a pretty good cartwheel.
Relational also means that I think about my students when choosing my attire for the day: fairy tale hoodie? Fruit shaped earrings? Broccoli or strawberry socks? These details matter. Changing my hairstyle or shoes can never go unnoticed. These can be great conversation starters or just reminders that I’m a person with particular tastes. These are more crumbs on the path of getting to know Mrs. Spelic.
Visibly responsive –
Along the same lines, I try to plan activities that will appeal to my students. I only make promises that I can keep. Although students will ask me every lesson if today is Awesome Gym Day, they know that it will happen and I’ll give them ample warning.
It also matters how the gym is set up, what’s written on the board, which equipment is in view? These provide clues that students parse like expert detectives. Reading the agenda on the board allows them to confirm their suspicions.
And of course they press me with further requests which I most likely cannot accommodate on the spot. I note their requests, however, and hold onto them for future lessons. And when I say no, I can cite a good reason.
The most common injuries in my classes are hurt feelings. When students come to me to share a complaint about a classmate, I often ask if the other person already said sorry. The response is usually “no.”
Irresistible assumes that we’re going to make mistakes and fall short of our proclaimed goals.
It means that I model using apologies to start over and acknowledge doing the wrong thing. My students learn that we’re not in class in pursuit of perfection. No, we’re in class to build something useful and interesting with each other. To do that we have to be prepared to stop and unpack what went wrong. And we all practice listening, even when it may feel like the hardest thing to do.
Of course, my students and I have to be prepared for changes during our time together. We may run out of time to do all the activities written on the board. Or discover that we’re missing the skill level to play a certain game. Also no two groups, even at the same grade level are ever the same. Above all, it has helped to let go of my expectations of stasis.
There are some things I can relatively easily identify as “irresistible” for the vast majority of students:
First and foremost, Awesome Gym Day,
But also the team building activity, Bridges.
Choosing their own partners and groups
Having music on in class
Fun on their terms,
Being heard, seeing their ideas put into practice
When I wear my Lego earrings.
To capture the conundrum of sharing all this with you while also wondering if it even makes sense or holds value, I offer you another poem:
“What I mean by irresistible”
Look at me, look at this
Me trying to tell you ‘bout something irresistible
A pedagogy of all things! Pathways to learning,
Means of instruction
Irresistible, my foot!
On the other hand,
What you know about kids
And movement and play?
Given the chance, kids can make
Nearly anything a game.
What I’m saying, what I’ve learned is
Just not to mess it up
Irresistible respects desires
Irresistible salutes the right challenge
Irresistible knows how to kick it
And have fun
What I’m saying, what I’ve learned is
We make awesome the standard;
We are always aiming
For satisfaction, this way, then that
Sometimes we make it, sometimes not
Make awesome the standard
So we know what to do with choice
When we have it
know how to pursue our heart’s desire
Even going solo
We learn how to try and fail
And try again
Irresistible means I have to let go
means I have to stop resisting
means I have to acknowledge the wealth
Of drive, creativity and self
Running wild across the canvas
Of our class
Irresistible is about making options
Visible, legible, real
Irresistible is about discovering possibility
In the tiniest thing
Irresistible is about learning the truth
That control is rarely a monopoly
So, no, it’s not an answer
Or a solution, please note.
It’s an aperture to look through
Once, then again
A flight of fancy disguised as work
A chance to see
as if you hadn’t been looking
What might “irresistible” look, sound and feel like in your context?
Space for negotiation in our pedagogy?
Irresistible pedagogy has no interest in perfection or some (marketable) manufactured ideal; rather it’s about discovering the things, the conditions that keep us in the game; that keep us wanting to come back and practice a little more. Just enough of the right stuff and close watch on avoiding the worst stuff. From all sides.
Just enough of the right stuff – for our students, for ourselves, for and also from our institutions
A close watch on avoiding the worst stuff – especially in our institutions as well as in our practices.
Irresistible pedagogy tries to hold breathing space for change, adaptation, and sharing power.
As illustrations I want to share two very special valentines that I received from students last year and this year. The first from a 4th grader reads: “Dear Mrs. Spelic, thank you for sharing all the power with me!”
And the second, from a 5th grader: “Dear Ms. Spelic, You are a great PE teacher and make the best out of terrible situations.”
These both remind me of the work we, my students and I, are doing with and on each other. Reading each I feel seen, known and utterly understood. I mean, “make the best out of terrible situations…”
Troubling the waters before we go
Take 3 minutes to think about what we’ve talked about so far. How is it landing? What questions might you have?
One of the questions I have to ask is: Does my notion of an irresistible pedagogy assume a certain level of privilege? Given my particular context and relative positionality, how can it not? I am a veteran employee in a well resourced institution. I enjoy considerable professional autonomy and feel trusted to use my judgment in implementing our curriculum. I have the space and freedom to engage students in ways that highlight their agency and decision-making capabilities. And this approach is supported in my particular setting.
What if I were not party to these several advantages? Would I still be as open to sharing power and fostering student choice as much as now? I wonder and I cannot say.
Could it be that it is easier to share power when you feel you have some power to begin with?
As I’ve offered stories from my own experience and attempted to bundle them into a way of looking at my work, these questions about the role of privilege have needled me throughout. It’s no coincidence that the title includes “Hide and Seek”. However compelling the idea of an irresistible pedagogy may seem, we need to be clear about the conditions that support its pursuit and sustainability. What might an irresistible pedagogy hide or obscure? Who is at liberty to seek out or provide what could be deemed irresistible by students or teachers? What happens if hide and seek is not a game but a survival strategy? Does “irresistible” stand a chance?
What if hide and seek is what is required of you to keep your job or to protect and serve students? What good is an irresistible pedagogy then?
Never Done, Always Beginning
What I’m learning, what I’m seeing is that
Just one thing
Is hardly a thing
Because it cannot serve
All of our needs today
Just one thing
Is hardly a thing
Because we need more tools
For many tasks
Both seen and unseen
If I try to build something
I hope my students will want
It doesn’t mean that they
Should never learn to struggle
It doesn’t mean that they
Should never learn to protest
It doesn’t mean that their
Wants won’t change shape or direction
If I try to build something
I hope my students will want
It means I’m striving to
Champion their independence
It means I’m striving to
Help them choose wisely
It means I’m striving to
Let go of my need to control the outcome
If my students and I build something
We find useful
If my students and I build anything at all
We must build imaginations
If my students and I build
A city of care
A province of justice
A nation of acceptance
We are never done
And always beginning.
I’m going to stop here and encourage us to rest. I hope that I have sparked your imagination and offered some nourishing food for thought. The theme of the Otessa Conference is Critical Change. My students are living exemplars of critical change. They demand change with their needs out front. They use questions to investigate ideas. When they resist, avoid and refuse instruction, they usually have cause.
If my aim is to build something irresistible for my students, it is clear that I must also do that with my students. They are fierce, savvy and also caring negotiators.
If the notion of “irresistible pedagogy” seems far-fetched or unrealistic to you, I imagine that you have reasonable cause. Which is why it is key to interrogate what this concept might be hiding or obscuring? How might irresistible pedagogy be understood as less than inclusive or just?
I raise these questions at the end again as reminders that like our learners,
Late October/ early November of a (N. Hemisphere) school year – by this time we know some things: about our students, our schedules. We may have a sense of the way things might go for the year. Or, we know that so much is up in the air it would be absolute folly to try and predict where things may end up. I’m at that stage in the school year where I’m beginning to hit my stride; where my routines with students are familiar; we may even have a rhythm.
Here we are (in Austria, mind you) holding regular school in the middle of a pandemic. As a learning community we’ve been blessed with very few cases, all of which could all be traced to contacts outside school and turned out to be asymptomatic. Every week without a significant change in the building’s population has felt like a victory. We seem to be getting things mostly right.
Among the adaptations my PE colleagues and I have had to make is shifting to majority outdoor teaching. Particularly for me and my team colleague, this has meant truly changing our ‘regularly scheduled programming.’ There’s a lot to appreciate with getting kids outside and taking advantage of different parts of the campus. We’ve gotten both creative and clever in developing plans that get us close to what we have planned in the pacing guide. That said, it has also been hard.
Not hard as in gut wrenching or emotionally draining but mistifyingly frustrating. Yes, my colleague and I have been conducting our PE classes – differently, yes, but still. I even did a kind of question mind-map at the beginning of October to try to help me understand.
It took me literally until this past week to figure out why.
My colleague commented on teaching indoors due to wet weather and how much easier he found it. “We’re by ourselves, there’s nobody else kicking a ball around … there’s not a leaf, or wind…” Oh my gosh! Exactly when he mentioned the leaf, I laughed out loud in recognition. And then it dawned on me: for at least 2 classes I am outside during middle and then high school recess! I’ve been trying to “teach” my classes next to big kids playing soccer on the field, basketball on the redtop, strolling, laughing, chilling. When I march my 1st graders and Pre-K out to the field and back, it’s a given that someone will be collecting something along the way. Of course! They’re children, they’re curious and all kinds of things can be fascinating: bugs and leaves and big siblings; jackets in the wind and water bottles along the fence.
What’s striking for me is that I couldn’t put my finger on what the real differences were until now. Over 9 weeks in. Instead I focused on what I was doing wrong or that the kids were distracted while functionally excluding the impact of the context we’re suddenly trying to operate in. How could I behave as if teaching next to recess should proceed normally? What on earth would lead me to believe that my students would find having PE outdoors instead of indoors an easy transition?
Here’s my theory: As educators we spend years building (or attempting to build) a positive track record. We develop a sense of what works, what we do well, how we maneuver towards success. When the success doesn’t happen when and where we expect, many of us will attribute that to ourselves. We look first to see what we’re doing wrong. Or, we locate the trouble in our students’ behaviors or histories. The point is, on our own, the picture we’re most likely to create will be incomplete. We will focus on what occurs to us with remarkably little awareness of what we may be missing.
Even under these extenuating circumstances many of us are still very wedded to our sense of “normal” in how we operate. Yes, we’ve changed modalities (multiple times even) and adapted to new schedules, dramatically shifted our approaches to any number of routines and habits – and still, when things go south, go off or don’t go at all – how many of us are quick to blame ourselves? To ask what we did wrong? Our self-constructed picture can easily leave out some little (or big) things that may, in fact, be having a sizable impact on our capacity to do even the least of what we intend with our students.
All this to say, it’s not just us. It’s not just the kids. It is literally EVERYTHING. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. The more we talk to each other, the greater our chances of expanding our field of vision for what’s going on both in front of us and behind the scenes. And as I learned, this may take a minute. (9 weeks, y’all, just sayin’.)
Let’s be both gentle and generous with ourselves and each other; with our families and students; with colleagues and neighbors. We don’t need to be superheroes especially when it’s already asking a lot to just be.
Throughout the school year I want students to practice a variety of locomotor movements. From the very beginning in Pre-K we learn to differentiate between a skip and a gallop, between jogging and running, between a jump (two feet) and a hop (one foot). Whether we’re doing a freeze dance, stop and go, or follow the leader, we practice these movements and learn the vocabulary. They show up in just about every lesson. Repetition works.
Outside of my classroom I have other interests. I like to think about education more widely, about inequality and how it shows up in our schools, our policies, our curricula, our educator mindsets. To those ends, I read a lot. A recent blog post by a friend who works in university administration in Canada got me thinking. She wrote specifically about an ethics gap in the way universities procure and deploy educational technologies. While there is a tremendous openness to inviting technological solutions into colleges and universities as forms of innovation, she argues that not nearly enough attention is paid to the real and potential tradeoffs that may work to the disadvantage or even harm of students, staff or the institution. She writes:
It is therefore paradoxical that we have often given more ethical consideration to how we procure teabags than we have technology in institutions. In much the same way as we have considered issues like Fairtrade, living wage and modern slavery when selecting other goods and services within institutions, we need to look at aligning the procurement of educational technologies with ethical practices and principles. One aspect of that alignment must be a consideration of the ways in which companies conduct themselves, and the extent to which that is compatible with our beliefs and values.
What struck me about this remarkably concise post was the illustration of the ways in which ed tech companies have rushed into a gap in educational structures at every level. While the bounty of services and capabilities available to students and teachers remains impressive, they are not without costs. Concerns about privacy, surveillance, the overwhelming profit motives among others are regularly voiced by scholars and users.
Going back to my classroom example, part of my job involves establishing clear pictures and physical associations between words and action. Running looks and feels a certain way; walking is something very different from running. What would happen if I offered my students new words? What if I asked them to rush? Or race? Or parade? Or stumble? I suspect that many of them would create a corresponding movement. They are familiar with rushing and being rushed. To race they would know that comparison with another student is called for. My students are creative, lively beings. I have no doubt that they could easily show me what it would mean to parade or stumble around the gym.
I wonder if our vocabulary around ed tech tools and associated actions are narrowing rather than expanding. In our haste to respond to (constant) urgency, we leave out critical steps like carefully understanding terms and conditions agreements before insisting that students and families sign on to personally invasive tech tools. We hire one service to address one problem which then creates a host of other problems with its implementation (think exam proctoring software).
Beyond asking what the tool does, we need to ask ‘what does it demand in return?’ We need to be clear about who is profiting and precisely how that profit will be generated; through whose data? As institutions, we need to be concerned with how are students will be protected when we require their use of a particular tool. And we better make space for student questions and objections regarding their use of a mandated tech service. Why are we rushing to adopt this tool? How is this service being paraded in front of parents before teachers have had time to feel confident in its use? How can policy makers be dragging their feet on funding the necessary hardware while touting plans for universal remote learning?
Over the last five or six years, I have found out so much about my teaching by reading about topics that are not in my wheelhouse. After reading Anne-Marie’s post, I’m thinking about expanding my own thinking about locomotor movements, about broadening the vocabulary and lending more creative license to our routine activities. Which, in the grand scheme, is what I want education to be about: broadening, expanding, widening, welcoming.
(Below is the text of my keynote talk from August 18th, 2020 including a sample of responses from participants.)
Thank you, NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools), for inviting me to spend some time with you today. I am honored and nervous.
Thanks, too, Jane Anne for the very kind introduction!
I want to share some thoughts about our field, PE, and how we can incorporate anti-racism into our daily practices with students.
First of all, I want us to consider a few things:
This is my first keynote address.
I’m an actual teacher. A PE teacher, in fact, who just finished her first day of classes.
I want us to interact, so I invite you to use the chat to respond to a couple of prompts later and we’ll also leave some time for Q & A at the end.
You heard a bit about me in Jane Anne’s introduction. Here’s a slide to go with that. 😉
Thinking about what a good keynote should do for folks, here’s what I hope you’ll be able to take away from our time together.
I want us to appreciate what’s special about what we do.
I hope to encourage us to be braver and more critical observers of our own practice.
Help prepare your hearts and minds for the learning ahead.
That’s a lot and think for a moment about our classes: We have students of mixed abilities, interest levels and preparedness, put them all into a class called “PE” and in many cases manage to help those students find ways of engaging, contributing, and applying themselves that can be fun, challenging, awkward, or awesome or all of those, and have most of them leave feeling as good or better than they arrived.
So of course I’ve planned a talk with multiple positive aims!
PE tends to be an all-comers affair, right? and because we as teachers can anticipate that our students will each have their own way of appreciating and/or coming to terms with our offerings, we know that we have to adapt; that one size never fits all. We differentiate and modify our activities. We offer a wide range of movement experiences to give students ideas about the many different ways they can enjoy physical activity. We read up and stay current on new developments in the field and open ourselves to change as we grow and progress. These are the steps we take to be able to serve the remarkable diversity we find in each of our classes, every time we see them. We also know that no two lessons that we give are ever exactly the same.
Given that, I want us to think about what it means for us as PE teachers to become anti-racist and wholly inclusive in our teaching practices. Now that anti-racism is topping the bestseller lists and making its way into institutional policy and mission statement revisions, most of us are familiar with the terminology and have come to expect to hear about it from a variety of organizations, but what does anti-racism really mean? And what does it mean to teach from an anti-racist stance?
Christina Torres teaches 8th grade English at an independent school in Hawaii. She’s also a prolific writer on education whose thinking I hold in high esteem. She recently published an article on the Teaching Tolerance website that I’ve been quoting a lot lately.
“Anti-racist work means acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in all aspects of our lives—from education to housing to climate change—and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures. Those beliefs and structures don’t just exist in primarily white and/or privileged institutions—they thrive there.” – Christina Torres, “All Students Need Anti-racism Education,” Teaching Tolerance, July 30, 2020.
Consider, throughout your day and beyond, that last part about racist beliefs and structures not just existing in our privileged white institutions but actually thriving there.
A good part of our work from here on out relies on us
1) Opening our eyes to see those beliefs and structures.
2) Adopting beliefs and structures which demand and support full inclusion.
Much of the rest of your learning plan for today with Erica Corbin, Lauren Stewart, Worokya Duncan, John Gentile and James Samuels involves unpacking the specifics of what anti-racism is and is not, how racist beliefs and structures show up in our PE practices and also the ways we can mitigate them. They’re the main event. I’m calling them “The Highlights!”
I’m the warm-up act.
Opening our eyes and ears for equity and inclusion takes practice. And that’s where we’ll begin: with a thought experiment. To practice.
Three years ago I was asked to contribute a video response to a provocation for a workshop my friends were doing at a conference on open education.
The prompt was this: What would you do to create a non-inclusive learning environment?
It is truly a provocation!
I made my response specific to physical education and the result ended up being surprisingly clarifying.
Before I go on, I’d like to ask you to imagine what you would do to create a non-inclusive learning environment in PE.
To do that you need to create a picture of what non-inclusive might entail.
What kinds of behaviors would you encourage and for whom?
Which criteria for success would you set?
Please add some of your ideas in the chat box.
[Reading aloud some of the responses.]
Audition. Group kids by ability level. Assume everyone understands the game. Only focus on the students who need the most skill work. Certain sports for girls, other sports for boys. No positive feedback. Only play “American” sports. All games competitive. PE for athletes only. Group by body size. Make every game about winning. Focus on Win/lose only. Play the game without explaining the rules. Charge for PE participation.
Y’all are great at this!
Now I’ll share my response:
In my own response, I identified three main things I would do:
Design all the learning around my needs and preferences
Keep my evaluation criteria a secret
Be absolutely OK with failing students
“What learns us this?” – this is from an old Austrian friend of mine who remembers using this question learning in English back in the 1970’s. It always makes me laugh to hear it but it also reminds me that learning often happens without explicit teaching. How does the experience change us?
What can we learn from such an exercise?
First of all, what I like most is that it forces us to think in practical terms. What am I doing in my classes? What does it communicate to students about our priorities?
Second, it can help us see our practices in a new light. We can really ask: where is the truth in the ideas I’ve just put down? How much time do I really spend on the things that I love versus the things that I like less? Thankfully, at my school my colleagues and I have a pacing guide to keep us on track.
And third, It helps us clarify what the most desirable steps in the opposite direction, that is, towards fully inclusive learning environments, could be. For instance, it has become a much higher priority for me to discuss the assessment criteria with students and agree with them on some of the parameters. Transparency.
Here’s the second opportunity for practice:
One of the struggles we face as high achievers is the not always conscious striving for perfection. We want to get things right. We want all of our students to get it right. In my opinion, education and educators tend to wear out superlatives, especially “best”: best practices, best scores, best schools. Because in pursuit of those highest achievements, we may lose sight of growth, progress and movement. We get so tied up with the end goal, the shiny results, that we take less time and effort to appreciate and recognize the deep value of the process.
When we talk here about clarifying our practices towards inclusion and even better, the assumptions underlying those practices, my request is that you and I, let go of our need for perfection and instead be deliberate in our process (which I expect and hope will be a long one. :-)).
What that means for each of us will vary. We have unique social identity intersections which will influence our starting points and hold particular meanings in our respective contexts. And this is where we have to be radically honest with ourselves:
we can no longer pretend that who we are does not matter in the school house.
I am a middle aged Black American woman teaching in a predominantly white American international school. I am cis-gender, straight, of Christian upbringing and the product of a decidedly elite education. All of those things matter in how I show up professionally and personally with students, colleagues and parents. My challenge, our challenge, is to use our experience and expertise to create learning environments that honor the complexity embodied in each of us and in each student we encounter.
Take a moment to identify yourself. Use the chat box if you like. Just say it in your head or toss a few words down in your notes.
Father. / Black. Cis woman. Mom. Wife. / White privileged male / Woman, White, Lesbian / black american cis gender male christian from low socioeconomic class / Latino adopted male / White, cis, male, straight, christian, able body – / white woman from the midle east living and rasing my kinds in the usa today / human / white male, older in age (young at heart), blue collar, middle class / Asian, Female, Christian, Aunt, Sister …
What do you notice when you do that?
[Reading aloud some of the responses]
I see that I’m not the only one. Ideas I hadn’t thought of. Diversity of who is here. Identity is more than I think. Hard to decide which comes first: race or gender. We’re all more than one thing. my own definition has become broader in listening to others. you feel pride. What matters? What doesn’t?Complexity. Exciting with so many things that identify you 🙂 I noticed many of us stated our race when defining self.
Thank you for sharing those.
My students can see that I’m Black. How each of them assigns meaning to my being Black will naturally vary. I also know that I might easily be the only Black teacher these students even encounter in their entire school careers. Their experience with me really counts in a particular way and I want us to develop awareness for those kinds of nuances.
Another example: I wonder about how we honor the complexity of gender identity and acknowledge a spectrum rather than a binary. I’ve trained myself to say “friends” and “folks” instead of “boys and girls” or when forming groups ask students to include “all the genders” (which also gives us an opening to talk about what that means).
And I still feel new at this, still very much ‘under construction’ in this area. I’ve had to let go of perfectionism and embrace the process.
When we look at our programs, I see a few areas where identity and inclusion are very much at the center of students’ thinking in PE, whether we acknowledge it or not. During this talk, we’ve practiced thinking about inclusion and identifying ourselves. We can begin to think about how we invite students to identify themselves, the methods we use to form groups, our protocols and norms for class discussions. These are aspects of our field that are familiar and well worn. Let’s take the opportunity to review these habits and see where we can make them more inclusive, more sensitive to and welcoming of difference.
Remember, process over perfection: Make the attempts, make more attempts, notice growth.
Finishing up here… As you begin your new school years under challenging circumstances, I want to remind you and also myself that students are partners and resources in our classrooms. Yes, they learn from us AND they also use all of their powers to teach us. While they are learning about who they are and wish to be, they are pushing and pulling us to be real with them, to tell the truth.
And guess what! You already have all the resources you need to welcome your students as partners and resources in your learning endeavors!
It’s called listening.
I want to share a little anecdote about dodgeball in a 5th grade class which highlights this idea of students as resources. In a nutshell, some of my more dominant boys wanted to make it harder for tagged players to get back into the game. Some girls objected and pointed out the disadvantage it would create for certain players. Another student, a boy, suggested an alternative way to get back in the game by doing some exercises on the sideline. His idea was shot down in a heartbeat. We had a discussion.
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 we are 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’.
In closing and with this example I want to emphasize again the wealth of creativity, passion and purpose we have in our students. They are amazing and so are we!
It’s going to take all of us to create learning environments that are fully inclusive, that make space for complex identities and challenging discussions. We have to be able to see ourselves as champions of equity, not spectators. As PE folks we are action and movement oriented, let’s show that in our anti-racist stance. I’m with you.
We have a little time for questions.
Thank you all so much for having me. All the best for the rest of your learning and for a successful school year!
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
I look away
and they have disappeared into
the frenzy of tag
squealing as they dash and dodge
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.
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?
“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.
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.”