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.”
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.
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.
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 outof 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.
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.
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.
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.