Stretch Yourself

It’s surprising but I have more to say about my teaching this week. Well, perhaps not exactly about my teaching, rather more about my students’ doings. I guess this is likely going to be a post about what students do with the directions I give them.

Typically, in most of my physical education classes we spend a few minutes on stretching – hopefully building our flexibility and movement vocabulary as we go. At the beginning of the year my colleague and I usually introduce this routine in a traditional teacher-at-the-front, all-kids-follow-along arrangement. That’s fine for getting things started, for setting up routines and providing everyone with a basic stock of stretches they can use. But it doesn’t take long for this ritual to become boring for a number of kids.

(This is also a fine opportunity to discover who my more divergent thinkers in the group may be – they tend to resist teacher-led whole group stretching with remarkable consistency and I get it now.)

So within a couple of weeks we try to release kids to lead their own stretching in a few different ways:

  • in 1st grade selecting 3 leaders who each share 3 stretches with the whole group
  • in 2nd – 5th asking students to make small groups of 4-6 and be responsible for completing a total number of stretches (8 -12).
  • At any grade level, partner stretching for the length of a song. (We use a lot of Kidz Bop).

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The main thing is that kids learn to organize themselves. They decide who will begin, they learn to offer each other ideas, and sort out their own disagreements. It also means that I can step back and observe, give pointers and a few reminders. They are not reliant on me to deliver ideas but I’m visible enough to provide the occasional nudge.

The quality of the stretching can vary widely which it would in any case, I suppose. But I no longer get hung up on those kinds of details. I may temporarily join a group and demonstrate a more accurate version of a stretch rather than say something. More important is that students can show me that they understand what kinds of movements count as stretching, that they have their own internal repertoire of these movements to draw upon and can work with others safely and cooperatively.

My colleague have been using this method for a few years now which means that we also have an increasing number of veterans who take up a lot of the slack in helping new students figure out how it all works.

Again, stretching is just a short episode in a whole lesson – maybe 5-6 minutes tops. At the same time it’s another space for student choice and autonomy that still requires negotiating with others! Every time I watch a group of 1st or 2nd or 3rd graders accomplish this task successfully, I imagine one less soft tissue injury in the world is suffered on that day. And my teacher hear does a little victory dance to Kidz Bop tunes.

Use your arms!

Clearly using their arms. Image via pixabay.com

Clearly using their arms. Image via pixabay.com

I’ve been a track coach for more years than I have taught. For the bulk of my coaching years I have focused on sprinters. While I know a fair amount about technique and training, when the athletes are on the track and in the race, there is not very much I can do for them. I do my best to remain present, bear witness, offer support.

That said, I do have one habit I use to boost their efforts. I find a space outside the track where athletes will be able to hear me. Especially for the 400m, I like to stand near the last curve. From there I watch and wait for my athletes to approach. I shout:

“That’s it. Now pump the arms, pump the arms!”

“The arms! That’s it, your arms!”

That’s what I do time and time again.

Why? Because it works.

Any  hard-running athlete who hears: “Move your legs faster!” when coming around the bend will unlikely feel helped and might be justifiably annoyed.

But the arms, well, that’s something many athletes can do something about. It may not feel like much, but a little stronger swing of the arms back and forth, elbows bent at 90 degrees – that may just be enough to pull someone through to the finish line faster than they thought possible.

I wonder in school how often we stand by and exhort our students with what amounts to the equivalent of  “Move your legs faster”? When what they really could use is a reminder to activate a part of themselves that feels more under their control in that moment.  “Stop for a moment. What thought or thoughts just went through your head? Can you remember? Tell your neighbor.” Rather than demanding that students pay attention, why not  offer an opening to have them locate their attention at that moment? Acknowledge that thoughts are and may be elsewhere and gradually guide their attention back to the topic at hand.

When we shift the focus onto what students can control, we remind them of their own power.

We do this by asking students about what they can do when they say they can’t.

Or by offering choices within an assignment.

Or by allowing students to come up with a different way that they’d like to demonstrate their learning.

There are many more ways for us to bolster our students’ sense of efficacy than we may recall at any given time.  That said, students may well experience more drive and persistence when  they are encouraged to focus on the elements of their performance that they feel are actually under their control.

When our students are in the race, let’s find ways to tell them “Use your arms!”