Each day of Physical Education provides many opportunities for our students. Learning, growing, frustration and failing, succeeding, experimenting can and will happen. What kinds of experiences will we use to package and present the content and/or concepts we want to teach?
When I was a student teacher (quite some time ago), a popular model was “skills and drills.” Line the students up in groups and practice the skills. For a Basketball unit, it looked very much like a sports team practice. The familiar lay-up drill was prominent. Free-throws, dribbling in place or back and forth across the court took the rest of the time. Then, go to scrimmaging. Who enjoyed that part the most? The athletes. The ones who already love the sport on which you are basing your unit. While they loom large in personality and voice, the actual percentage of the class who enjoys and learns from the unit is fairly small.
Sadly, I took this model of teaching through many of my units. The main tool I ended up using to “teach” and “ evaluate" was Competition. And while the sport athletes enjoyed the units, many of my students did not. And it is a period of time in my teaching career I regret deeply.
Since then, I’ve gotten older. Hopefully I’ve grown wiser. Conversations with wise people and wisdom from experience have helped me gain a broader and deeper perspective on teaching. One that has equipped me with more tools with which to teach and relate to my students as well as help them relate with one another. Competition is still one of those tools. But I now wield it differently. It is not the hammer that crafts the frame from different pieces of wood. There are other tools better suited for the task of which the hammer plays only a small part. So say hello to the other tools in my tool belt.
I have struggled for years with a basic “reason” or “driving force” for my program. I’ve seen themes developed by other teachers, and I love the idea of a central focus for the year. And I’ve seen others, month by month, or unit by unit, feature different “muscle of the month” or “this month’s fitness concept,” and weave these into their school year’s plans. I’ve started drafts of these types of themes many times. While I see the benefit in many of them, and laud their creativity, none of them have spoken to me as strongly nor related to me so intimately as Community.
The concept of Community has become the driving force of my program. I’ve become so convinced of its power and relevance, it permeates every lesson and unit I now teach. While not always on prominent display, it is always there. Each skill that is taught, practiced, and applied is a skill which will be used at some point by a child who is and will be part of a community of others. And I want them to be equipped with as many skills as they can experience, so as to make their future experience all the richer. Purposeful, Free and Creative Movement can be a wonderful Community event.
When in college, I was blessed with the privilege of playing pick up games with the varsity girls volleyball team, along with other men who also loved the sport. These people were highly skilled, and their skill and friendship drew me in, helping my skills to improve. It gave me a love for playing volleyball I still have today. I never took those skills into Olympic or travel league play, but I now have those skills and use them to have fun with others.
What might my students do with the physical skills they acquire, whatever their level? What kind of perceived competence will they gain, empowering them to choose life-enriching activities when they leave my physical presence and influence? What knowledge will they have available to them, allowing them to make their own informed choices regarding their health and well-being, which effects how they relate to those around them?
The idea of community drove me to inquire into its nature. What makes a Community, and what makes it work well?
Obviously enough, the answer is people.
Wherever you go, communities abound. They come in all manner of sizes, types, and locations. And the purposes of each community are as varied as the number of communities you’ll find. Whether it is two children working on a project for 4th grade History, or two thousand people in a remote village working to survive a famine, these groups are Communities.
The students in each of my classes are their own little community. Our purpose? To learn. To learn about physical skills and to learn through physical skills. And since each one will be in varied communities later in life, they can learn about how communities work best through physical activities. Each child has a unique set of characteristics and skills that give their group its own unique makeup. Those characteristics and skills can be used to help the group reach its goals, whatever they may be.
Now people can make the community work well or not. History is loaded with examples of both. What I believe makes a community survive and thrive most is Cooperation and Collaboration. Both are similar in scope.
Cooperation: the process of working together to the same end.
Collaboration: the action of working with someone to produce or create something.
However, our world has turned that upside down. It has made both Cooperation and Collaboration tools to be used for Competition. Each group must get along and work together so as to be better than another in something or gain an advantage over that group. This mindset has made its way into our schools, sports, and even our classrooms.
I believe in switching that back around. We can and should use Competition to help improve the skills of our students. But we do it very judiciously and with high purpose. We use it so our students can use their skills for the benefit of themselves and their community.
Purposefully used Competition is like lifting weights or biking uphill. The resistance is real and naturally works against you. When someone chooses to ride their bike up a hill, they are choosing to do so because the resistance is there. They know what the resistance can do for them. The resistance has the potential to make them stronger and able to ride their bike longer.
As a teacher, I need to apply this resistance in a way that will help the participants, not discourage them. Like any resistance, if too much is applied too soon, frustration, or worse, injury can occur. It is the same with competition. If a student isn’t sufficiently competent or confident in their skills, competing against someone may frustrate or discourage them from the activity. As one of our goals is to foster meaningful and joyful movers, this can be a costly setback for the student with far-reaching consequences.
In my classes, I seek to foster a more purposeful use of competition. I desire the activity to foster skill improvement or refinement in both participants. If the only objective of the competition is winning or losing, this objective is unattainable. But if each participant knows they are there to be that resistance for each other, the improvements have a better chance of occurring.
I would like my students to be “noble” competitors. I’d like them to be the kind of “opponent” people seek out. Not because they are an easy win. But because they would be a challenging win. This kind of opponent would provide the necessary resistance to help make you stronger, play longer, and get better. And, they would be a lot of fun to play. A twitter user, @IMSporticus, provided a link to an article that describes this kind of relationship between two world championship class Tennis players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Other tools are available to me as well as any teacher of any content area. The ones I will explore next are Inquiry, Exploration, and Reflection. Of those three, I’ve been most comfortable with Reflection. I’m hoping the publication of this blog entry will motivate and encourage me to be more purposeful in the examination of the other two, thereby coming back soon to share my findings.
This blog entry first appeared as a guest blog entry on Pete Charrette's website.
Games provide fun and memorable learning opportunities. These games are like seeds. They contain clear learning objectives we desire our students to explore and achieve. Packed within the games are opportunities to practice skills which enrich our lives. What I love about our profession is that these “seeds” contain potential for lifelong learning which goes beyond the physical. We all know a moving child is a learning child. So let’s investigate how some games we already play can teach our students about relating to each other and understanding themselves as well.
I’m a storyteller at heart, so I gravitate toward imaginative activities containing characters who interact with one another as well as the game’s environment. During game play, each participant’s choices affect themselves, others, and the game environment. Sound like real life?
Yet for a time, I had been so focused on specific Physical Education learning objectives (i.e. throwing, personal space, locomotor movements, fitness components), I wasn’t seeing other possible learning opportunities. I was aware of the social aspects of the activities (teamwork, sportsmanship, respect, and responsibility) and would touch on them. But one day, while the students were participating in a classic aerobic based warm up activity, a light came on.
The game was Builders and Blasters (aka Builders and Bulldozers & other titles, the creator unknown to me). For those who might be unaware, the object of the original game is for one team to stand a cone up, while the other team lays them down. While there are various ways to play this game, I was using Speed Stacks the day the light came on for me. One team would up-stack a simple 3-3-3 while the other team was down-stacking.
For some reason, I started watching the students and how they responded (positive or negative) to the actions of each other and the game environment. Questions began to form in my mind and I was curious to hear their answers. After providing all students an opportunity to up-stack and down-stack, I had them sit down in our center circle. I began with a simple question. “What was more fun? Up-stacking or Down-stacking?” There were varied responses to this question. Then I asked the following question, “Which was easier?” Ah, now the answers were more one-sided. The down-stacking was the easiest, according to a high percentage of students. “What makes it easier to down-stack than up-stack?” Many opinions were shared, but the common theme was it took less time, work, and thought. Tear them down and move on to the next.
Then I asked, “So what is easier to do, hurt someone’s feelings or say kind things to them?” Just a bit of silence followed as the students digested this unexpected question. One hand after another rose with an all too similar answer. “It’s way easier to hurt someone’s feelings…” was the common answer. I followed up with “Why do you think it’s easier to hurt someone? Strikingly, their answers were similar to the reason down-stacking was easier. Hurtful words come out of us with little to no effort or thought. Some students even pride themselves on how easily they can “roast” or “burn” someone, tear someone down, get a few laughs and move on to the next victim.
I decided to follow up with questions I wasn’t sure would get answered. I asked if they’ve ever been hurt by other people’s words or actions. Quite a few raised their hands. Taking another chance, I asked if anyone would like to share what happened and how it made them feel. Several opened up and shared their experiences and hurts. I lauded their honesty and felt ready to ask this next question: “Have you ever hurt someone with your words and actions?” Slowly, hand after hand raised. When I thanked them for their honesty, a few students wanted to confess what they had done. I was surprised and deeply moved by their humility. Their courage opened the door for others to admit their faults in front of the class.
We then discussed the power of our words and how we could actually build someone up with them instead of tear them down. Speaking kind, beneficial, and empowering words actually strengthen those who hear them. It is also how we want people to treat us! A quote I found sums it up perfectly:
“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” (from Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a Persian poet)
Our words have much power!
After this experience, I began to notice other possible learning opportunities in activities we already use. I would write down the name of the activity and the possible concept, saving it for when the activity was needed. It wasn’t long before the follow-up to Builders and Blasters was born.
Builders and Blasters showcased our need to build each other up with our words and actions. But what do you do when you realize you’ve hurt someone? What do you do if you’ve been hurt? What are the next steps?
Enter Halloween Tag by Joey Feith. Halloween Tag? Really? I know, it surprised me, too! We had played this fun game the year before as part of our chasing/fleeing/strategies unit. There are three main characters in this game (others can be added to increase strategies). Witches (taggers), Wizards (rescuers), and the poor hapless souls who get chased by the witch. The witch tags with a tap of a noodle, turning the students into stone. The Wizard comes along and heals the player with 3 taps of his/her noodle.
The students decided that the witch had the easiest job. All the witch had to do was indiscriminately mow through the students. The wizard’s job was a bit harder. It took actual decision making and time to accomplish its task. The wizard had to look for those in need, get to them and then take the time to heal them by tapping them three times while saying, “you are free!”
The lesson to be learned here is forgiveness. Once you hurt someone (tagged by the witch), you need forgiveness (healed by the wizard). And once you’ve been hurt, forgiveness can help you heal. Hurting is easy. Forgiveness on both sides is hard and takes work. There are ways to make the learning go deeper here. I didn’t explore this with the students, but there are ghost characters in Joey’s game who also tag the players, albeit with different consequences. I gave the ghosts the ability to chase the wizard as well as the others, making it harder for the wizard to do his or her job. To me, the ghost could represent bitterness, an active adversary to forgiveness. Those who are bitter don’t want to forgive. They want to sabotage the process and hurt the offender instead.
Games like these have the potential to teach great skills or concepts and expose our students to new experiences. They also have the power to teach students how to reflect on their actions in daily life, not just during game play. Children learn best through play. It is how we all learn best. So let’s help them learn these valuable physical, mental, and social skills by providing them with a variety of creative experiences. These experiences can help them explore and reflect on their feelings, decisions, and actions.
As Physical Educators, we have many people seeking to tell us what our final “product” should look like. Regardless of what final outcome you work towards, all of them include people. Not every student we teach will master the skill of throwing and utilize it to a great degree later in life. However, that student will be in community with others and need to be able to relate to others in positive ways. The bulk of the experiences we offer our students take place in community. Home, school, work, and play are ways in which we all interact with each other. So let’s let them learn these valuable skills through play. It is our unique privilege and position to do so.
No other classroom has this opportunity.