An Open Letter to School Administration
This is a draft of an email I've been composing to my building principal. I tried very hard to keep it from being argumentative or provocative, as I don't actually feel that way in my own building. But I do feel strongly about being represented accurately. My principal happens to support Physical Education, Music, and the Visual Arts very strongly in our school. We are very blessed with such support. But we also have to be worthy of support. Our programs must be excellent, no matter the moniker given our "group."
I’ve been troubled by the term “specials” for quite some time, but didn’t have any real solutions or coherent thoughts until recently.
At times, I feel as if our classes are considered secondary when “compared” with the core classroom subjects. The truth is, there is no comparison to be made. Our class content is different, so really it’s all about contrast. And with that contrast, we have a chance to see how all subject areas work together synergistically in each child.
With so much focus on academic achievement (any standardized testing in addition to the high rigor already present), I feel we are in danger of missing the point. We are one stop (albeit a major and lengthy one) in a kid's life.
It is my opinion that the Arts, Music, and Physical Education keep us in perspective.
Yes, we are a school whose focus is to teach academic subjects, preparing hearts and minds for possible futures (more education, a job, becoming a member of communities, etc). But we all know our lives are filled with much more than education or a job.
We are all creative beings. The ability to communicate and express ourselves verbally, visually and physically reflect that. These types of expression are essential to each of us.
While traditional academics can be called “Core Subjects,” I believe our three content areas would more accurately be called "Essentials."
Again, this in no way implies we have a higher rank over academics.
It's about contrast and synergy, our different areas combining to create a more powerful effect together in the growth and development of the children in our care.
This past month, I was a presenter at the Indiana state physical education conference, INSHAPE19. The preparation was fun and rewarding. The moments leading up to the presentation itself were made up of equal parts excitement and anxiety. It was a great experience from the decision to submit, all the way to the exhausted feeling an hour after the presentation was over!
The decision to submit a presentation proposal was an interesting experience in and of itself. In the past, I never believed myself capable or “worthy” to share anything with my professional peers. Someone I spoke with at INSHAPE this year echoed my thoughts in a near-exact phrase, “I’m still in the soaking up phase.” I can’t say with certainty what lies beneath that phrase for him, but I knew for me it was fear and inadequacy. While my content knowledge has increased over my career, the feelings of fear and inadequacy had remained constant. “I don’t have anything to share with my colleagues, I’m still learning” was my mantra. “I could never do that,” I would chuckle nervously.
It wasn’t until I began interacting regularly with other physical educators on Twitter and in person that I began to disabuse myself of these fears. After sharing my thoughts both in general and specific in regards to P.E. on Twitter, my blog, and in conversations with others, I began to see the different take I had on certain things. This led me to writing my thoughts down. Some thoughts made it to my little blog site and others remain on my computer.
But one night, after participating in an #ESPECHAT on Twitter, I had a direct message conversation with Pete Charrette (Cap’n Pete), who was moderating that night. I was thanking him for the amazing chat session, and for showcasing some great blogs on his site.
Then, Pete surprised me when he responded...
I remember my eyes popping out of my head as I stared at the computer. I quickly turned to my wife and very excitedly told her all about Pete’s invitation. Then suddenly, in the midst of my excitement, the old fearful thought started talking again. So I asked Pete about what to write. Here’s what he said:
Pete's response was not only the answer to my question, it was also the weapon to battle my fear!
While I had written some blog posts before and even knew some people had read them, there was something about Pete’s message that had awaken a deep stirring in me. I had written about what was in my head, but hadn’t yet reached for what was in my heart. Once I started looking into my heart, the question about what to write was easily answered.
I pulled out some old notes on an activity I had written up a while back. It showed me what my heart was all about when it came to teaching. My heart leads me to teach children (and adults) about the power of relationships. And I was seeing angles in physical education activities that mirrored life and relationships.
That’s what I would write about. I had no idea how it would be received, but I knew that I believed in it. That was enough for me.
That is what I would want to chat about with others on Twitter when I was blessed to moderate a chat for #ESPECHAT last year. And that is what I would share when I presented for INSHAPE this past November.
Submit Form?? You bet!
The desire to share my thoughts and insights with others wasn’t always enough to battle my fears of presenting. But my message was. Along with the encouragement and support of key people in my life, it drove me to look for other powerful relational applications in other games. I didn’t want to force anything, but wanted to see the organic connections already present.
So with this in mind, I kept an open mind and took notes each time a new idea surfaced, whether from an activity in class or one I would see online. And along the way, I connected with Dr. Aaron Bieghle, who was also sharing some similar ideas in his own presentations. Our conversations only solidified my resolve.
Then began the process of preparing a handout and presentation slides. I spoke with Dr. Beighle and Dan Tennesson about the creation of these tools. While both men had differing opinions on how to create them, both knew the importance of using each to effectively communicate the message.
Whenever I attend a session, I’m always wanting a handout. After some conversations with Dr. Beighle, I started asking myself “why?”. My thought process seemed to always follow this path:
I don’t think I’m alone here. When I speak with other conference attendees, I often hear the same thing.
But when I look in my office, bookshelves, or folders, what do I find? Lots of handouts loaded with activities. To paraphrase a verse from the Bible, “Of making Physical Education activities, there is no end…”. There are plenty of activities out there, but what good are they if I don’t effectively use them to teach key concepts? The last thing I wanted to do was create another handout that would sit on a shelf. So I attempted to clearly and concisely communicate 3 types of objectives (Physical, Emotional, Relational) from each activity, along with possible questions for student reflection. Also, it was important to craft a similar format for the mechanics of the game (Equipment, Setup, and Procedure), as it kept the directions clear. It also helped me gain a deeper understanding of the activity (wasn’t expecting that…).
Ever attend a presentation that includes a PowerPoint and you will inevitably see someone pull out their phone to take a pic of the screen. I know I’ve done it.
Something up there has captured my attention and I’m afraid I’ll never remember it (or the presenter moves too fast and I know I’ll miss it). But what happens when you take the picture? For me, my brain has fully engaged with the task of pulling my phone out, getting the camera app open, focusing, zooming, and taking the pic (which turned out blurry anyway). Was I also listening? Nope, not a chance.
Now I’ve missed something. Might have been equally or more engaging (or not), but I’ll never know. Unless I ask the person beside me, and now they can’t continue to listen…
I realize there are visual people out there. I’m one of them. But what if the visuals we create for a presentation distract the attendees? Or what if they detract value and meaning from the message?
I admit, I made slides for my presentation and I enjoyed doing so. It was a new and fun experience for me. But in doing so and really thinking about it, I’m wondering if I should have. If I ever do another presentation, I’m not altogether sure I’ll use them next time.
It seems to me now that slides should be a part of the presentation, not a repetition of it. Especially if it is a physically active session, where personal engagement is the main tool to reach the audience.
OK, don’t think marriage here (at least not the kind where a couple legally get hitched to create a family). But think about the secondary definition: “a combination or mixture of two elements.” I’m talking about the mixture of the Presenter and the Attendees. Somewhere, there is potential for this relationship to exist. When the Presenter is able to actually connect with those attending, much more is taught and shared. And the reverse is equally true. If an attendee is able to connect with the presenter, they are much more likely to learn and then continue to learn as the session continues.
I didn’t realize this until I actually presented on day 2 of INSHAPE. About a third of the way through, I was attempting to measure the engagement of the attendees. I was looking at their eyes and expressions, wondering if what I was saying was getting any traction. I saw the heads nodding and caught an occasional “ah” or “OH!” But nothing spoke to me louder than when someone felt comfortable enough to share their own personal thoughts or feelings about the message and how it was affecting them.
I knew at that point I had personally connected with someone in attendance. It made all the difference in the world to me. I felt new energy and inspiration flow. And as an attendee before and after my own session, I know it to be true from that perspective as well. How many sessions have you attended while standing far off? Or how many times have you drifted from session to session? From which will you likely gain the most? I can say I gain the most when I’m physically, mentally, and relationally engaged. Now I know the presenter can’t fully connect with each attendee. But how “Present” are you when you are teaching? If I’m simply reciting all the facts and dry data about the information, using the slides to visually show you what I’m saying, and then giving you a handout of all that I just said…will you really learn from me and my experiences? I’m not really there with you…I’m speaking into a “mic,” recording it all for you to listen if you want later.
But if we are “engaged?” Now learning is taking place, from everyone.
You’d think I would know this already. I’m a teacher for cryin’ out loud! I did learn this while teaching children, but never applied it to myself while attending professional sessions. And I think I knew this on some kind of level while I was a student, but had never reflected on it much.
I’m so grateful for this opportunity to present to fellow professionals. It has taught me much about myself and how I will continue to teach my students.
Correction…how I will continue to “engage” my students. A two-way street, each of us relating with each other as we both continue to learn.