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Reimagining Physical Education

Thursday, April 6, 2017
Coach Tim Pettus of Waterford models correct form in PE class.
Coach Pettus replaces elimination with fitness activities to keep all students involved.

"Not to alarm you, but America is going softer than left-out butter. Exhibit 9,137: Schools have started banning dodgeball. I kid you not. Dodgeball has been outlawed by some school districts in New York, Texas, Utah and Virginia. Many more are thinking about it, like Cecil County, Md., where the school board wants to ban any game with "human targets." Personally, I wish all these people would go suck their Birkenstocks.

Human targets? What's tag? What's a snowball fight? What's a close play at second? Neil Williams, a physical education professor at Eastern Connecticut State, says dodgeball has to go because it "encourages the best to pick on the weak." Noooo! You mean there's weak in the world? There's strong? Of course there is, and dodgeball is one of the first opportunities in life to figure out which one you are and how you're going to deal with it.

I know what all these NPR-listening, Starbucks-guzzling parents want. They want their Ambers and their Alexanders to grow up in a cozy womb of noncompetition, where everybody shares tofu and Little Red Riding Hood and the big, bad wolf set up a commune.  Then their kids will stumble out into the bright light of the real world and find out that, yes, there's weak and there's strong and teams and sides and winning and losing.

But Williams and his fellow wusses aren't stopping at dodgeball.  In their Physical Education Hall of Shame they've also included duck-duck-goose and musical chairs. Seriously. So, if we give them dodgeball, you can look for these games to be banned next:

Baseball. Involves wrong-headed notions of stealing, errors and gruesome hit-and-run. Players should always be safe, never out.

Hopscotch. Sounds vaguely alcoholic, not to mention demeaning to our friends of Scottish ancestry.

If we let these PC twinkies have their way, we'll be left with:

Duck-duck-duck. Teacher spends the entire hour patting each child softly on the head.

Smear the mirror. Students take turns using whipped cream to smear parts of their reflection they don't like, e.g., the fat
they have accrued from never doing a darn thing in gym class."

This is an excerpt from "The Weak Shall Inherit the Gym,by Rick Reilly, published in Sports Illustrated on May 14, 2001. I cut out some parts of the article, but I think you get the general point. Rick Reilly made his career writing entertaining and often humorous articles for Sports Illustrated. He has been voted National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times, and to be honest, I enjoy and agree with most of his articles--but I disagree with most, though not all, of this article. 

Professor Neil F. Williams of Eastern Connecticut State University has inducted 16 different games into his Physical Education Hall of Shame for many different reasons. However, there is one common problem that every Hall of Shame game shares: a serious lack of equal participation time for ALL students, of all ability levels. Let’s be clear here, I am not talking about Coach Judd’s high school basketball team competing for the state championship, I am talking about a required, elementary physical education class.

There are many other PE games (besides dodgeball) that have an elimination format. Tag games, basketball and soccer dribbling and shooting games, musical chairs (or some modified version of, usually using spots on the floor or hula hoops and music), and many others.

Here is Professor Williams' description of the modified musical chairs game he inducted into the PE Hall of Shame:
“Elimination games are self defeating, because the students who are in the greatest need of skill development are immediately banished, embarrassed, and punished, and then given no opportunity to improve. The next time they play, those students will be first out again. The average participation time factor for students in this game is about 50 percent (which is not bad), but for some students, participation time is over 90 percent while for the students who need the most practice, participation time is generally less than 10 percent.  While some elements of the game have merit, we must find a way to increase the amount of participation for everyone to higher levels.”

As a kid, I loved elimination games (because I was usually one of the last ones standing).  As a PE teacher, I still love some of these games and teach them, just not in their original format.  With a little thought and creativity, many of these games can be modified, using a point system or a “fun fitness” activity, to eliminate the elimination and allow for maximum participation for all students. 

Williams uses the word “embarrassed” to describe the feeling a student has after being eliminated. I don’t fully agree with this. If the teacher works hard to teach and demand a classroom climate of respect, does not allow students to inappropriately laugh at each other, or call each other names, the embarrassment factor can be substantially decreased.

I have 4 class rules that I teach at the beginning of the year (and review, as needed, throughout the year).
1) Be Safe
2) Be Respectful
3) Be Responsible
4) Try Everything 100%, never say “I can’t”

By far, I spend the most time throughout the school year talking about rule #2, Be Respectful.  When students are respectful to one another, participation rates go up, cooperation and sportsmanship improves, and learning increases. In order to create a respectful environment, it is not only important that I teach respect, but that I model respect. 

When speaking to a student (or the class) about an unwanted behavior, I am always aware of the potential I have to accidentally embarrass or humiliate a student.

As an elementary PE teacher, I believe in using a mixture of cooperative and competitive activities. Both types of activities have their place in a PE curriculum, and both have positives and negatives. Learning how to cope with losing and failure is an important experience all children should have.  You may remember back in October there was an invitation in Friday’s My Waterford News to see author Jessica Lahey speak about her book titled, The Gift of Failure.  I picked up a copy of her book and was pleased to see an entire chapter was devoted to the topic of sports and competition, and the positive role they CAN play (if done right) when studying the benefits of failure.

Lahey writes,“Imagine if sports could be a safe place to fail, where athletes and teams could lose and the aftermath would be all about sportsmanship rather than conflict over that last contested call or doomsday panic about the child’s future. Sports should be the place and time to experience disappointment and failure in a lower-stakes environment, a brief window of time to lay down the foundation our children will need in order to grow into adults of character.” (The Gift of Failure, Chapter 7- Sports- Losing As An Essential Childhood Experience)

My favorite part of the chapter, as a coach and parent, is subtitled: 
A Guideline To Successful Sideline Parenting
1) Be the parent, not the coach
2) Never, ever, bad-mouth the coach in front of your child
3) Don’t ask your child to fulfill your own athletic dreams
4) Cultivate a growth mindset with plenty of room for failure
5) Know the difference between quitting and failure

This a great book and I highly suggest reading chapter 7 if you have children playing youth sports.

Now, let’s get back to our extremely important dodgeball debate.  When I was a kid, I loved dodgeball.  I don’t remember playing it in PE, but I have great memories of playing it during the summer, at Camp Belknap, on the shores of lake Winnipesaukee, in New Hampshire. It was cabin A vs. cabin B and I was the last one remaining in the game for my cabin. The opposing cabin had 3 players remaining and I managed to hit them all and win the game for my cabin. I will always remember the joy of this moment.

My wife, and many other adults do not share the same joyful memories of dodgeball and physical education class in general.  If you Google, “adult memories of gym class,” you will find the majority of the stories told are very negative.  Some stories involve an extremely embarrassing moment.  Many stories involve bullying from another student and sometimes from the teacher.

To make matters worse, these memories do not go away.   am sure everyone in this room can think of a negative experience you had as a child involving a teacher. 

Maybe the teacher embarrassed you in front of the class.  Maybe the teacher yelled at you, or called you a name. Maybe as time passed your perception of the situation changed and you now feel the teacher was justified.  Or, maybe just the opposite- you now feel the teacher's actions were even more inappropriate than you did as a child. 

As a teacher, I try to constantly remind myself of the lasting impact my actions have on my students--both positive and negative.  Hopefully the vast majority of my students’ memories will be positive.