Locker-room Conversation

PE teachers get a bad rap sometimes, the notion of their job as “Team A play Team B on Court C and give your results to the TA.”

It’s not fair, of course, as stereotypes typically aren’t. The physical education teachers I’ve known are dedicated folks, most likely to answer if they’re asked what they teach with one word: “Kids.”

As a site administrator who sometimes steps in to cover a class if a substitute doesn’t make it to school on time, I can attest to the fact that a basketball court full of 7th and 8th graders contains as much energy as an Elizabethan marketplace, complete with jugglers, acrobats, and the occasional dancing bear. Teaching PE is tough and the smiling people who teach it every day are even tougher.

And yet, increasingly, year by year students seem to be looking for alternatives to traditional PE classes. My district allows an Independent Study Physical Education option, once designed for Olympic caliber athletes, now broadened to include paddle boarding and strength training, that gains in popularity every year.

A part of me applauds students making physical fitness a part of their year round everyday life. Here in San Diego County, where the sun seems always to be shining, being active outside is as natural as a fish learning how to swim. It’s a community of triathletes and surfers, kayakers and cyclists.

The rub comes, however, when results come in for our Presidential Fitness Test, which all our students take, and the kids who do the best aren’t the ISPE students, but are the ones who have been in class all year with our PE teachers.

Long conversations with these caring folks have gotten me to wonder how traditional PE might change over the next decade.

If we acknowledge that kids who are now our students will be the adults swimming, jogging, and biking through our coastal community in a decade or less, how might we create a public school PE program that supports that lifelong healthy lifestyle for all kids?

Adjusting PE isn’t that dissimilar to the sea changes we’ve seen in other disciplines. English classes of the 1940s looked very much like English classes of the 1980s, but walk in to an English class today and you’ll see something different than you would have seen even five or ten years ago. Teachers ask students to make connections, use technology, and apply what they’re learning from a broad variety of sources in ways unlike those seen through most of the last century.

Science and math classes have become more hands on and grounded in practical application, and even electives have an eye toward the world beyond the classroom walls. Technology is certainly a part of this, but not the only difference. Pedagogy has changed as well, and well it should.

The analogy most akin to the potential evolution of physical education is what’s happening in history classes. Knowing the importance of building lifelong skills in critical thinking about history and contemporary culture, social science teachers are moving away from the strict reliance on the textbook and asking the students to do more.

Document based questions, once the rarefied domain of Advanced Placement high school history classes, are commonplace now in middle school social science classes. These young scholars thrive on reading primary sources, and are able to engage with history in more meaningful ways. No longer are two pages on the Lewis and Clark expedition enough (if they ever were); students learn more by analyzing passages from journals and period newspaper articles, and drawing conclusions (and even questions) from what they read.

So too, PE might transform itself by moving beyond the textbook application of bouncing balls and bright mesh vests to identify teams. By looking at the best examples of healthy lifestyles, and finding ways to make the important physical movement kids engage in every day more relevant to the lives they lead and will grow into, we have an opportunity to bring this vital discipline into the present, and maybe even the future.

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