Being a public educator means you will never be without students. The caveat is that many won’t want to be there. Shaped by a past experience of dodgeballs to the face and timed miles and pacer tests, Physical Education was something to endure. It was a punishment for not being athletic or interested in sports. It was proof that there was one more place you didn’t belong.
PE could be more than this. Something required for all could be something desired by all. Inclusivity needed an expansion: of ideas, of needs, and of self-direction. Still, there’s a large divide between realizing something more could be done and actually creating the elusive something. Luckily, the disenfranchised wanted the same thing that I did – an else. The guides I sought and the opinions that mattered most were right there in front of me.
What would happen if those left out were paid attention to instead of ignored?
It is important to note here that to change the status quo you there must be a separation between the haves and the have nots. The kids who loved PE wanted no part of a different system. The successful want to remain in a program that is familiar to them. Without the traditional options of team sports and weight lifting to sort out the masses, ‘Individual and Partner Development’ (better known to the masses as “Yoga or Whatever”) could never have come to fruition.
Self-selection was a godsend. It created a unified, like-minded demographic. My classes were a half to a third of the other sections, but my colleagues were okay with the disparity. Another option filtered out all those that would have given them a hard time, and vice versa. Our petri dish had the perfect conditions for cultivating something new.
My original plan and design was to exist wholly in a world apart from those they willingly chose against. We would not play sports. I would not prescribe them sets and reps nor place highest value in maximum load moved. I hoped to expose them to everything else. I would prioritize self-care and feeling movement and the ability to listen to their body. Every day would be different. Variability and novelty were key to keeping their interest, I thought.
I lead them through Functional Range Conditioning practices. We played movement games and performed partner drills to help us with coordination and balance and interaction. When I gave them free days, and offered them only the tools we’d used in class – sticks and ropes and tennis balls, scooters and rollers and medicine balls, I watched them to see what they remembered and chose to develop on their own. They often ran out of ‘things to do’ with 5 – 10 minutes left in class.
I adjusted my teaching to explain how to progress and regress games, how to create their own tangents based on personal needs and interests. They could sustain themselves a bit longer when the next open day came around. I wondered if perhaps an entire day for independent work was too long, but life’s a whole lot longer than 35 minutes. I kept showing them strategies to keep adjusting and adapting. “The game/training could be anything you want.” This was a big idea for those who were so used to being told what to do.
For me, playing and thinking went hand in hand. Creation was an important part of the process. But I had gone on my journey. I played sports and weightlifted. I had sought out programs that would tell me what to do so I could just implement it. I had got injured and self-rehabbed when cut loose from the system a fraction of my former capacity. I had discovered and practiced in the underbelly of movement culture.
Because my journey was my own, I believed whole-heartedly in it. I kept investing my energy and curiosity into it because it was mine. It was an extension of me. I wasn’t giving them the same liberties.
Somewhat horrified and slightly ashamed, I realized I was trying to make them like me.
The goal was to help them find a process to make them whatever they wanted to be.
There was a conflict between my actions and my mission statement, one I would quickly seek to rectify.
My efforts to present the enormous continuum of ‘everything else’ made me fail to recognize that nothing had to be cut off from the spectrum. It could indeed be all inclusive by incorporating all aspects of physical education.
I began giving them 5-10 open minutes at the end of most periods to individually explore, apply, and integrate ideas. The next free day I placed a soccer ball, a frisbee, and a volleyball out with our typical equipment. They went immediately. Those late to the pile asked for more. I gave them the keys and had them get anything they wanted. Badminton often won the day.
Kids will own what they like to do. Choice imparts both ownership and responsibility. Wanting to empower them, I had to be willing to give them freedom and control. I had to trust that they could make decisions in their best interest. I found that they could indeed take it upon themselves to choose how they would like to move their bodies for the day. They could determine what equipment they needed, carve out space, set and regulate rules/procedures, keep track of time, and return everything from where they got it. They could also reflect on whether or not this style of teaching and learning extended outside of the classroom.
I began giving them mini-lessons on habit-based behavioral change. We would talk about what gets in their way of achieving their goals, and spent a large chunk of time delineating what ‘lazy’ really means. Was it about not knowing or doing? Why wasn’t information translating into action? There were gaps that weren’t being addressed.
During spring break, I challenged them to come up with the smallest possible step in the right direction that they could do every single day. There was nothing too miniscule to provide a bit of inertia. The hope was to establish a sense of consistency and note whether the change trickled into other positive habits:
“3 minutes of stretching while I watch TV shows, Youtube”. The writing in red was written when we returned from ten days off, and answered to question of momentum spread. “YES! I started to move around more and didn’t sit that much as usual.”
Of course, not everyone met the same level of achievement:
I chuckled when I read this. We talked about how hard it is to forget something you really want.
Having them write things down ensured I didn’t miss anyone. They handed in their thoughts, a snapshot into their psyche and experience. It was one more way to show my interest in them and what they thought. Another piece of etched feedback.
The last nine days of the semester, I put my money where my mouth was. It was completely theirs to do what they want with. I was available for any inquiries or more personal investigations. They had the option of a guided ‘class’ each period, but the vast majority chose to do their own thing. Most worked in small groups to create a shared involvement. They danced and kicked soccer balls and developed their own workouts, climbed bleachers and trees and made up their own games:
A variant of Evasive Kickball when not enough other students were interested in roughhousing for the day. The runner/ ball carrier had to get each base player outside of a dirt circle that surrounded the base, without getting their ball taken away.
Nothing they did, or didn’t do, was wrong, but everything was open to questioning. Having and being able to communicate their why meant everything. If I rounded the corner and saw a group obviously just lying around but faking stretching when they noticed me, I greeted them with the smile and simply asked (in a curious but never demeaning tone), “So what are you guys doing?”. A reason and a purpose was always given, along with a segue way into what was or is about to start happening.
It served as proof that they were thinking.
I assured them that there’s nothing wrong with taking a rest.
In the end, we took a written final. I wanted to see what translated in their brains that I couldn’t observe.
This was the first test I picked up and read off the pile. I was floored, but when I realized it was not the exception but the standard, I could only sit and beam and be grateful for them. We could relate to, honor, and respect one another. A culture had found its community, and met a mutual need.
A well functioning collective inquires about the ambitions of its individuals. It cares. It assumes that everyone has something to offer and makes multiple attempts and efforts in drawing the answers out of them, not just so they can be served better but because their input matters. They matter. In accepting their thoughts as contributions, everyone had a sense of purpose and investment.
Letting go of agendas and expectations wasn’t a compromise, it was a revelation. It allowed us to show exactly who we are and put us on the same level of collaboration. Our trust in each other to create a safe space made us more willing to communicate. And when given the freedom to independently engage with whatever interested them, they stayed interested and curious in their work.
They wanted what everyone wants — the opportunity to make their own choices and foster their own learning. I simply had figure out how to lessen my role to give it to them.
The disengaged are not the victims, but the champions of the next big thing. It is the outliers that can look past conventional systems and invent something different. Ideas welcomed in a group is a group that evolves. By asking more and telling less, the magic unfolds all on its own.