If you haven’t read today’s article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch called From dressing out to dodgeball: 10 worst gym class nightmares you can find it here. The purpose of this post is to share a response. So, please take a moment to read the post prior to reading my response. First of all, given what we know about the health crisis in the US, it might be a better use of space and time to explore (in depth) how much physical education has evolved in recent years. For a post that explains this in detail, I’ll direct you here.
The author of the St. Louis Post Dispatch article, Ms. Aisha Sultan, identifies 10 ‘nightmares’ experienced by those who were not jocks or athletes in physical education class. While I am very fast to point out that gym is not the name of our content area, I can understand why the author chose to use the term to describe her particular experiences. You see, what she describes is the traditional horrible experience that many of us experienced in “gym” class. Fortunately, like other content areas, physical education has evolved. How? Well, for one, I once had to sit in a corner of a classroom with my nose in the wall for talking (go figure) in class. I was also a frequent visitor to the dreaded bench where I lost recess for being an active learner in the classroom during days we were expected to sit still, quietly, in rows and behave after being fed wonder bread with a hotdog on top on hotdog days (Wednesdays). Yikers!
Yet, the media and newspapers continue to harp on physical education.
We don’t talk much about how teachers would force students to use their right hand, even when they were left hand dominate. We don’t talk about the way dunce hats were used for students who learned differently than the majority of peers. Fortunately, these practices no longer exist - and fortunately equally as terrible practices no longer exist in quality PE.
As a physical education professional who joined the profession with the goals to help those who feel the least competent in their physical skills, and to help those who are marginalized due to overweight/obesity and low income families, this is all so disheartening. I joined this profession to learn how to support these students so that they could develop in a way that they felt competent to move - so that they would live healthy lives. So, yeah, it hurts me to read the author’s experiences - because I feel for her. It also hurts me that media continues to point out the unprofessional teachings of traditional PE in a way that does little to evolve perception in a way that matches how much physical education has evolved. Research has been conducted, and teacher preparation programs have been improved. Sure, there is still need more professional development funding - it always is the first to be cut - but, I suppose that’s just something we can fail to mention in an article?
The author criticizes the fact that Edwardsville (in Southern Illinois) is having a new pool built. Who wouldn’t want an incredible facility that will increase access for community members to be active? More community members will be able to take swimming lessons, more adults will be able to swim before work if they like to swim or have injuries that keep them from running, and more kids can learn an incredible life skill (swimming) through a quality physical education program. A facility such as a brand new Olympic sized pool in a public school community can only be celebrated. As a wearer of pony-tails for 38+ years, I will say this to her response - the girls will be okay if they return to school with wet hair. Why focus on appearance (wet hair) rather than health (gains received from learning how to swim)? This does little to address the serious obesity epidemic and high rates of mental health problems - both of which physical activities (such as swimming) can help to rectify. Since these kids will likely receive lessons as youth, hopefully they will feel competent and excited to swim for fitness and a fun social experience with their friends.
When you can swim: you can play water polo, you can swim for fitness, you can join a swim team, you can learn to dive, you and learn to kayak safely, you can help save another life potentially, you can do triathlons, etc. If my local school was getting a brand new pool I would see it as a place for community to gather and for kids to increase their self-perceptions due to increased physical competence gained through learning swimming skills.
I get there are some embarrassing times for adolescents and physical educators should absolutely be sensitive to this. As a middle schooler, I was the very last female to shave her legs - and, I’ll admit, I had some stares because of it. I felt awkward because of it. It stunk. Perhaps better health education courses could have helped with this as well as a more inclusive and warm class community - but choosing to not support a new pool in a community is surely not the answer if you want to protect kids from life experiences. I am more anti-bullying than most people. I think school curriculum should support kindness and necessary locker room situations should be built with safety (physical and emotional) in mind. But, coping with avoiding is not preparing anyone for the world that awaits...
While many criticize changing clothes for PE, I always think about it as a social justice issue. If we don’t have uniforms, kids with brand names dri-fit are next to those who are shy about not affording those things. Why are we concerned about appearance more than issues such as poverty?
To the individual who attended Parkway North and had an embarrassing experience, I am sorry and I can further relate. My shorts once fell off while on a gymnastics bar in elementary school. To make matters worse, my “Tuesday” strawberry shortcake undergarments were worn on a Thursday (I was one of five and didn’t wear the correct underpants to match the correct week day as the package suggested one do - we wore what was clean and my mother is a machine for how much she did for us!). I was laughed at. And, I didn’t want to go back. It’s not always easy which is why physical education now focuses on differentiated instruction and small-sided games so that folks are focused on themselves and their own competence and development and don’t have time to be concerned (re: observe) others. But, to criticize a teacher for simply making sure the was okay (re: the teacher was empathetic) is silly and does little to suggest the teacher did something wrong in this instance.
Another issue I have with the article is that it uses a qualitative research design study out of the University of Alberta to set the tone for generalization. Qualitative research, while awesome and serves and incredible purpose, doesn’t exist for external validity (generalization) purposes. It’s meant to share rich context about experiences of the participants in this study. Of course being humiliated by youth coaches and PE teachers is terrible - as is being humiliated by classroom teachers, administrators and parents. But, quality PE teachers don’t yell and humiliate - they share skill specific feedback to help all students improve in their physical competence and increase their motivation. However, let’s for fun say that there is external validity in this article...I think it supports improved teaching methods which are often already in place given that the study is 4.5 years old. Data would have been collected a year before publication and these individuals were now adults. The study, in other words, does not evaluate current physical education programs related to students’ attitudes. Thus, it does not accurately (necessarily) portray the PE which exists in schools today.
I almost stopped reading the article when Ms. Sultan suggests that laps are still used to punish in PE. Rather, quality PE rewards with exercise. I have observed many a youth coaches punish (unfortunately) with laps because they are looking for a quick fix (more on this issue here), but not one PE teacher in recent years. If a teacher is punishing with laps, I would talk to that teacher about the societal norms he/she is perpetuating. But, to generalize or lead a reader to assume all quality PE professionals do this is insulting and wrong.
Another Parkway North (Man, the vikings are really taking the heat in this article) student reported an injury kayaking in the pool which resulted in 24 stitches. This is terrible! It is certainly a safety issue that should be looked into. However, suggesting we don’t have PE so that we are spared injury doesn’t make sense. As a colleague says, a lack of physical literacy only kills people slowly. While a bit tongue and cheek, I think you get my point. We (physical education professionals) want students to develop as physically and health literate people. We must give them more opportunities at a young age to increase their physical competence in a WIDE variety of environments (land, ice, water, snow) so that they move better and want to move more. And, a professional and quality PE program CERTAINLY takes all necessary safety precautions. I’m sorry for the stitches and the scar, but I do think that (when safe to do so) rolling a kayak is an incredible skill (I met my husband, MacGyver) my first day white water kayaking and it is an amazing activity that really connects you to nature.
I’m not sure throwing out that some kids weigh in front of entire classes is accurate as it’s not referenced and not cited - but the author did her job if she was planning to highlight just how miserable the subject can be. I can tell you as a physical education teacher educator I have observed hundreds of physical education classes. I have never once saw children step on a scale in front of peers - although I admittedly have observed some pretty poor physical education classes along with the amazing ones. That is horrendous and administration should be called immediately if not sooner. Rather, the FitnessGram is often utilized in physical education programs. This is not for grading purposes. This is to inform students where they are in relation to a healthy zone. It’s a criterion referenced standard (based on physiology - not on “norms”) and celebrates different body sizes as well as growth and maturation. Again, this is not (unlike classroom standardized tests) used for grading purposes. Rather students are assessed on their ability to set goals related to where they are on the health-related fitness zone (to maintain or improve) and to understand why strength, flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, etc. is important.
Related to dance - quality physical education curriculum doesn’t mandate square dancing and to imply it does is simply wrong. Recent quality PE curriculum that I wrote included dance for its obvious health-related benefits and education around culture and inclusiveness. However, it’s written in a way where students have choice in what type of dance they will explore. Thus, teachers can meet students where they are and allow for autonomy in their learning.
There are low quality PE teachers out there, no doubt. Just as there are ineffective doctors, lawyers, custodians, and any other profession/vocation one can think of. But, please stop painting all PE teachers and programs with the same brush and don’t take one’s perception as a valid measure of an entire program.
Ms. Sultan, I invite you and those you interviewed who attend Universities around this great country to my house over winter break (I now live in St. Louis). I’ll lead you a 21st century PE class where you will see how fun and collaborative it is. You’ll think critically, you will be creative and you’ll take risks (that you feel awesome about). Be prepared to be inspired to rethink physical education. We can write a follow up together. Please allow me to help right this wrong for you. Your article is important in that it can be shared with PE teacher education majors so that they are inspired to have a quality program that looks nothing like the one you describe. Let’s work together to help motivate and inspire people to participate in creative PE programs.
In the mean time, follow me on Twitter (@movelivelearn) and throw up #physed on your Tweet deck. On a Monday night, come on in and be a guest on #pechat. You will quickly learn what physical education in 2014 is, and you will hopefully join our team as we move forward from an ugly past to educate parents and community members how we are well positioned and prepared to support individuals’ development as health and physically literate people.
Let me know if you want to meet up for a walk, jog or run!