Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Not your mother's PE class

My sons are headed to middle school next year. They are disappointed (as am I) that there won't be recess, however, they are excited that they will have PE for a 90-minute block every other day. A few days prior to the end of their fifth grade year, I had been discussing this with a few other parents and some of their older kids in our school district. They told me that my sons' enthusiasm may later be curbed, especially in high school, telling me that the PE class sizes were large, with forty to fifty students, and that it seemed at times like an anything goes kind of environment. Furthermore, they were playing antiquated and obscure games that no one had ever heard of or played before. It could be that those are games just for PE class because they help to highlight or develop a certain skills set rather than because the game is relevant, but in any case, it seems like it's time to re-invent the PE class.

Coincidentally, a few days later, I came across this article about the next generation of physical education classes :
The program at the Prince William County school is part of a national effort to mobilize a generation that has been labeled the most sedentary in the nation’s history. It represents a major shift in physical education to reverse the trend of inertia, with gym teachers working harder to make sure that their classes don’t appeal just to the most athletic students while the rest of the kids in school-issued shorts are left sitting on the sidelines. 
“The country depends on us to do something different than what we have been doing,” said Dolly Lambdin, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE). “We cared too much about who is the best, who can do the most push-ups, and not nearly enough about what it means to be healthy and physically active for a lifetime.”
“The New PE,” as it’s often called, is a nicer PE. 
Out are dodgeball and other sports that use kids as targets, contests that reward students who are the strongest, and exercise doled out (or withheld) as a form of punishment: Still talking? Four more laps!
In are personal fitness plans, target heart-rate zones, and sports that play to different strengths and introduce students to activities that they can pursue across a lifetime. “Physically literate” and “lifelong movers” are buzzwords of the New PE.
The new approach seems to involve making personal progress, meaning being measured against yourself and then building from there:
The Presidential Physical Fitness Test, a mainstay of gym classes for decades, was officially retired last school year, based on the recommendation of a childhood obesity task force convened by the president. The contest rewarded students and schools if they scored in the 85th percentile or higher in such categories as curl-ups, push-ups and the mile-long endurance run. 
The new president-sponsored test, the Fitnessgram, evaluates students according to their personal progress and research-based targets of optimal healthy fitness levels for each age and gender. Many school districts in the Washington area years ago switched to the new test, which was originally designed in 1982. The categories are similar, though there is a trend away from the mile run.
This New Hampshire parent and school board member does not approve: 
Some people are wary of the changes in physical education, worrying that the cultural shift could soften the nation’s children. 
“It’s becoming too politically correct,” said Dennis Senibaldi, a school board member in Windham, N.H., who advocated against a policy in his district to ban dodgeball last year. 
“We want to teach kids you don’t always get first place, you don’t always get a trophy. . . .My son didn’t make the seventh-grade soccer team. Should we get rid of the soccer program because not everyone made it?”
We love dodgeball in my family and my husband and I are anti trophies for all (How about patches? You can iron or sew them onto a jersey and they don't take up space and collect dust) and we all play soccer. But a PE class is not the soccer program or team. PE class is required; soccer program is not. That's a different deal. 

The approach of "new PE" described in this article seems like a much better one to me than the approach of old PE. There is a place for instruction in some competitive games and the like--the PE curriculum should be comprehensive after all, but what are the goals, really? To teach about physical education and sports and to teach kids to physically active or at least how to be. In that way, I like the individual goal setting. I think that would serve a greater number of students much better.

And, the "old" PE doesn't really serve the athletic kids well, either. Students who play basketball, for example, have to sit through intro lessons while students who aren't so athletic might be overwhelmed by those who are. As my sons have gotten older and are coming into their own as athletes, they have started to feel that PE is not as fun, that it's even boring sometimes. They'd get a lot more out of the course if they could explore physical fitness in general and different ways to achieve it, building from where they already are. For example, I know from watching them get tired while playing soccer that they could use some work on conditioning.

One challenge, though, for old and new PE alike is that PE, like recess, foreign language, practical/life skills, and the arts, often gets shoved aside, deemed unessential. From the article:
The efforts come as physical education programs struggle for time and resources, overshadowed by growing academic demands. In a 2007 survey of school administrators, 44 percent reported cutting time from physical education and recess, as well as other subjects, to increase reading and math instruction following the passage of the No Child Left Behind law.
Or, students can go to what's called "PE" but spend the time practicing standardized test math questions and reading passages but with PE content. That hasn't happened (yet) in my kids' schools but my sons have a hard time reconciling the instruction of their PE teachers to students to play outside and exercise more while they only get thirty minutes of recess/outdoor play a day at school.

Perhaps the new PE can help to mitigate testing creep and help US kids to be healthier and more physically fit.

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