Engaged & Learning

January 29, 2015
From offering yoga to using technology, there are many novel ideas emerging for improving physical education curriculums. The key is to remember the big-picture goal.
By Elaine Lindsay

Elaine Lindsay is the Executive Director of the Maryland Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance and a former athletic director, teacher, department chair, and coach of numerous sports in Baltimore County Public Schools. Named the Eastern District Association and National Association for Sport and Physical Education High School Teacher of the Year in 1996, she has presented and keynoted at state and national conferences. She can be reached at: [email protected].

Dodgeball is history. Duck, duck, goose is taboo. Dance is considered a sport. No one is picked last. Playing the "real" game seldom happens.

The above are just some of the ways that physical education curriculums and teaching methods have changed--or should have changed--in the past decade. The goal of current physical education programs is not merely for students to participate in sports during the class period. It is to have them achieve "physical literacy."

The term physical literacy connotes that students learn the how and why behind the games and fitness activities they participate in. It means teaching them exercise strategies that will last a lifetime and motivating them to stay engaged.

How can a teaching staff achieve all that? Fortunately, new ideas and instructional methods have arisen over the last few years to provide some guidance.

Every teacher knows that not all children, and especially not all adolescents, will enjoy the same activities. That's why the first step to upgrading a physical education curriculum is to provide choices. This doesn't mean students decide what they want to do every day, but it does require giving them options in every class session.

For example, the student could choose what type of warm-up they do or the partner they will work with. It could also cover their desired level of competitiveness. The choice of playing to win or being in a group that simply enjoys the activity is one that many students appreciate.

Providing activity options is also key. An innovative physical education program will offer team and individual sports, adventure and recreational activities, personal fitness units, and dance or rhythmic classes.

Many physical education curriculums are having great success by looking beyond traditional sports. Activities may include yoga, roller skating, rock wall climbing, ballroom and contemporary dance, Frisbee golf, cup stacking, juggling, cycling, archery, Drums Alive, tai chi, Dance Dance Revolution, pickleball, and self-defense. It can even be effective to ask students to devise their own sport games.

While giving students choices is important, the underlying goal of every activity should not be forgotten: learning physical fitness for life. Each student should understand how he or she can build a connection with physical fitness.

This begins early in the year, when students should undergo fitness testing to identify their own levels of the components that contribute to a healthy lifestyle. Then, realistic, measurable, and attainable goals for each fitness component should be developed with input from the teacher and consideration for the likes and needs of the student. The testing should be repeated toward the end of the year to gauge progress. Two helpful resources for this are Fitnessgram and the Presidential Youth Fitness Program.

In addition, the physical education program should provide students with the knowledge to chart out a fitness plan that includes several activities they can pursue for lifelong fitness. For example, students should know to warm up before stretching, what sets and reps are, and how to progress in the areas of strength and muscular endurance. They should also be trained on how to use their own bodyweight, free weights, and equipment like treadmills, steppers, and rowing machines to maintain or improve overall body conditioning. Students should know how to prepare for a run such as a 5K.

The great news is that technological advances can help make personalized fitness programs more fun and goals more attainable for students. Here are some ways to incorporate technology into your physical education curriculum:

- Heart rate monitors can be used to track students' cardiovascular efforts.
- Pedometers can display the amount of steps taken during a specific time period or activity.
- Videos on a cell phone or flip camera can pinpoint skill errors.
- Students can record fitness tests using programs that are available in Fitnessgram.
- Students can utilize an online activity log to track their weekly health-enhancing activities.
- Physical fitness apps are constantly being developed that students can download to their smartphones.
- Video games can maintain or improve fitness through games like Wii Fit or Kinect Sports.
- An electronic portfolio detailing health-enhancing physical activity can be a requirement as a summative assessment.

An age-old problem with teaching physical education is the wide gap in students' abilities. It's critical that this is addressed in a curriculum so that all participants can get the most out of each program.

Therefore, before starting any unit, each student's level of experience and knowledge should be assessed, and remediation of basic skills should be offered. The teacher should describe what an advanced, intermediate, and beginner athlete will be able to do and allow each student to self-select the group he or she will participate in.

Also important is defining realistic goals for different competencies. Let's take a four-week (12-lesson) tennis unit as an example. A typical goal might be to have students play in a tennis match using the correct rules and with long enough rallies to provide moderate to vigorous physical activity.

Now consider this: approximately 3,000 repetitions are needed for an individual to learn a skill before it can be performed with proficiency. In most cases, the opportunities for skill development in a 50-minute (or less) physical education class made up of 20 other students are limited. If lesson plans include forehand, backhand, serve and volley, rules, and strategies, a student who is new to the game will never achieve the goal of playing a substantive match.

Instead, change the goal of the class unit to focus more on students participating in skill development activities, learning the cues of the various techniques, and demonstrating the ability to practice tennis skills at a developmental level. This allows time for repeated practice with appropriate feedback and immediate correction.

What should instructors do about the student who plays on the tennis team and met the new unit goal before instruction began? This individual can also work on improving skills, but their degree of difficulty should be higher and include advanced skills such as mastering the drop shot, the lob, and the twist serve.

It can work well to divide the class into three groups based on their skill level from the beginning, with each group performing different activities. On one court, the beginner players can participate in a forehand drill in which they hit against a fence or wall. The intermediate group can start the class working on their serves, aiming to keep the ball within the court's boundaries at least half the time. The advanced students can begin the class with three players on each side of the court working on drop shots and lobs.

The organization of each class may be different depending upon the number of students in each skill group. Lesson planning might take longer, but the time spent in class will be more meaningful for each student.

One more way to adjust for differing abilities is to use modified equipment. For example, a volleyball activity may be more successful if the ball is lighter, larger, and doesn't sting the forearms. Short-handled tennis rackets and larger balls that bounce slower and higher will lead to longer rallies. Having a variety of equipment and allowing students to choose what they use will improve participation.

Changing a curriculum is difficult because many teachers feel intimidated at the prospect of learning new activities and altering what they have done for years. Others may lack the necessary background to teach different skills or may be resistant to technology. And those physical education teachers who are also coaches don't have a lot of extra time. But implementing an innovative program that offers students choices takes full teacher buy-in and enthusiasm.

Therefore, the first steps of upgrading a curriculum are staff discussion and planning. To get all teachers on board, it can help to remind them of the needs of today's students. It can also work well to show a teacher how older curriculum methods, which usually involved students being forced to do something they disliked or felt incompetent in, looked from a student's point of view.

A recent article in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance titled "Profiles of Change: Teacher-Initiated Program Improvements in High School Physical Education," described how innovative programs at the high school level all started with teacher buy-in. In one case, it was one teacher who was able to convince colleagues of the need for change. In another example, the retirement of a master teacher led to major program upgrades. (In both stories, the changes resulted in an improved understanding of physical education among the student body, the school administration, and the community.)

Providing ownership opportunities for new initiatives in the program is also important. When teachers know that their lessons will be taught by others in the department and that their expertise is valued, they make more of an effort to be creative and thorough.

Along with devising new offerings for physical education classes as a team, teachers need to take an introspective look at their teaching methods. Just as coaches today are told to lead with more empathy to generate student buy-in, the same is true for physical education instructors.

Exercise should be both fun and challenging. Students should never be punished for class infractions by "dropping for 10" or running laps. They should be disciplined in private, and effort should be rewarded even if the result was unsuccessful.

In addition, new curriculums should include lessons on good sportsmanship that the teacher demonstrates and teaches to the class. No student should return to the locker room after a physical education class feeling like a loser. Cooperation, not intimidation, should be the goal of activity experiences.

It can be helpful for a team of teachers to meet as a group and talk about what a model class looks like. I would suggest that such a class has these elements:

- The teacher is a role model of healthy living.
- Students are addressed by their first names and receive positive feedback from teachers about their effort and behavior.
- Students look forward to and are encouraged to be as active as possible in physical education classes in order to maximize the time allotted.
- The teacher's objective for learning and expectations are communicated effectively.
- Laughter is heard, with opportunities for laughing with or at the teacher planned.
- Acknowledging accomplishments and effort is done continually.

Perhaps the best way to get all your teachers on board is to remind them of their role in preparing students for the future. Even the individual who shows absolutely no interest in physical education may someday want to become physically fit. He or she should have the knowledge to be comfortable in a gym, run in a 5K fundraiser, or take up an exciting new sport that grabs them. As teachers, we should feel confident that the physical literacy we instill in our students can take them wherever they want to go.

Sidebar: Resource Savvy
Internet and print resources are great for finding new ideas to introduce into a physical education curriculum. However, before borrowing an activity, make sure it fits the objective or standard of the unit. A class that engages students but doesn't meet the goal of the program is a waste of time.

Students need to learn something new every day, and the innovative teacher should constantly be looking for novel ideas that work in their particular curriculum. That means picking and choosing very carefully among what you find and making adjustments when necessary.

For example, one innovative idea is for small groups to create their own workout videos. To make this activity fit with a larger curriculum goal, the students should be taught how to break down an exercise and develop cues for performance. They might also monitor their heart rates before, during, and after the workout they devise.

The challenge is choosing engaging lessons that result in specific, curriculum-centered learning. One great resource for interesting lesson ideas is: www.pecentral.org.

Sidebar: Let's Move
Sometimes, the best physical education curriculums transcend the school day. One initiative that all schools can easily implement is "Let's Move! Active Schools," which is championed by first lady Michelle Obama.

The five components of the program include a quality physical education program, before and after school activity opportunities, physical activity throughout the day, staff involvement, and family and community engagement. To take part, schools can encourage students to bike or walk to school on special days. Classroom teachers can lead physical activities between subjects to energize students who have been sitting for hours. Schools can involve parents by inviting them to evening sessions with their children and showing them what changes have been made in the physical education program.

Resources and grants to implement initiatives like Let's Move! are available to individual schools and districts. Federal Physical Education Program grants have been awarded for more than 12 years and offer schools sufficient funds to make considerable department changes.

For more information, go to: www.letsmove.gov/active-schools.
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