Not in My Gym

I recently tweeted a link to a story from slate.com and ignited a bit of a tweet-storm amongst the #physed crowd.  Jessica Olien (@jessicaolien), a writer and illustrator, wrote about her personal physical education experience (PE) in an article entitled, “Dodgeball Should Not Be Part of Any Curriculum, Ever: Making kids play team sports in PE is neither healthy nor educational.”  Although I would pretty much agree with this title and many of the points that the writer makes, I will admit that some aspects of the article rubbed me the wrong way – but this post is not really about those points.

Essentially, Jessica’s article described her journey through sport as experienced in her PE classes as a kid.  She wanted to be good at sports but described every new sport as a “fresh hell” as her self-confidence was annihilated.  For 12 years, with the exception of 1 week of archery in high school, Jessica described her experience as “agony”.    She felt that her personal failure at sport was perceived by her peers as an expectation for failure in other subjects, and/or life.

Calling the class “physical education” was a joke. The lesson I was learning about my physical body was that it was useless, inferior, and quite possibly infected with a cootie-like virus. We should have been learning about how complicated and capable our bodies were and how to make them healthier. Instead we were playing dodgeball.

From here on, Jessica makes a number of points / declarations:

1. Team sports (all other team sports are lumped in with dodgeball) are useless, do not develop life-skills, a sense of team and in fact, led Jessica to be a loner.

NOTE! The picture that accompanied the article actually seemed to be of a modified volleyball-type lesson using shorter, portable nets and beach balls for maximum engagement and skill development…

2. PE is traumatic and turns women away from fitness for life – Jessica did not improve her fitness, developed a poor self-image and does not play sports as an adult.

NOTE! The article references a British study that supposedly says PE “can be so traumatic that it turns women away from physical fitness for the rest of their lives”.  This is false.  I have the study.  The full report, not the media summary from The Telegraph. Although the research findings are certainly critical of many traditional PE practices (as am I), the authors make no claim to girls being turned off “for life” (especially being that the study was not longitudinal and lasted 11 months).   In fact, one of the ways the findings from the study are being used is to provide resources for teachers to improve the experience of girls (and hopefully boys too!) in their PE classes.

3. PE needs reform.  Classes are for everyone and not just “the athletes”. Fitness should be individual, not competitive.  PE should keep kids moving, not sitting around.  “Show them (students) their bodies can be a key to future happiness, not an obstacle to it”. (Hear, hear!)

Comments shared on slate.com in reaction to the article are, for the most part, quite vitriolic and some are even malicious.  A few folks deny the validity of Jessica’s story with commentators saying that “this happens in all subjects, should we get rid of those too?”  Others are very supportive and chime in about the negativity and humiliation they too, suffered in PE.  By contrast, the comments from my #physed twitter contacts were of a much different flavour.

@joeyfeith wrote an insightful response on branch.com that includes this statement, So is the author’s article completely wrong? No, I think that, sadly, some students still have to deal with those types of experiences in PE (and in classroom subjects too). However, I think her article’s title is way off, and spending some time chatting with the members of the #physed community might show her why.” Check out The Physical Educator for more of Joey’s brand of excellence.

@andyvasily blogged the following, Jessica, rest assured in knowing that what you say above (see point #3 above) is happening in a number of PE programs nowadays. Personally and professionally, my life is about making a positive difference in young people’s lives. There are a vast number of passionate and very caring PE practitioners out there doing the very same thing on a daily basis. Thank you for sharing your opinion and I sincerely hope you take the time to look at the websites above and to consider, with an open-mind, that physical education has taken on big change over the last several years. It is wrong that you were made to feel this way in school.”

So why are these PE teachers not ranting and raving to the world about the generalizations, over-simplifications and errors in Jessica’s article?  I think there are three reasons applicable to those who “get it” about PE.

  1. Relationships.  These people care about kids.  All kids.  Sizes. Shapes. Abilities. Disabilities. Races. Religions. Kids being the operating word here.  If Jessica had Andy or Joey as her teacher, I am confident her perception of PE (and adult competence) would be different.  The goal is thinking, feeling, moving individuals being successful (maintaining strengths AND improving weaknesses).  Confidence and competence are like the circle of life for kids in PE.
  2. Professionalism. These people care about teaching.  They are educators, pedagogues and master teachers who know when to step forward and when to step back.  They never “throw out a ball” and don’t value a class according to “busy, happy and good.”  They realize that PE doesn’t just happen, but needs an educated, motivated, informed, caring professional to be done right.
  3. Advocacy. These people care about PE.  They value its intrinsic and extrinsic worth.  They want to make the profession and the subject better.  They willingly seek and accept critique, judgement and accountability for the sake of quality PE.

Please note that both Andy and Joey acknowledge and are saddened by Jessica’s story.  There is no denial of her experience.  Story is powerful.  As my last post detailed, active positive stories are impactful and memorable. Apparently, so are active negative stories (See Strean, W.B. (2009).  Remembering instructors: play, pain and pedagogy.)   John Dewey once stated, ““We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”  One of the ways in which I deal with the issue of negative PE experiences like Jessica’s is to provide the pre-service teachers in my classes (essentially, “How to Teach PE”) with a framework for reflection on practice and consideration of the personal stories being created through their teaching.  Essentially, I provide one profoundly negative PE experience followed by many and frequent positive ones.

Let me explain…  The first class of my course begins with the most stereotypical, “old-school” PE class (much like the one I imagine Jessica had) that I can handle without throwing up.  For a detailed description, check out “Gym Class with ED Fizz”.  The purpose is to create a shared experience for us to reflect on, interact with and discuss.  Interestingly enough, a few students are comfortable with this experience.  A few just steel themselves for more of the type of PE they had in grade 10.  Most, however, are horrified.  In fact, the more times I do this exercise, the more students I have in my class who have NOT had a PE teacher like that.  This makes me happy!  The rest of my class focuses on creating positive experiences that lead students to value PE, develop an identity as a PE teacher and begin to explore appropriate pedagogy.

One of the best student papers I ever received was on the topic of media stereotypes and myths surrounding PE (check out @movelivelearn’s blog that includes this topic).  I had asked pre-service teachers to reflect on how negative media portrayals of PE might impact their own future students perceptions of PE and PE teachers.  Daniel (may or may not be a pseudonym…) not only had an excellent summary and analysis of these stereotypes, he had a very unique and wonderful way of responding.  In his conclusion he wrote (rough paraphrase from my memory):

In the end, it won’t matter what stereotypes or myths my students have seen and/or believe about PE.  Once they walk into my gym and experience my PE, they will know that is NOT me.  Humiliation? Not in my gym.  Athlete-centric? Not in my gym.  Gender biased? Not in my gym. Sports only? Not in my gym. Picked last? Not in my gym.

I believe that the very vibrant and pro-active #physed community on Twitter will also say, “NOT IN MY GYM” to experiences like Jessica’s and help to eradicate the poor practice that stubbornly hangs on.  We #physed folks need to adopt the challenge that Dr. Margaret Whitehead gave recently (IPLC, 2013):

Our mission or challenge

is to do all we can

to enable ALL to make progress

on their  individual

physical literacy journey

Please feel free to continue to share negative experiences of PE and to criticize and hold accountable those in our profession who are responsible for these horrific stories.  However, remember that not all PE teachers and PE classes are the same.  Please avoid painting us all with the same brush and perpetuating the stereotypes.  Also feel free to lift up those who are living the change and providing transformational movement stories with students in PE everyday.

Jessica, you are welcome in my gym any day.

Want to share your positive PE experiences?  Visit the Facebook page Transformational Experiences in Physical Education to share your story!