Taking time to understand our students genuine thoughts about their PE experience
Athletics is one of my favorite units, but I must admit that it is certainly not one of the easiest to teach. Every single year, I try to switch up how I present this unit in an effort to get all students to understand that the most important thing is to strive for personal excellence and to be the best that we can be. I put a lot of effort into the immersion phase (the initial stage) of the units I teach to try to hit upon these major points, but I'm not always successful. Many students still feel that they are not fast enough, and cannot throw or jump far enough. A number of students in Athletics simply feel that they are not good enough and have a difficult time dealing with the resulting emotions that stem from these re-occurring thoughts and feelings.
As their teacher, I try to impress upon them what I feel to be the most important things in the unit, but for them, they are experiencing Athletics through their own eyes and their own perspectives. Many students struggle with self-confidence and it's for these students that I try extremely hard to create an learning environment that is supportive and allows them to achieve some level of success.
I think that I open up my units in a pretty solid way, using powerful provocations that will hopefully get my students emotionally hooked and ready to learn. It is my goal to inspire and encourage them to want to learn, but also to get them to want to take part in the unit and do as many activities as possible without fear of being judged as either good or bad in regards to their level of skill. I want them to have a go and do their best.
This unit was set up in a way that allowed them to ultimately decide which events that they wanted to compete in during our culminating event which was Sports Day. The students had to choose 2 runs, 2 jumps, and 2 throws, but could add a 7th event of their choice if they wished to do extra. We felt that giving them this choice was obviously the best direction to go in order to make them feel that what they want matters.
The Big Day!
After 6 weeks of training, Sports Day was upon us and, for the most part, the students were as ready as they could be. Of course, more time to prepare would have been ideal, but the time had come for them to showcase what they had learned. Sports Day is an important community event at our school here in Nanjing, so there was no question that they were feeling the pressure.
As usual, there were some students who were visibly nervous on the morning of Sports Day. I tried to get around to as many as possible to have little side discussions with them to help them feel better. I also noticed a few students crying and quite upset before their races. I even had a some parents come up to tell me that their son or daughter had been up very late and unable to sleep because they had been so scared and nervous about competing the following morning.
When seeing and hearing these things, thoughts were running through my head like, "Did I not prepare them well enough?" and "Did I not do a good enough job of helping them to understand what's most important in this unit?". I was a bit baffled. Had I not paid close enough attention in previous years to checking in with their emotions, thoughts, and feelings during the Athletics unit? By the end of Sports Day, I knew that I had to address some of the things that I had seen in order to close the unit off in a meaningful and relevant way. I made it a goal to really get down to the bottom of how they felt and why they felt that way in an effort to see if there is a better way the Athletics unit can be rolled out next year. Don't get me wrong, the day was great! But, I know that there is always a better way to deliver the learning that takes place. I am convinced that there is an improved way in which the unit can be delivered to help them face the realities that they will face on Sports Day itself.
The Use of Provocations
Although I use provocations quite effectively during the immersion phase of the units I teach, I decided I was going to hit the students up with some provocations to end the unit. Something I hadn't really done in depth in the past.
The driving question that I used was simple; What are some genuine thoughts and feelings that you had during Sports Day? I set the students off, with their peers, on their 'walk and talk' discussing how they felt. At first they were not very open, but after a while they all began to share. The more they shared, the more they opened up. I jotted down many of their answers in my journal.
Once the students had shared their answers in a group discussion format, I showed them a video of Luca Patuelli, an amazing hip hop dancer from Montreal who happens to be disabled. Many of my students know who Luca is because I shared different videos of him in the past. However, the students had not seen this one. Luca was born with arthrogryposis which is an abnormal fibrosis of the muscle tissue causing muscle shortening. Therefore, people with this disease are unable to do passive extension and flexion in the affected joint or joints. Many are unable to walk. Luca had set a goal for himself to walk 2.5km last summer without the aid of his crutches. I shared the video of his walk with my students as a provocation to help initiate a discussion about why he might have decided to do this.
My students were very moved by the video and shared many reasons why Luca may have set such a goal. I also asked my students to think about why I had chosen to show them this video at the end of the Athletics unit. They began to tune into the fact that we must always remember that Athletics is about striving for personal excellence and doing the best that we can, regardless of the skills that we have. It's about setting goals and working toward those goals.
I emphasized that this was Luca's personal race and that he was trying to complete it to the best of his ability. My students understood that he was trying his very best to finish his own personal race which was simply to complete the walk. As well, we discussed how lucky we are to be healthy and to have bodies unaffected by disease, sickness, or injury.
We also re-visited the story of Ivan Fernandez Anaya, a Spanish 5000-meter runner who is one of the best in Europe. I shared Ivan's story earlier in the unit. You can read about it here. The story is all about what demonstrating genuine sportsmanship actually means. It is an inspiring story that my students loved.
Earlier in the unit, I had also shown the two videos below. We re-visited what these two stories meant and what they taught us about Athletics. One is the story of a 600-meter runner named
Heather Dorniden who fell down in a race but managed to get up and keep running eventually catching the ones in the lead and passing them to win the race. Another great video to emphasize the importance of trying our best.
The last story we revisited was the story of Derek Redmond. It is a video that my students had seen last year, but I hadn't shown it again this year until many students had asked to see it again. They clearly remembered seeing it the year before and wanted to see it again. Derek's story is one of compassion, resilience, and personal excellence. It's quite moving as well.
To close the unit off, I had used the most common student answers to create final visuals that captured my students' thoughts and feelings, the reasons for these thoughts and feelings, and what was most important to remember about the Athletics unit. Although I won't be teaching at the school next year, I'm leaving these visuals for the next teacher to use at the start of the unit next time around to remind the students about the important ideas related to Athletics. My students and I definitely had some pretty powerful discussions at the end of the unit and their final reflections indicated that many of them had grasped on to the big ideas and concepts that I hoped they would grasp on to.
As you can see in the visuals below, we identified major reasons why they had felt the way that they did. The purpose of doing this was to help them understand that we all experience the same feelings, insecurities, doubts, and fears about our own abilities. I needed to drive these points home to them in order to get them to understand that we all share the same human experience. My hope is that when they become more aware of this as they get older, they will remember these discussions and know that the thoughts and feelings that they may have are normal. Everyone experiences similar emotions but often times cover them up and not want other people to know. Knowing others feel the same way may help to give them the courage and inspiration needed to really go after it, do their best, and see what happens. I want them to know that what matters most is removing obstacles that stand in the way of them and success. We are all capable of personal excellence. This fact has nothing to do with Athletics itself but about life in general. We need to prepare our learners for a lifetime and not just a moment.
How do you run your Athletics units? What is most important to you to get your students to understand? Should all students have to compete in all events or should they be given choice? What does success look like in your Athletics unit? How is success celebrated? How can we deliver our Athletics unit in a way that has students understand the relevance of the unit and how it applies in their own lives? How can we get them to have the courage to really go for it? What type of learning environment must we create for them to feel free to take the risk to give it their best? How can we create that all important community feel that supports each and every learner as they strive for personal excellence? Would love to hear your thoughts!
I plan on writing a couple more blog posts about this unit , so I hope you come back to read more.
Examples of some of the students thoughts in their final reflection
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.