Friday, January 13, 2023

Physical Education

The past 10 years, I have been a special education teacher in public schools. This school year I am happy to have the opportunity to be teaching Physical Education as well. My goal was to design a curriculum that was fitness based, opposed to the now common games based model used in most schools around the country. From what I have observed, Physical Education has become a form of supervised recess. During sport games, there are a few very athletic students who dominate, while the rest sheepishly stand around. I began to research to see what other educators were doing that resonated with my vision of what physical education should or could be. I was pleasantly surprised to find a rich history of teaching physical literacy and foundational movements designed to set students up for a lifetime of fitness. The problem is, most of the methods were halted in public schools around the 1970s. The “golden age” of physical education is considered between 1885 and 1920. During this time learning foundational movement concepts were emphasized, along with Restorative Arts. Restorative Arts focused on posture, structure, safety, and orthopedic gymnastics. They knew that loading the body with heavy weights or moving fast during sports was not efficient and would lead to injury. My starting point for creating a Physical Education curriculum was Georges Hebert’s natural method. I came across his teaching philosophy during my years studying Exercise Science at Virginia Commonwealth University. His philosophy was “Be strong to be useful.” Exercise movements involve: Walking, running, jumping, quadrupedal movement, climbing, equilibrium (balancing), throwing, lifting, defending and swimming.
From exploring more into the natural method, I stumbled upon the pot of gold I was looking for. There was a Physical Education program in the 1950s-60s that was highly effective at teaching physical literacy to mass groups of students. It was a program created by Coach Stan Leprotti at La Sierra High School. Here in an excerpt from the La Sierra P.E Student Handbook: “Medical and scientific research evidence reveals that exercise is essential for the development of vitality and organic vigor. Exercise contributes to the development of neuro-muscular skills that are essential to successful participation in physical recreation activities,both during school years, and later in life. Physical Education also helps students develop individual leadership, patterns of conduct which are socially acceptable, and skills that are necessary for group action.”
JFK usedLeprotti’s program as a template for what all schools in the country should be doing. The real question is what happened? Why has this knowledge not been perpetuated? Today, the fitness industry is booming, yet there are record numbers of people sick and unhealthy. Classical Physical Education is not being taught in public schools. The starting point is teaching Physical Literacy. The broad definition is: The ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person. More specifically, teaching physical literacy involves posture,standing, sitting, walking, jumping, moving laterally and moving our body weight off the ground. Really it’s self awareness and self mastery, which is a lifelong learning process. Teaching the basics of movement involves a foundation and pedagogy, the same way reading and math does. In math, we learn the number line, adding and subtracting etc. before moving into more advanced calculations. Movement is similar. When we ask students(and adults) to move with intensity and longer duration, without moving correctly we are essentially asking them to perform calculus without being able to add or subtract. Resulting in injury, chronic pain and lack of interest. A fundamental human movement is walking. Everyone knows how to walk, right? Notice how many people shuffle their feet, stomp around, rotate their feet outward(often accompanied by pronation), and do not initiate arm movement from the shoulders… Many people. If they perform an activity of duration such as walking or running far or high intensity intervals, it leads to a cycle of frustration and injury. The next question for me was how to translate this into something appropriate for current students. The reality is most students can not continuously run for half a mile or do a single push-up or body weight dip. Modifications have to be built in so every student can be successful. With high schoolers and even adults, it is no easy task. People want to be moving heavy weights and doing exciting movements. There is a certain patience it takes to learn and practice foundational movements/mobility movement. I start each class with a modified version of the La Sierra Strength and Endurance routine.
After the routine, students run/walk for 10 minutes. The remainder of class involves students rotating from station to station performing various exercises using: Medicine balls, kettlebells, body weight exercises, jump rope, plyo box…The next step will be having off the ground equipment installed, such as pegboards, climbing ropes, parallel bars, and overhead bars. The good news is that students are starving to learn to move and are very receptive generally. Using a self grading rubric has been essential for student participation. It also puts the teacher in more of a guide role rather than a disciplinarian role.
Once upon a time grade school students were highly proficient at movement, we can get there again with quality instruction and quality methods being taught. It’s the institutions that have let the public down. The ancient Greeks and Chinese knew that society would crumble without physically fit populations. With some effort, we can ALL be participating rather than spectating. The website: is a tremendous resource. Ron Jones is a leading expert on Physical Education and physical literacy.

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