The Whole Child

What is the most difficult task in integrating health and physical education with other subject matters? Why?

I think the most difficult task in integrating health and fitness education into other subjects is realizing the importance of such behavior. For far too long, our society – particularly the intellectual elite – has dismissed the physical and concentrated largely on the cerebral. It is not a unique observation to say that many educators treat education as an industrial process, where knowledge is poured into children’s heads. Fortunately the pendulum is swinging back towards center and current educational thought emphasizes child-centered and whole child teaching. In this vision of education, the decisions as to what if efficacious starts with the child. The question is how to optimally prepare our students for becoming creative, productive, successful, healthy, open hearted adults. This inquiry leads quickly to understanding a need for the re-integration of body and mind in the classroom. To teach a child, we need to take care of their intellect and their physicality simultaneously.

Two books I think every teacher should read are Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain and Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls. The first book explains the research and practical results that show the critical connection between body health and fitness and brain health. Physical exercise not only builds a strong resilient body, it is essential to balancing the neurochemistry of the brain. The second book discusses a number of research based, child-centric strategies for helping children engage successfully in their own education. It emphasizes the need for relevance and novelty in lessons and the very high level of need for physical activity in the classroom. Complementing these two books is Brain Gym, a series of mental/physical activities to refresh, focus, and activate learning.

Unfortunately, mainstream education values classroom control above nearly everything. A teacher whose classroom appears chaotic, even if her children are excelling at performance criteria, will be viewed at best with suspicion. Control seems to be the primary fear of many educators. “Losing control of the class” is perhaps the biggest fear and biggest sin. The price of this is lower performing classrooms overall and a major equity problem for the large minority of students with strong physical needs and/or less powerful self-control mechanisms. The simple fact is we are educating our children unnaturally and many cannot or will not endure the discomfort.

It should be noted that this apparent indifference to the physical spill over into health in several ways. First, this indifference is clearly broadcast to most of our children on most days. Is it any wonder they too grow up not valuing the physical? Second, they certainly receive little formal training in health and there is little in the culture to support healthy decisions in the absence of such formal training. Third, being trapped in classrooms like egg laying hens does nothing to teach them of the joy of physical health and activity. Fourth, what PE we have often offer taxes their meager capabilities, leaving most with the sense that physical activity is unpleasant, hard, and something beyond their genetic ability. Finally, they are taught to subordinate health to other things society deems more important, two leading examples being achievement and convenience. Is it any wonder that so many Americans settle for fast food meals as they ricochet through their hectic lives?

Having decided to go contrary to the culture, a classroom teacher who wants to integrate health and fitness into her classes is left on shaky ground. She will be seen to be out of paradigm and she will have little support, in most cases. It is a bit of a leap into the dark. She must integrate lessons on health and fitness, at the cost of other core instructional activities, and she must take the time to address the fitness/activity needs of her students. Some argue that crisp transitions between activities is key to better student performance. Industrial logic suggests that more time on task is more learning. A health sensitive teach will add physical/mental refreshers into transitions, lengthening them. Fortunately, research and practice both confirm that hammering core subjects constantly is inferior to a balanced schedule. Study after study confirm that less time on core subjects balanced with more time on PE, recess, art, and music leads to increased performance in core subjects. The leap into the dark will bear fruit, we know that. So what is left is braving the social stigma in the school community. This is where quiet dedication and a willingness for non-judgement information sharing can help the teacher and, perhaps, change the school environment for the better. It may not, the teacher may feel she is constantly battling her peers and administrators. Then it’s time to look for a more convivial work environment.

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Be Nice. Work Hard.

I did my classroom observation last week in the room of a legendary teacher. The mature behavior of his 5th grade students is famous. Classroom management is an area of particular interest for me so I was excited to see what his class looked like for an entire day. It was extraordinary. At 7:10 am, during pre-school music practice, I was immediately offered a bottle of water by one student, then a minute later, by another. The students were quiet and respectful throughout the day – without exception. To be sure, when they played baseball first period, they were normal kids – except that they were uniformly supportive of their teammates and their opponents. It was extraordinary how much time was saved and how much less tiring the day was (especially because the day was 7 am to 4 pm…).

The reason I bring this up here is that taking risks and making mistakes is such a critical part of learning. Creating an atmosphere where that can safely take place is perhaps the hardest thing for a teacher to do. Even extraordinary teachers often don’t intrude on (or know about) the subtle interactions between students. I am coming to believe that the classroom atmosphere has to be something that follows my students 24 hours a day. While this sounds over the top, a classroom can’t be safe if the students are mocked for their in class mistakes away from my sight. Of course, such an intention can’t be fulfilled through coercion. I have no reach beyond the classroom. However, it can be achieved (as demonstrated above) with the proper teaching as the school year begins and reinforcement as it proceeds.

The classroom I observed has a motto, “Work hard, be nice.” Nice is a core value reinforced everyday. Students who misbehave while other students are talking are asked, “You’re acting as if Jorge doesn’t matter. Does Jorge matter?” Harsh, but very true and very effective. As for discipline, the teacher has a simple rule: the class activities have to be interesting enough such that not being allowed to participate is punishment enough. The teacher holds himself and all his students to an extremely high behavioral (and academic) expectation. It works beautifully.

In his class, there is no issue pursuing questioning with struggling students. There is no issue when students make mistakes. In fact, he said at one point, “Thank you for getting it (a math problem) wrong and allowing us to learn with you.”

I think the ultimate testament of how effective his strategy is came in reviewing the answers to the same math quiz. When the teacher asked if anybody had gotten a particular problem wrong, one of the students raised her hand and said that she’d gotten the problem right but didn’t really understand it. Now that’s something special and something to aspire to.

Data Collection

What are some different ways you can document a problem within your setting? How will you collect data?

There are many ways to document problems in a school environment. Really, it is among the better environments for data collection. One way is with the results from summative assessments. Another, perhaps less rigorous, would be using formative assessments. Personally, I would track my disciplinary system, trying to match disciplinary actions to causal factors I could control to reduce the need for disciplinary action. Health and absences can be a subtle but powerful indicator of problems; I would track that by pupil too. One thing that is hard to track is volunteering to answer questions. It would be useful to know who is putting their hands up to be called upon and if that inclination changes by subject. In addition, given a benchmark hand raising score, ebbs and flows of attention could be tracked.

The only way I know to do this is with a SMARTboard and the little student controller thingies that look like remote controls. With that, and the right software, tracking student participation would be easy. Having those devices also allows a much better model for calling on students randomly, making sure each student gets an equal chance to talk, and even for quick formative assessments throughout the day. They really could be cool tools in the classroom; however, I hesitate to introduce that much technology into the process. I worry that the essential humanism of the classroom would be harmed. I look forward to experimenting with the technology to see whether its benefits outweigh the costs.

Ask the Students!

Reviewing the success of lessons is a critical element of improving as a teacher.  In the end, if the lessons are effective and entertaining, learning and learning retention will be high and discipline problems will be few.

One of the things I have learned along the way in this class it to involve the students in how they are taught.  This is a little tricky.  Students cannot have control over standards and objectives.  Nevertheless, they can have major input into how those standards and objectives are achieved.

It seems logical that getting their feedback on lessons would also be a good idea.  It would be useful to know what they liked and where they struggled.  Different students would most likely have different preferences as well.  Those preferences would reveal learning modalities and help broaden and focus pedagogical choices going forward.

The classroom culture would need to be setup appropriately to support those conversations.  Nevertheless, in an atmosphere where the respective roles are clear and respect underlies every interaction, it could work very well.

Lessons Learned

Has your impression of teaching changed after taking this class?

Yes, very much so.

Before I took this class, I had a much more teacher-centered approach in mind.  I understand much more clearly the importance of student-centered and other alternative approaches.  Now my vision is very different and much more dynamic.  I am confident this will be more interesting for the students and much more effective in creating learning and learning retention.

My vision of classroom management has expanded considerably.  I am now very clear on the central place respect will play in rules and routines.  I see respect being an operating concept that not only provides the philosophical foundation for the rules and routines but also trues all of us to our best selves.  Respect will inform not only interpersonal behavior but also how we treat learning and how we treat ourselves as students. 

Maybe not most importantly but most significantly, this class has renewed my hope and respect for the teaching profession.  My historic experiences with teachers have been generally poor.  I carried a vision of educators as being generally self-important, intolerant, and one-dimensional.  I fully expected this course to follow the traditional teacher-centered model with politically correct vignettes throw in for bad measure.  I was truly shocked by the openhearted, thoughtful, and very modern textbook.  I was very pleased that the teacher also exemplified the highest standards of what being an educator is or should be. 

I was even more gratified to find that this class took me beyond my preconceived notions of teaching strategy.  It showed me, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, how well I had learned to emulate the teaching styles I so despised.  I am grateful to the teacher and to the authors of our text, for holding a mirror to my scars and for opening a doorway for me to become the teacher I did not know I always wanted to be.

Respect, Again

What are some easy or simple things that you can do as the leader or boss that can set the tone for a respectful and positive learning environment?

Respect will be the foundational concept of my classroom.

I believe that all too often the love and importance of learning is lost in the rush for both students and teacher to achieve their narrow survival-based goals.  Respect for the learning, respect for the process, and respect for the subject matter will keep the focus on the importance and joy of learning.

I believe a teacher’s respect for students is all too often at least occasionally lost to the frustration of unmet behavioral and/or learning expectations.  However, it is the adult’s job to be the adult.  The students are children and entitled to their native behaviors.  Managing and evolving those native behaviors is one of the teacher’s responsibilities.  The uneven development of improved behavioral patterns must not be allowed to break affinity with the students or lead to disrespectful behavior by the teacher.

Students in my classroom will behave with respect towards each other.  There is no room in my heart for hurtful, isolating behaviors in the classroom or elsewhere.  Disagreements will be resolved through communications.  Each child’s personality will be cherished as a unique expression of humanity.  There will be no requirement of friendship, but there will be an inviolable requirement of respect.

In all these regards, the teacher is the example for the students and the protector of the behavioral code.  To have any reasonable hope of a respectful classroom society, the teacher needs to consistently model respectful behavior.  This includes behavior towards the material, towards the craft and discipline of teaching, towards the students, and towards peers, parents, and all others.  I believe children recognize and prefer the decency and safety of a respectful environment.  For respect to become the operating principle, they simply need come to trust that all will be held to that standard.  A teacher who models respect and strictly protects that fragile code of behavior will earn that trust.