Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Digital Curriculum in Physical Education

My two oldest kids both mentioned to me that physical education is their favorite subject at school, which made me think. When I was in first grade, phy ed was my favorite as well. And somewhere in the litany of dodgeball games and half-effort team sport games, by high school it was my least favorite. And my experience wasn't that uncommon. Which, of course, is insightful on many levels.

First, it illustrates how important psychomotor activity is to young children, and how it should be a cross-curricular feature in all subjects, for kids at that age need to be active and learn best that way. And second, it illustrates how irrelevant the traditional phy ed curriculum was. Irrelevant for the athletic, as the games were a joke compared to interscholastic sports, and irrelevant for the unathletic, as it was a source of embarrassment to not be talented.

Fast forward to 2009, and physical education is one of the fastest changing curricula out there. I had the privilege to work with two great high school physical education programs at Howard-Winneshiek and Grinnell. Both utilized aspects of the digital curriculum to give students a 21st century education.

Both schools participated in the physical fitness grant, as many Iowa schools did, which brought not only workout equipment, but also Polar Fitness monitoring devices. In a nutshell, Polar Fitness systems consisted of watches and/or bands worn around your torso which gathered heart rate and other vital information, and downloaded it via infrared into a computer. The equipment could be programmed to help students stay in their target zone for physical exertion.

Tony Farmer, a physical education teacher at Grinnell, was the one who explained to me how critical the integration was to the curriculum. Without it, assessment was a constant subjective battle. It was very hard to get students to actually learn about their bodies physical activities. On the other hand, the technology gave immediate feedback in the form of digital data to every student, data that wasn't arbitrary. Every student could monitor their own individualized target zones and measure their progress off the digital data. And the technology was basically invisible... it didn't interfere with the physical activity.

The Grinnell phy ed staff upped the ante with individualized plans for students, who could set their own goals with certain physical skills. Students could focus on stamina, dexterity, healthy diet, strength, you name it. Combined with individualized research and a reflective journaling process, you had a highly engaging curriculum. These attributes--utilizing technology to give feedback and individualize learning, being student-centered, offering authentic assessment, all while being invisible, are key elements of the digital curriculum.

One of the areas of the 21st century skills in the Iowa Core is health literacy. Like financial literacy, health literacy will be very challenging to integrate in core classes like math and language arts without it being contrived. Story problems about BMI in math class won't cut it.

I will argue there is no way to meet this need without cross-curricular work involving physical education teachers, health teachers, family consumer science teachers, and school counselors (the "health literacy" people) in contact with the core content teachers. This is a paradigm shift, as those educators are often the most compartmentalized in already-compartmentalized high schools.

Moreover, these can't be units. Health literacy has to be ongoing, just like character development, seamlessly woven into the routine. That's because healthy living is more than a skill, it is a habit.

How would this look? Health teachers can work with students to monitor their habits throughout the school day. Find ways to keep data on posture, water intake, and attention in all classes, for example, and then analyze the use. This helps students become conscious of their lifestyle and the effect it has on their performance.

Working collaboratively with health and drama teachers, core content teachers can find ways to get students active kinesthetically. Ask the students which activity do they remember the most from Mr. Abbey's classes, and the answer will surprisingly not involve computers. It was rather when I taught my ninth grade English class the finer details of stage swordfighting during Romeo and Juliet. Using dowel rods, students learned the dramatic twists on fencing to make for fine stage art, and then integrated the learning into recreations of scenes from the play. Because of the high energy level, students became more aware of their physical bodies. And, those student-choreographed swordfights were excellent... we drew audiences from the elementary school.

Health literacy can be the springboard for authentic change in cultural ways in addition to personal. It is no secret that classrooms feature a lot of sitting and straining of the eyes. Some schools, led by active health teachers, are leading changes in the culture by encouraging students to push for "stand time" in the class. This has caught on in some schools, which are eliminating the traditional desks. As good principals will mention, situations where students can change the culture not only improve the school, but also give the students a feeling of self-worth that cannot be recreated in an infinite number of gold stars.

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