The pressures of being a physical education teacher in today’s public school environment are mounting. We’re being asked to strike a balance between government physical fitness mandates for America’s children and extreme budget cuts. Like many other public schools, we at Eastlake Middle School in Chula Vista, Calif., are struggling to walk that tightrope with fewer and fewer supports and are continuously searching for tools that help us achieve that goal.
I’ve been teaching for 14 years. During that time I’ve seen a lot of changes in the average public school’s physical education (PE) department. Some schools have kept their programs in place, some have whittled them back significantly, while others have done away with PE programs altogether. At our school, we decided that physical education needs to be supported—and we decided to embrace new technology tools to help us instill solid physical education and exercise values in our students.
Last year, we rolled out a new iPad-based PE program called SPARK. The funding came from a Carol M. White Physical Education Program federal grant, which covered the cost of 40 iPads and a number of program training sessions for 50 instructors from across the district. We centered our grant project around obesity prevention and highlighted the fact that our students’ body mass index (BMI), aerobic capacity, and fitness scores were lagging behind national levels.
We started using the iPads in our department in the 2011-12 school year. The SPARK program includes digital lesson plans, activity videos for students, interactive assessment tools, and online grading (which replaces traditional “roll call”), all stored on the lightweight, portable devices. They are easy to carry around and effectively replace all of the paper, pencils, and grade books that our PE teachers previously had to carry around with them.
The iPads also fill a gap where traditional PE instruction leaves off by ensuring the most accurate assessment of student skills and abilities. Whereas a math teacher can quickly pinpoint where an error was made on a test, there aren’t always definitive “rights” and “wrongs” when it comes to physical movement. By using the SPARK program and our iPads, we can record the students in action and then use the playback for video analysis. This ensures that we have a thorough, tangible assessment of the students’ abilities. An eighth grader who is practicing a tennis serve, for example, can see what she’s doing right and wrong on the playback, clearly visualize her actions, and then make the necessary adjustments. This is a lot more effective than a PE teacher telling her that she’s “not following through properly,” or “not holding the racquet the right way.”