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.”
Motor skills are another area that we address quickly on our iPads. Whether we are on the basketball court, tennis court, or soccer field, wee just download the supporting curriculum from our PE program (I have some of them stored permanently in my iBook’s application for quick access), open up the application, and show students a quick video on how to kick a soccer ball, throw a softball, or shoot a basket.
The iPads have also proven themselves as time-saving administrative tools. We use them to record grades, fitness data, and other important information without having to sit down at a desktop or laptop. We recently bought a cable that connects the tablets with our classroom projectors, allowing us to show videos to larger numbers of students in group settings. I’ll kick off our PE program’s dance unit, for example, by showing videos that walk students through a variety of steps and moves.
As any middle school teacher will tell you, technology has significantly impacted the way we teach. With the right mix of tools and software, we’ve been able to help children learn much better and achieve their grade-level standards. In that respect, our jobs have become much easier. That’s pretty significant in an era where the typical public school teacher is facing a unique set of challenges with budget cuts and increasing class sizes.
Of course, not all teachers are quick to embrace this “new” way of teaching. This is fairly normal in a vocation where some individuals want to try new things and others prefer more traditional methods. What I’ve found is that, in most cases, the second group just lacks understanding. When they don’t know the capabilities and benefits of the technology, they shy away from it. Software, equipment, and devices are left to gather dust in the corner of the classroom, and the teacher goes back to his or her old ways of doing things.
To help teachers break through these barriers, we work closely with them to ensure maximum comfort levels with the technology. Using Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), our district offers weekly (at minimum) sessions for teachers who need additional support with classroom technology. We also strive to put technology tools into the hands of as many instructors as possible—something that’s not always easy to do in today’s budgetary climate. By using grants as a support mechanism, we’ve been able to achieve our goals in this area.
Our end objective with these technology initiatives is simply to get kids moving during a time when fun stuff like online gaming and social networking are creating highly sedentary lifestyles for our country’s youth. By integrating our own technological innovations into the curriculum—and by reaching students on their own turf with online videos—we can get them moving, burning calories, and ultimately creating more active lifestyles. We want our MVPA (Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity) times to be high and our kids to enjoy movement and activity. It’s as simple as that.
By combining SPARK’s movement-based curriculum with the user-friendly iPad, we’ve been able to take several steps toward achieving our goal. Our PE department has been able to work more efficiently and effectively during a time when budget cuts and other hurdles make it difficult to be out there in the trenches, teaching 60 kids how to move.
Danielle Cherry is a seventh grade physical education teacher and assistant grant coordinator at Eastlake Middle School in Chula Vista, Calif.
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