Westward Movement

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Please waste my time!

On alternate Wednesday afternoons, and also on every Friday morning, my grade level has a planning and discussion period, during which our students go outside for structured physical education. For the past several years, this has been run by a credentialed teacher, and has included dance (as well as some non-PE such as music). This year, due to budget cuts, the program is run by two classified positions (teacher assistants). There have been several complaints from teachers, parents, and particularly students about the "hard-core" focus of the PE. In fifth grade, students do the Presidential Physical Fitness test, recognizing students' ability to do curl-ups/partial curl-ups, an endurance run/walk, pull-ups or a flexed-arm hang, and a sit and reach. One of the goals of the school PE program is to prepare students to pass this test. Every child, from kindergarten to sixth grade, is expected to run laps, in addition to going through several stations over the course of an hour. One of these stations is a water/rest period. 

Friday morning, prior to going out for PE, my students began to give me every excuse in the world for not going, finally saying they hated PE. Two had written excuses from parents, asking that they not participate. One told me she felt nauseous, and needed to go to the nurse. Something was up!

My kids, along with four from another class, with us for the day as their teacher was attending a day-long meeting, asked me to say something on their behalf to the PE instructional team. Ah, teachable moment! I found myself in mini-lecture mode, talking about the US Constitution, and the first amendment. I told them that I could say something for them, but that they also had the right to say something for themselves. The kids asked to dictate a letter to me, stating their feelings and complaining about the program as it was. I told them I was happy to oblige, but that I feel if one complains, one must come up with an alternative or a solution. So, while their thoughts would go on paper, so must suggestions for change. 

Aside from a bit of word tweaking and sentence restructuring, this is my students' dictation:

To: the PE program
From: Debbie Stern’s students + 4 of __’s students

Last Friday, October 14, 2011, we lined up and waited patiently for you to arrive, as you were a few minutes late. Once you did arrive, we were instructed to run for 12 minutes, during which time we were not allowed a water break. We did not ask to get water, as we were told we’d get an orange card if we got water. The only water break we get is the water station, and for some of us, this is not until the last 10 minutes of psychomotor. If we stopped for a brief break or to tie a shoe, we were given an orange card.

This Wednesday, we again ran for 12 minutes, and instead of doing stations, we formed a square doing running exercises that caused us to run into one another. Several of us got hurt as we slammed into each other or were tackled, causing us to fall. We were jumping like frogs, bear-crawling, and doing a crab walk. If we stood during one of these activities, we were told to run additional laps of the school. All of these activities are quite strenuous, and we were not allowed a water break. Additionally, if we stopped and sat down, we were given orange cards. If we stepped outside the yellow line surrounding the fun zone, we got an orange card. Finally, we were not allowed any water until the school bell rang, and we were dismissed.

We are writing to you because:

1)   We are not having any fun at psychomotor.
2)   We feel the rules are very strict and unfair.
3)   We are concerned for our health.
4)   We would like to see a change in the psychomotor rules.

We’d like to have a water break on a more regular basis, in particular immediately following any running activity. We also ask that you participate with us as we do psychomotor. We would like to ask that you remember we’re kids, and are not yet ready for the army.

(Ms. J (the teaching assistant assigned to a colleague and me) was with us, and agrees with these statements).

Room 31 and a fraction of room 28

My students were nervous about delivering this letter. One of them, T, a resilient fifth grader, said aloud that even though she was nervous, she knew that being silent was the wrong way to go, and she would just have to swallow the butterflies. Some of them sort of hid behind each other as I walked outside with them, and handed the letter to the instructional team. I asked them to read it, then address concerns with the kids as they saw fit. I had a meeting to attend. As I walked away, I noticed they were beginning to explain certain parts of the letter to the kids.

During our grade-level meeting, our principal came in to discuss another matter with us. I gave him a copy of the letter. As he left the meeting, which was held in my classroom, a few minutes after PE had ended, my students were lined up at the door. The principal told the kids he'd seen their letter, told them he was glad they'd shared their thoughts and feelings, and assured them that he would investigate what had been brought up, and that something would be done. 

As they entered the room, T, the student referred to above, and two other kids pulled me aside. She told me that  Mr. __, the member of our staff in charge of the employees running the PE program, had come out to see what was being read, and what was being said to the kids. According to T, Mr. __ took the letter, gave it a quick glance-over, and said, in front of several of my students, "Don't waste your time with this." He then walked away. 

The kids were noticeably nervous and upset. T said to me, "Ms. Stern, that was really hard for us to do. We did what you said, complained but also gave suggestions to make it better, and it doesn't seem to matter." I assured her it did matter, that I would move forward on this, and that I was so proud of all of them for their willingness to speak out. I told the kids that many more opportunities would come their way as children and adults to take action, and that I hoped they'd never be scared to exercise their constitutional right.

I was noticeably upset as T delivered this news to me. As I dismissed the kids a few minutes later for recess, T went over to the little flip chart of emotions. The page showing stated chill. T flipped forward to find aggravated again. She gave me a little smile of a secret shared, reached around my waist for a hug, and walked out the door.

Waste my time any day.

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