If I were Queen of the New York City schools -- or chancellor, even -- I would have a plan for fixing them.
1. Require all students to have Physical Education daily.
If I could change one thing alone, I would change this: Currently New York City Public School students have physical education twice a week.
The very first thing I learned as a classroom teacher was that like puppies, young and adolescent children need to run -- crap over everything, chew up your favorite shoes and wreck the joint. An investment (money, time and inspiring, sensitive personnel) in training physical education teachers to truly educate would pay off immediately. At present, even at the best schools in New York, truly excellent physical education instruction is rare.
What if, in struggling schools in neighborhoods compromised by poverty and crime, first period were basketball. What if the instructors were gifted athletes, retired perhaps, who raise sports to something of an art form instead of time-clock punching city workers who preside over immense, dull, humiliating "gym class?"
What if we taught yoga, Taekwondo, fencing and hip hop in school? What if students had physical education electives during the school day. What if we had physical education electives taught by inspiring teachers especially designed to accommodate psychologically and otherwise, students who are battling overweight? What if we were to deem it proper to nestle substantive nutrition curricula into physical education classes?
Like the Greeks did. (Only less naked.)
Every September for a dozen years, I have sat in one of my children's September Curriculum Conferences and listened while some smart parent raised her hand and asked: "Why are the children getting gym only twice a week?" The answer was always a variation on the notion that more "instructional time" for academic subjects was needed.
This logic is entirely dunderheaded. Cutting educational time to make way for engaging physical learning would increase the value of instructional time. Cut ten minutes off of all academic subjects to make time for genuine physical education, and you'll see academic performance improve almost immediately across the proverbial board.
I was 22 and looked 14 in September of 1981, the year I became a teacher. I was hired a week before school by a desperate principal/nun to teach all subjects -- math, science, socail studies, reading, language arts and religion -- in the self-contained sixth grade class in a Title I (read: poor) school in the Bronx. I had no certification, no classroom teaching experience, no education coursework, and no advanced degrees. I would have no teacher's aid, no student teacher, and no prep periods. As for recompense; I'd work for a salary low enough to render me eligible for food stamps -- at least under a 1981 Congress. With 42 students in latency and entering puberty I had little choice but to find ways to contend with restless students.
That first year, I played Jackson Five "tapes" allowed those aforementioned 42 sixth graders dance in the rows between units. When on rare occasions, I resisted the urge to make time for this, I tended to regret the decision. Perhaps because I grew up with three brothers, I came to classroom teaching recognizing that boys, more often than girls, need to run around. More physical education would go a long way toward putting an end to the pathologizing of boys, and reduce the number of children who require medication for attentional disorders.
The bottom line is fat, bored kids make lousy learners.
In a September, 18, 2013 online piece in The Atlantic, "The Case Against High School Sports," Amanda Ripley reports on the evolution (or devolution?) of high school sports. She points out that, historically, it was immigrants and poor children who first joined sports teams; this as a way of keeping them out of trouble. Small business-sponsored neighborhood club teams, religious youth organizations and PAL (Police Athletic Leagues) took (mostly male) children of many backgrounds off the streets and taught them teamwork, provided them workouts and provided reinforcement in the areas of fine and gross motor development; sequential thinking, problem solving and focus.
One would not want to replicate these programs exactly; there were abuses, and still are -- pervert priests, drunken coaches, sicko football fan fathers living through their sons -- but a 14-year-old fat kid sitting in an empty apartment playing virtual "Grand Theft Auto" is abusive too.
I toured middle schools about eight years ago when my twins were completing fifth grade, I wound up not sending my children to the one school that impressed me in the district where we live. Why did this one school impress? The principal knew the name of every child in the school. Not just that: when we dropped in on a dance class in which an actual dancer was teaching, we touring parents and prospective students found an actual dancer teaching, an actual dancer who had managed to get adolescent boys, a few of them a chubby, a few of them what we in Brooklyn describe as "street," to (and happily so) dance.
I didn't need to see anything else. #DoingItRight.
Next: 2. "The Best Way to Teach The Test..." on Bored-O-Ed.
Michele Somerville is a writer who has taught first grade, sixth grade, high school English and College Writing in New York schools, and is a New York City Department of Education parent.