By Brian Kampper
When I introduce myself as a physical education teacher, the two most popular responses I get are “Oh, you must love being a gym teacher, just playing sports all day must be great” or “I hated gym class when I was in school, all we did was…” Unfortunately, most people think of physical education as a class where athletes take control while all others wait for the bell to ring to save them from having to participate in another game of dodgeball. While this is not the case in the majority of PE classes across America, the stereotype does exist and personalized learning is the key to breaking it.
In my early years of teaching, I always found it to be a best practice to praise any increment of progress that my students had shown in the gym. This praise was sometimes the first time a student had felt any sense of accomplishment in a PE class or any athletic setting. I saw the impact of this praise on my students when they became fully engaged in class and were actually excited to be there. I soon realized that I had to find a way for every one of my students to feel that level of accomplishment.
I first began to develop personalized fitness plans for my students in 2014. We started the year by doing the Fitnessgram (a series of fitness tests) that would measure their strengths and weaknesses. These scores would serve as a baseline for each student's progress throughout the year. I stressed during the plan’s development that everyone's progress is different and the only concern should be what each one of us can do as an individual to improve on a personal basis. I worked with other PE teachers at our school to shift the focus from a traditional sports curriculum to a blended curriculum that included more student choice and allowed students to focus on their individual goals. We also started a Get Up And Go morning fitness program that allowed our students additional time to work on their personalized fitness plans.
Knowing how to develop a personalized fitness plans is a skill my students can take with them to college and beyond. It’s not surprising that every gym’s or diet plan’s big selling point is a “personalized” plan to fit your needs: we all do better if a plan is tailored to us. If adults are willing to pay good money for such plans, why not teach our students these skills early on? I always start by teaching each of my students the five components of fitness―cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, and body composition―and give a test associated with each one. Once we have a baseline score, students research exercises and techniques the help improve it and develop their own plans. We complete additional rounds of testing to see how students are progressing and adjust their plans accordingly.
Now that I am in my fourth year of personalized fitness planning, students have come back to share their successes. Sarah, a former 6th grader who was afraid to participate in a soccer game, is now on her high school soccer team. She came back this fall to visit with her sister during our open house and explained to me how she still records her workouts and progress in her own workout journal. She told me that being able to go back and see the progress she has made from 6th grade onwards continues to motivate her to push forward. Sarah’s sister has been working out with her and is excited to develop her own fitness plan this school year.
I hope more physical education teachers can embrace a personalized learning approach. When teachers stop rolling the ball out and create engaging learning opportunities that meet the needs of each individual student, gym class will become physical education class. I hope that in the future, students will share their physical education experiences and let everyone how much they’ve LEARNED in class! That’s the way to truly break the “gym” class stereotype.
Brian Kampper is a physical education and health teacher at Slater Middle School in Pawtucket and a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellow.