PE classes can reinforce Common Core lessons

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • August 11 2014

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Sometimes, Nick Fitzgerald has found, infusing Common Core content into an elementary physical education class can be as simple as a hop, skip and a spelling word added to the relay race routine.

By the time students reach junior high or high school, the South Glens Falls athletic director says, the effort could require more thoughtful teaching adjustments to help reinforce material and concepts taught in math, physics or biology class.

“Instead of asking ‘How do you kick a soccer ball?’ a better question is: ‘What muscles are involved in kicking a soccer ball?’” Fitzgerald explained.

Fitzgerald exemplifies a growing number of educators who see PE as an opportunity to hone students’ analytical skills and boost their mastery of the Common Core learning standards for math and literacy.

At least a half-dozen sessions at last fall’s annual conference of the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance offered content related to the Common Core, and Fitzgerald will be speaking on the subject at a gathering of the School Administrators Association of New York State this fall.

While the Common Core emphasis is relatively new, the goal of preparing physical education teachers to incorporate ideas and content from other academic areas into their lessons and activities is not, according to college professors who spoke with On Board.

“I think it’s fair to say that a majority of physical education teachers have already been trained in this, but it wasn’t called Common Core. It was called ‘interdisciplinary-type activities,’” said Sharon Phillips, an assistant professor of health studies and kinesiology at Hofstra University.

In South Glens Falls, efforts have been helped by a $2.1 million federal grant awarded in 2011. Part of the Carol M. White Physical Education Program grant has paid for curriculum writing, lesson planning and professional development related to the Common Core infusion efforts during the last two summers.  

“I like the Common Core idea of making competent, confident critical thinkers,” Fitzgerald said in an interview with On Board. “There’s a lot of research that shows that physical activity and memory and understanding go hand-in-hand.”

Fitzgerald said the district’s physical education and health teachers are preparing to implement so-called instructional “shifts” to support Common Core priorities: critical thinking, communication and language skills, collaboration, deeper understanding of complex or abstract ideas and more.

“By the time a student is a senior, we want them to be that well-rounded critical thinker,” he said. “We can do a lot of that with physical education.”

Likely changes at the elementary level will include consultations with classroom teachers to determine which vocabulary words are being emphasized, Fitzgerald said. PE teachers could then use those words in a relay race: students would run, pick up a word and then spell it or define it before handing off to the next child in line.

“That involves speaking and listening, literacy, cognitive understanding. You’ve got a lot of those pieces in that small example,” he said.

Educators say the work going on in South Glens Falls is emblematic of growing interest in applying Common Core-related teaching methods, skills and content beyond the obvious academic disciplines of math, English and reading.

At a conference last year, students from the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education at Adelphi University explained a tag-style game they created to help students learn about the U.S. Electoral College. Ellen Kowalski, associate professor and co-director of the undergraduate PE program, said others have developed games involving blue and red balls or scooters to help students learn about the operation of veins and arteries in the human circulatory system.

Such activities “are a wonderful way to help students not only understand but to remember information,” Kowalski said. “We tend to learn better when we are physically involved and engaged.”

Educators say updating physical education planning and practice to reflect Common Core standards also makes sense in light of New York’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) evaluation system and a new teacher certification credential known as the “edTPA.”

As school districts gain experience with their first APPR plans and seek to reduce local testing, the State Education Department has encouraged local educators to adopt more “school-wide measures” of student growth and achievement. That means that, for example, overall student performance on a high school English Regents exam could play a role in evaluating teachers in non-core subjects, such as PE or art.

The idea is that all teachers can contribute to student success in core academic areas.

Using school-wide measures “creates a more cohesive instructional climate for all teachers – and students,” said Deirdre Hayes, assistant superintendent for instruction for the Herricks school district in Nassau County. “Instead of feeling put off to the side, special area teachers find that they, too, have a vested interest in becoming an active part of the Common Core instructional mindset.”

At Herricks, Hayes said requests from PE teachers for professional development related to reading and writing instruction have grown significantly.

“The first time I saw a request for a literacy related workshop from one of my high school PE teachers, I contacted the director of PE to make sure that he felt the request was an appropriate one – and not just a teacher picking a course that fit into his schedule,” Hayes recalled. “We had a great conversation about the reality of our PE teachers incorporating more literacy into their curriculum – and wanting to be able to present their content with the same kind of depth and rigor that was being asked of the other subject areas.”

Mara Manson, an associate professor in the school of education at Adelphi whose teaching work includes secondary physical education methods and curriculum, noted that PE teacher candidates now need to show some proficiency with literacy learning principles to pass the edTPA examination.

“We are not expected to teach literacy,” she said, “but we are expected to support literacy in what we do.”

Bonnie Johnson, a former physical education teacher in Middleburgh, coaches other PE teachers on ways to include Common Core material in their lessons in her role as a staff development specialist with Otsego-Northern Catskills BOCES. She collects ideas and shares them through an email distribution list.

Teachers can encourage students to count sit-ups or push-ups during the day’s warm-up time, Johnson suggests, or ask students to figure out for themselves how to form six teams with equal numbers of students.

“My goal is help them make it simple,” she said. “It takes a little planning, that’s all.”    

Corinth Middle School has begun taking “baby steps” to incorporate more Common Core content into physical education classes, said Principal Lisa Meade. One of the first is installation of a new “word wall” in the gym to reinforce vocabulary words and help students understand how the same words may be used in different contexts.

Perhaps the change will help students when they are tested, but that’s not necessarily the point, Meade said.

“I don’t know that it shows up on a test,” she said, “but it shows up in life.”

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