Originally published June 13, 2022 in the School News Network.

By Beth Heinen Bell

One thing a physical education teacher never wants to do is discourage a student’s relationship with exercise and physical activity. In middle school, as students are starting to mature into young adults who will one day make their own decisions regarding exercise, that relationship may be even more important.

But historically, middle school PE classes have operated on a “one size fits all” basis—a class where everyone does the same activities, plays the same sports, regardless of interest, skill level or competitive nature.

Seventh-grader Lincoln Hopkins spots fellow seventh-grader Blake Wilcox as he lifts weights during Athletic Performance class

That’s no longer the case at Cedar Springs Middle School.

PE teachers Dave Bowers and Derek Ash wrapped up a successful first year of offering their students two distinctive, separate class options—options that speak to those unique interests and skill levels while still celebrating and encouraging active lifestyles.

“This is a really critical age to establish healthy habits,” Ash said. “If we put a student in a traditional, old-school PE classroom and we don’t give them choices where they’d fit in, you can ruin that relationship with PE and fitness really quickly. … You have some students that seem to get lost in the shuffle, who are not really interested in playing basketball against our star basketball players. But they are more willing to play at their own level of competition.

“Now, I think we’ve made (PE class) a place where they want to be, and are not really marginalized, because they have the option to kind of pick where they fit in.”

Since last fall, CSMS students have had the option to pick from either “Athletic Performance” or “Lifetime Recreation” when selecting a PE class in their schedule.

In describing the Athletic Performance class, “I tell the kids that you really need to think of it like having another (team sport) practice during the day, and you’re gonna have to work hard every day,” said Bowers. The class is designed to be highly competitive, with conditioning, agility training, weight lifting and skill drills. This work is combined with units on various competitive sports, including football, volleyball and basketball.

On the other hand, Lifetime Recreation class “is something that shows (students) that they can be fit and active their whole life, even if they’re not super-interested in being an athlete,” Bowers said.

‘I think we’ve made (PE class) a place where they want to be, and are not really marginalized, because they have the option to kind of pick where they fit in.’

— PE teacher Derek Ash

Besides playing volleyball, tennis and basketball at a more recreational level, Lifetime Recreation students go bowling, discover new skills like archery and Bocce ball, play badminton and pickleball, learn how to use the machines in the fitness room, go for long walks or jogs and even pair up for some friendly games of cornhole.

“We just wanted to give them movement, more activity, and have them find something they like to do that they can do at home,” Bowers said. “It’s not terribly difficult, but it has them moving; it has them work on hand-eye coordination, learn some strategy, that sort of thing. We want them to find something they’re interested in so they’re not just glued to screens when they get home.”

Options: Never a Bad Idea

Both classes are co-ed and open to both seventh and eighth grades, a change from when the grades were separated for PE. Combining grades has had reciprocal benefits, the teachers said.

“What’s awesome is that eighth-graders tend to get something like ‘senioritis’ in the spring, and they can start to get a little lazy, thinking that they’re almost done with this place—but they also don’t want that seventh-grader to show them up,” Bowers said. “And then the seventh-graders are like, ‘I’m gonna beat that eighth-grader one of these days!’ So they push each other to do better.”

As an eighth-grader this year, Ayden McClurken had a chance to experience PE “the old way,” in seventh grade, before learning that he’d have options for his second year at CSMS. He is involved in wrestling, football and track, and considers himself to be pretty competitive. This year he took Athletic Performance both semesters and found it to be a very good fit.

“Last year, when we played games and stuff, there were kids that you could tell didn’t really want to be in the class or be very competitive,” he said. “This year, now that we have the option to be in the AP gym, pretty much everybody in the class wants to win, so it makes the games a lot more fun.

“It’s nice to be able to get a workout in while you’re at school, so I can keep getting stronger and faster for my sports,” Ayden added. “It means you don’t have to do it at home or outside of school—you can just do it right at school and it’s really easy on your schedule.”

Seventh-grader Keenen Hullinger was so excited to have PE choices that he decided to take both Athletic Performance and Lifetime Recreation this spring.

“I really like both; AP is more challenging and more competitive,” Keenen said. “I am a competitive person and so I kind of liked that, but Lifetime Rec is also a good time to hang out with some friends, maybe get a lift in or something like that, and it’s fun to do more of the activities that you can do later on in life.”

While Keenen may be an anomaly—not too many students are taking both classes at the same time—Bowers and Ash said interest in each class has been close to equal, with a slightly higher percentage of Lifetime Recreation students. They’re working on eventually adding some more PE options at the high school, which this year’s eighth-grade AP students have asked for.

The teachers have also made clear to students that the choice is always theirs alone on which, if any, PE class to take.

“We have a lot of kids that are athletic and probably would do well in Athletic Performance, but either they’re already involved in sports and that’s enough practice for them, or they just want to have fun with their friends in Lifetime Rec,” Bowers said.

Added Ash: “I just think it’s never a bad idea to give kids more options in any classes they have. I think that for so long, PE has kind of been dwindling away, unfortunately, and so giving them ways to be active without making them fit into certain boxes is a good idea.”

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