Originally published Sept. 10, 2020 in the Sonoma Index-Tribune.
By Christian Kallen
Among the many challenges facing high school students this troubled autumn is staying fit – not just healthy, although that’s a priority in a pandemic. But the overall health of Sonoma’s school-age population is traditionally tracked, and maintained, by PE – the physical education department.
After all, the school gym is locked and dark, athletic teams are unable to practice, group exercise programs are out. There’s not even a track to lap around, as the physical education fields are being extensively remade. But there is still a state-wide requirement to take at least two years of PE in secondary school, and a state physical assessment test usually administered in ninth grade.
Besides, as PE department chair Dennis Housman used to say, “This is the one class that gives you a break from sitting in a classroom all day. It’s something that you usually enjoy, and it’s a place where you can shine – you can be a leader and help other students get better.”
Like most teachers during remote learning, Housman had to transition from daily PE classes with about 40 students in each – he believes he used to have more students than any other teacher in the Valley, up to 220 in a year. According to Housman, his department was well-positioned to convert to a distance learning model, with wide distribution of Chromebooks and even some use of Google Classroom, as a virtual place to check in with assignments.
“I was a little more prepared than others, especially other PE teachers in the county – our department had already been using Google Classroom,” said Housman. When the pandemic shutdown began, he added, “I got calls from teachers as far as Santa Rosa, Cloverdale, Healdsburg, they were wondering what we were going to be doing in high school PE.”
The district started distributing Chromebooks to students several years ago, said Assistant Superintendent Bruce Abbott. “We’ve had a one-to-one program in middle school and high school for about three or four years,” said Abbott. “What that means is each student is issued a Chromebook that they can take home and bring to class. They have those at home with them now.”
Some elementary students were also assigned computers for in-class use; now each student from pre-school to fifth grade has been issued a Chromebook for home use, said Abbott.
But having a tool doesn’t mean you use it – or know how. Last spring was a learning experience in a real sense of the words for both students and instructors, as they struggled to make assignments and fulfill them, to say nothing of grading work that was atypical. In PE, grades are based on physical performance and interpersonal skills, which are difficult to evaluate by computer.
Using the fitness apps
So how do students not only stay fit, but keep up with state and local requirements? It’s a challenge all teachers face, but it seems particularly challenging for PE.
Housman is the department chair of what is officially Health & Wellness, a seat he’s held for about 17 years – he started at Sonoma Valley High in 1997, though he was at Flowery Elementary for a couple years before that. As department chair, he serves on the faculty senate with other department heads; for many of the past years, until recently, he ran the meetings as facilitator.
The department is six teachers strong, and includes such non-traditional PE offerings as Living Skills (taught by Erica Chapin) and Dance and Advanced Dance (with Meredith Regan). Other teachers of physical education include Staci Green, Bob Midgley and Julie Niehaus, as well as Housman.
That state physical assessment includes aerobic capacity, measured by a 1-mile walk or run; body mass index reading (BMI); and muscular strength, endurance and flexibility. These last are measured by such workouts as push-ups, curl-ups, trunk lifts or planks, and other exercises – the kinds of workouts that can be done alone, although without the motivation of their peers and the demonstration of the teacher it’s harder.
“As a PE teacher, I never sat down so much in my entire life,” said Housman. “This is super hard – not seeing the kids, not interacting with the kids, not being face-to-face in a normal situation. The whole scenario of looking at a screen is not how I’ve been teaching the last 27 years.”
The PE classes begin with a Zoom meeting to see each other face-to-face, and to take role, make announcements, and do warm-up calisthenics in the live-streaming environment – many students are in their bedrooms, or perhaps in the garage or the back yard if that’s possible. Assigned exercise and fitness challenges may be set, and if there are any such assignments due, it’ll be due a week later.
Classes are structured not only with time to exercise but time set aside to log the results of their efforts, using any number of cell-phone fitness apps. “Yesterday a young lady got on her bike and rode eight miles, and showed me the pace that she rode, the distance, the calories that she was burning at the time,” said Housman. She may have been using Strava or Map My Ride, two of the more popular apps for tracking runs or rides.
Both iPhones (Health) and Androids (Google Fit) have robust health apps that may already be logging users’ movements and other vital statistics, giving almost anyone an immediate and more-or-less accurate feedback to their exercise – although such wearable devices as Fitbit and Apple Watch can provide even greater accuracy.
That has become part of the PE curriculum – using the app. “We spent a couple days (at the beginning of school year) going over that app, showing them what it could do for them,” said Housman. “A lot of them didn’t even know it existed on their phone.”
Participation is half the grade
One thing that has not changed with PE is that participation is the single largest contributor to grades – fully half of their grade is based on daily participation including attendance, attitude, and working with the teacher or other students.
“I always tell my kids, you don’t get points if you don’t show up,” Housman said. “After all, if you have a job at McDonald’s, you won’t get paid if you don’t show up.”
The other half of grading includes 30 percent on cardio exercises, daily calisthenics, stretching and muscle work; and 20 percent on written assignments. That’s more written work than required in a normal PE class, and some students react better than others.
Ninth-grader Lily Gelb, while recognizing that the ways teachers teach PE is changing, finds herself frustrated by the worksheet assignments they’re given. “I think it’s just to fill class time,” she said, adding that she’s heard of other PE teachers who do fewer worksheets, and more Zoom workouts.
Some students find the biggest challenge is the social one – especially for a student like Andre Aguirre. “The PE classes this year have been a really good experience, but not as good as being in the actual classroom. I like to compete, and I like to talk with a lot of people – I’m a very friendly guy.”
The junior hopes to play soccer again this coming year; the season is currently scheduled to begin in March. As of now, ironically, much of the high school’s athletic facilities are unusable due to the expensive remodeling. The new playing fields and sports facilities are still on track to be completed next summer, though Abbott said “the grass field will be finished sooner. We wanted to start providing students as much as we could through the year.”
“Hopefully we can all get through this,” said Housman, “and get some exercise along the way – and turn out at the other end in good shape.”