Monday, November 9, 2015

Are the Ills of Gym Class the Same Today?

I read this Unpopular Opinion post by Stephanie Sylverne today. In it, she proposes to abolish the physical education requirement in schools. Her support for this argument is her own personal misery over having to change in the locker room, a task that left her anxious and emotionally distraught as she was battling with body image issues. She explains her views: 
If I had to get into that bathing suit today, I wouldn’t like it, but I could probably do it. I can change in a locker room without worrying about someone seeing my thighs or that my stomach isn’t perfectly flat like a runway model, though I still tend to avoid it.

But teenagers are not adults with fully-developed brains and control over their environments. And the psychological distress of being forced into embarrassing, potentially unsafe (whether emotional or physical) situations can have far more serious consequences than missing out on some jumping jacks.
I'm not sure how old Sylverne is, but she refers to these high school experiences as being "years ago," so I'm going to go ahead and venture to guess that we were experiencing a similar culture of gym class, one that was accurately captured in the Daria opening credits.

I hated gym class. There is no way to express this opinion with anything less than the word hatred. Every moment felt pointless. I spent most of the time trying to figure out how to hide so as not to be required to demonstrate how physically uncoordinated I was in front of my entire class. It didn't help that our "coach" had us play basketball about 75% of the time (with volleyball taking up another 20% and a combination of the other team sports making up the rest). In these year-round basketball excursions, she would frequently put all of the athletes on one team and all of the non-athletes on the other. It was ugly. And embarrassing. And completely counter to any goals about fitness. Some days she would excuse the athletes from having to play at all, reasoning that they had a game that night. So all of the athletically gifted individuals would sit on the sidelines and watch the rest of us struggle to function at catching a ball. It was truly educationally pointless and personally traumatizing. 

So part of me was nodding along with Sylverne's rant, but deep down I know that doesn't make sense. Lots of us can recount traumatizing gym class experiences, but I bet that lots of people have been traumatized by biology class or algebra or English. Just because some people bring personal hang-ups (no matter how valid they may be) into the classroom or have individually negative experiences with specific teachers doesn't mean that the curriculum should be abolished. 

And this is what I'm really thinking about: curriculum. 

I believe that gym class has changed. I know some gym teachers, and they are, first and foremost, teachers. They have lesson plans. They have outcome goals. They make a schedule and plan ways to target various skill sets through different methods of engagement. 

And my daughter, who is in a public preschool, comes home raving about her gym class. They are learning positive associations with moving their bodies and connecting this to discussions in the classroom about health choices. 

When I was first thinking about trying out for roller derby, I had a blog post about gym class (in which I also used the Daria reference. Time is a circle). In that post, I lamented that so much of my education about physical activity was rooted in competition. I connected Millennial impulses toward collaboration with friendly, noncompetitive athletic pursuits like the Color Run. 

I think that the trend towards athleticism and physical activity for personal growth rather than for competition is a good one (and competition still has its place). Silverne's call for abolishing gym class seems kind of silly to me anyway, but it seems especially silly when it doesn't consider the way that the gym class curriculum has changed over time. 

Those changes, I think, are reflective of a shift in values and philosophies about physicality. As the body positive movement takes hold and more and more studies show the value of even low-impact exercise, I think those are good things. 

What do you think? Did you like gym class? Have you seen evidence of a change in the way its delivered? 

NaBloPoMo November 2015

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