Monday, June 11, 2012

Memories of being in special education gym class

Me on my bike, text reads "I STAND for fun physical activity for all, weight =/= health. Stop weight bigotry, Health At Every Size"
My STANDard poster, me on my bike
I've been thinking a lot lately about how physical education experiences can impact adult physical activity (I know, I'm a nerd...but I'm working on my PhD in sociohistorical studies of kinesiology, so what do you expect?).  I came across a blog post at Anytime Yoga about the author's experience with hating volleyball, and started really wondering what the is the actual purpose of physical education classes.  I've been chewing on this for a while, especially for folks with disabilities that experienced special education gym classes.

Growing up, my "primary" physical disability was my congenital optic nerve hypoplasia in my right eye, which means I've been legally blind in my right eye since birth.  I also had lazy eye (strabismus).  The school district decided that I needed to be put in special education gym classes along with mainstream PE.  I was pulled out of my elementary school classroom at fairly random intervals to attend the special gym classes....and I do mean randomly.  I'm not sure if the school district didn't have enough funding for regular classes, if there was only one "special needs" PE teacher that the district shared, or if my regular classroom teacher didn't feel the need to pull me out of her classroom to have these "special" gym classes.

I do remember more joy in these classes.  I didn't have "normal" classmates teasing me for having trouble with depth perception related activities (hitting, catching, kicking).  My classmates in these classes were a pretty good mix of ages, between first and fifth grades, and we only had about five of us at any one time.  It was more about learning and moving our bodies for fun than any obviously directed sport.  We were all the kids that were picked last because our bodies were different in some way, and each of our bodies were different in different ways.  We learned that our bodies had both strengths and weaknesses, and that was ok.

This wasn't a lesson I initially got from these classes though.  Because of the sporadic nature of these classes, I never knew what subject I was going to miss.  Sometimes it was something I wasn't as fond of (like math), sometimes it was something I really enjoyed (like music or art).  It never replaced the regular gym classes, so some weeks I had gym 4 times a week when other kids had it twice a week.

When I was in fourth grade, the special ed gym teacher came at more regular intervals, and I remember that the person came every time I had German.  I was frustrated that something I wasn't as keen on was keeping me from something I really enjoyed....and I was also frustrated that my perceived impairment was not only creating a deficit in my scholastic work (learning German) but really wasn't making me more able to kick, catch, hit, or do anything physical.  I looked more at the social disadvantages of those special ed gym classes because as a kid, I didn't see the point of gym classes.  As a precocious kid, I explained to my parents that I didn't feel that the classes were doing anything for me and that I felt like I was constantly behind in my German schoolwork because I was consistently missing it.  With this information, my parents had the school pull me out of special ed gym.

When I look back at the rest of my (mainstream) gym class experience, I keep wondering what the point of it all is.  If school is supposed to prepare a person for adulthood, shouldn't gym class be about trying a bunch of different sports and activities in hopes that a person finds something that they can keep doing for the rest of their life?  I've met so many folks that were traumatized by PE is this helpful to maintaining a healthy adulthood?  Couldn't this be related to our current social issue of sedentary behavior?

I still sometimes wonder how I became an adult athlete with the torment and frustrations I had with PE as an older kid.  I rarely found activities that I was any good at or that I found fun (being skillful can definitely help make something fun).  I think growing up with parents with an adventurous spirit was what got me to the point where I wanted to be physical in a variety of ways, and I thank them for that spirit.  It's led me to some interesting activities from a polar bear plunge to the MS 150 bike ride (that's where my bike photo comes from) to belly dance to wheeling a 5k...and more physical endeavors in the future, body-willing.

What do you think?  How does your physical education history impact your current physical activity?  What complicates your experience?  If you could sit down and talk to your PE teacher, what would you say to her/him?  What would you tell your younger self about moving your body?

1 comment:

  1. Hmm... I think part of the problem is that PE isn't really about teaching kids for the future, it's about keeping them physically fit in the now, and also expending excess energy (although recess helps with that--where it's still used). I seem to recall that even when we played sports, the teacher didn't really instruct us much, and we were expected to learn from other classmates who already knew or figure it out on our own. The first time I played football in 5th grade, I got in really big trouble because my teacher didn't believe me when I said I'd never seen it played (or at least not long enough with enough attention to notice any rule structure).
    IF PE was about teaching for the future, I think your indignation would be highly accurate. But perhaps the outrage should be that it is a narrow-scoped activity that has no future purpose.