“Dodgeball,” he says, “is definitely in the PE Hall of Shame.”
Physical education is changing. In 2015, the Department of Education announced a multiyear, multimillion-dollar initiative known as PE Works, which seeks to transform the concept of gym class from a place where kids pelt each other with dodgeballs to “an important academic subject that teaches students to be physically active, work as a team and set fitness goals that can last a lifetime.”
“The old phys ed class was just based on sports,” says Sommer, who teaches at PS 129 in College Point, Queens. “But we need to be able to teach the whole child. Physical education is an opportunity to move around, release energy, gain social interaction skills, learn how to win and lose, learn how to respect others.”
PE Works stresses the importance of dynamic, rigorous instruction from certified physical education teachers.
“It’s so important to have a certified, licensed PE teacher in a school,” says David Fannon, who was one of the first 50 teachers hired through the PE Works program. “It changes the culture of the school to have someone who knows the curriculum and values the importance of it. Once the school values PE, the whole school learns the importance of physical education and living a healthy life.”
At PS 22 in Flushing, Queens, Fannon has founded basketball and soccer teams that practice before school, which has increased early-morning attendance. Pep rallies for the teams have boosted school spirit.Both Fannon and Sommer design lesson plans to align with the scope and sequence of the DOE’s physical education curriculum, accommodating for differentiation and ongoing assessment. In Sommer’s physical education class, students use the popular Plickers tool to self-assess both their physical skills and their sportsmanship.
Before the PE Works initiative was piloted in eight districts in the 2015–16 school year, only about a third of schools in the initial cohort had certified PE teachers — and the vast majority of elementary schools failed to meet state requirements regarding the time and frequency of physical education.
The DOE expects that by June of 2019, all elementary schools in the city will meet state standards by providing 120 minutes of physical education per week.
Fannon says the program has been a “life-changing experience.” Once a month, he participates in a professional learning community with 22 other physical education teachers from Queens. In March, he attended a four-day national conference for health and physical education professionals. And grant opportunities have allowed him to purchase an expansive variety of equipment — much of which, like lacrosse sticks and golf clubs, is new to his students.
“A lot of these kids have never seen any of these sports, so I get to teach them about different things they wouldn’t normally see,” he said.
Their excitement was evident on a recent Tuesday morning at PS 22, when 2nd-graders arrived at the gymnasium to find an elaborate miniature golf course waiting for them. Fannon had constructed nine holes using a creative assortment of equipment: cones, lacrosse sticks, step risers, bowling pins, scooters and even buckets stacked up in a pyramid shape.
“The idea is that once they learn how to hit a golf ball that’s not moving, that sets them up for the skill of learning how to hit a moving target, like in hockey, which is harder,” Fannon explains. “In the younger grades, we focus on learning how to move, spatial awareness — skills that you need to learn to become more coordinated as a human being.”
Before they golf, students warm up with a traditional stretching sequence and run a few laps around the gym while music pumps from the speakers. “My heart is beating so fast!” yells one exhilarated 2nd-grader as she collapses in a giggling heap.
“A lot of our students go home to apartments, and maybe their parents work late so they’re not getting that physical activity,” notes Leah Lewis, the school’s chapter leader. “Mr. Fannon has brought so much fun into the physical education program, they’re exercising without noticing it.”
And unlike in the days of dodgeball, Fannon sees his gym as a place where students get the opportunity to learn teamwork and social skills they might not get in the classroom.
“The physical education setting is where you make a lot of friends,” he says. “They get so excited to come into the gym. And if they come in excited, they’ll want to be active for the rest of their lives.”