September 20, 2008
Phys ed teachers switch focus to lifelong fitness
Photos by Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Andrea Hartel tries dropping a hula hoop around herself without it touching her.
Mike Kniffin flexed his right hand and forearm, sending a red plastic hoop rolling across the gymnasium floor. It rolled back toward him as he called to it as if it were a dog.
The 20 SUNY Cortland students in Kniffin’s physical education class followed suit, playing the role of first-graders in the old gym at Moffett Hall, where physical education teachers have been trained for decades.
The exercises grew more complicated: slipping their bodies through rolling hoops, stepping among hoops placed on the floor singly and then in pairs.
Each time, the juniors and seniors listened intently to Kniffin’s instructions and did as he said, with varying success — like a PE class. The lab’s theme: cooperation and communication.
Everything had a purpose. He told the students to think about what children see, hear and feel. After the exercise in walking through hoops on the floor, he asked them to congratulate the last-place student — to praise a child who doesn’t race to be first, in this instant gratification society.
Kniffin called the hoops on the floor lily pads, saying this would help children think about nature and water sources. He wants future PE teachers to connect the physical to children’s other studies.
The days of PE teachers just having pupils play sports and let off steam in “gym class” have given way in the past 15 years to a new emphasis: lifelong fitness. The idea is to help everyone, even the non-athletic student, appreciate the physical.
“There is a new phrase: the physically educated person,” said Kniffin’s colleague Eric Malmberg. “We needed that.”
PE majors still study sports skills, anatomy and biomechanics (physics applied to the body). But teaching remains at the heart of SUNY Cortland’s major, the oldest in New York state.
Kniffin, Malmberg and fellow faculty member Kath Howarth said the current state school policy requires high school graduates to show competency in a breadth of activities: team passing, net/wall (such as tennis), target, striking and fielding (softball), aquatics, dance and aesthetic, outdoor, personal performance (such as martial arts) and fitness (such as aerobics or walking).
“I know teachers who have been asked by parents, ‘Did you really go to college to learn that?’ PE is not understood,” Howarth said.
The focus on fitness comes as America faces an obesity epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control says obesity in adults doubled between 1980 and 2004, to 32 percent. Seventeen percent of adolescents ages 12 to 19 are overweight, and 19 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are considered overweight.
Howarth and Kniffin said PE is not the only solution to the problem, but can help in conjunction with nurses, parents, school boards and other teachers.
Physical activity has been part of SUNY Cortland since the 1890s, when faculty and students began each day with exercises. The college’s heritage in the physical education field really grew in the 1930s, as the state made Cortland Normal School the first college with a four-year degree in PE.
PE started with a 1916 law that required every schoolchild over age 8 to average 20 minutes a day of being active. The U.S. government was alarmed at the lack of fitness in men drafted for World War I.
Female students at Cortland began to learn how to teach “activity,” traveling to give lessons at schools. Bessie Park, the third women’s PE director at the college, pushed the program to new levels during her tenure from 1915 to 1941. Park is the namesake for the college’s Park Center for PE, athletics, recreation and athletic training.
PE shifted to lifelong fitness in the 1990s. Besides the usual team games, schools began to offer cross country skiing, aerobics and other individual ways to hone the body.
Two PE directors, Mike Carboine of Homer schools and Jeff Johnson of Cortland schools, said the new focus is familiar in their schools.
“We expanded our program into lifelong fitness about 10 years ago,” said Carboine. “Now we have canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking, orienteering. Kids can find what interests them.”
Johnston said schools want to prepare students for after graduation, in terms of knowing how to be fit and healthy.
PE majors still see the major as a path to coaching sports, having been athletes themselves. The professors said they have to be taught otherwise. Malmberg said even courses about coaching specific sports are really about teaching.
Some PE majors said they had to shift their thinking away from sports, while others understood the current philosophy as they entered the college.
“I learned this more strongly — the faculty really opened my eyes,” said senior Drew Hilker.
The teachers he has observed — PE majors must do 100 hours of observation — did not always follow the new way. Seeing them made Hilker want to teach on the high school level, to apply his college lessons.
A swimmer and track athlete, Hilker said he has always been athletic. He wants to help the less-athletic children he saw in schools.
“Their skill level is not there, or their confidence,” he said. “You see it in the way they hold themselves, their demeanor.”
Junior Rose Morrison said in her high school she saw athletes picking on non-athletes, who then sat out of PE class, uninterested.
Not that she was impressed by some classes, as students did not even change clothes, did not sweat or have to shower afterward. They could watch videos of how to do an activity.
Senior Will Tarantino said his Long Island high school teachers did the same games over and over, so he never got the idea that PE was about lifelong fitness. He has seen the benefits of being fit, however, as a martial arts instructor since he was 16.
“I touched lives,” Tarantino said. “One 5-year-old boy told me his graduation in (kenpo) rank was the happiest day of his life, because it was the first thing he’d achieved.”
Sophomore Dana Roberts said most of her teachers focused on sport, not character or overall fitness. But she has been a counselor at a camp for chronically ill children, which brought her face to face with larger lessons about mind and body.
Students said they major in PE because they enjoy working with children and want young people to be fit. Kniffin likes to hear that.
“We want them to remember that,” he said, “and keep that way of thinking in the years ahead.”
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