By Andy Hinds
“First of all,” Karla Martinez said, “don’t call it P.E.”
Ms. Martinez prefers to call her subject area by its proper name, Physical Education, to impress upon the students at Roosevelt International Middle School the seriousness of her classes and her life’s work. Growing up in Tijuana, young Karla’s Physical Education classes consisted of “one basketball and one volleyball.” But she had a sense that it could be much more.
A Track and Field athlete since the age of eight, Ms. Martinez became interested in teaching Physical Education at around age twelve and never strayed from that lane. Since there were no opportunities in Tijuana to earn such a degree, and her mom didn’t want her to go all the way to Mexico City, after high school she stayed with an aunt in San Diego and studied at Cuyamaca and Grossmont community colleges. She eventually transferred to San Diego State, where she walked onto the Track and Field team and received an athletic scholarship. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree and her master’s at SDSU, while simultaneously teaching at Memorial Academy.
After nine years at Memorial, she moved on to Pacific Beach Middle School (San Diego Unified’s first International Baccalaureate middle school), and five years ago, started at Roosevelt International Middle School (the district’s second International Baccalaureate middle school), where she currently teaches. Ms. Martinez is a National Board-certified teacher, and had May 21, 2013 proclaimed in her honor by the mayor of San Diego, after she was awarded International Baccalaureate Teacher of the Year in California.
At Roosevelt, Physical Education curriculum, like all classes there, must be developed keeping both the California Standards and the International Baccalaureate (IB) approach in mind.
IB is an international community of schools that seeks to “develop active learners and internationally minded young people who can empathize with others and pursue lives of purpose and meaning.” The “Middle Years Programme” focuses on learning through inquiry into local, national, and global issues, with the aim of shaping students into “creative, critical, and reflective thinkers.”
Many of the California Standards and IB approaches overlap, but some IB requirements give Physical Education at schools like Roosevelt a different vibe than your typical American middle school. For instance, IB’s international focus leads to the unusual spectacle of American kids learning cricket, rugby, or Jianzi (a Chinese shuttlecock that is volleyed with any body part but the hands). IB also recommends “alternative recreational sports,” which explains why you might find Roosevelt students playing Ultimate Frisbee, Disc Golf or pickle ball instead of the more classic “P.E.” sports. There is also an “aesthetic movement” aspect to the IB program, prompting such activities as dance, yoga, or gymnastics. Ms. Martinez, who teaches online IB courses to other teachers, is a true believer: “Even if I wasn’t at an IB school I would teach in the IB style,” she said.
In terms of assessing students’ learning, the IB model does not rely on observing performance, but rather, requires students to demonstrate evidence of having learned skills or concepts through writing, making oral presentations, coaching their peers, and other methods of reflecting on the unit.
“A student can be a great athlete and execute the skills well,” Ms. Martinez said, “but if they are not able to explain the skills to their peers, they have not really learned them well enough.”
In addition to exercise and physical skills, Roosevelt students are taught about health and nutrition, once again focusing on the global context. “We look at nutrition around the world,” Ms. Martinez said, “including how people eat and live in different cultures, and how geopolitical issues affect health and nutrition of people around the world.”
Like just about everything in work and school, the global pandemic forced Ms. Martinez and the three other Physical Education teachers at Roosevelt to radically re-imagine what their program would look like. When San Diego Unified schools went to a fully online format last spring, it was clear that the priorities for Physical Education were to get kids moving for the sake of their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. At first, a high degree of improvisation was required, but after a summer of planning and learning, the Physical Education department rolled out a robust program that elevated kids’ knowledge, wellness and heart rates in their own homes.
Currently, Roosevelt students’ online workouts consist of some live exercise and skill-building with their teachers, some exercising along with the kind of online workout videos adults may be using at home to stay in shape during the pandemic, and plenty of writing, reflecting, health education and mindfulness. Students use online tools like Flip Grid, a video sharing platform, to demonstrate their skills. While schedules vary between teachers, typically a student will focus on strength training one day, cardio another, skills (throwing, catching, striking, dance, etc.) another, and yoga one day. One day per week is dedicated entirely to health and mindfulness.
Ms. Martinez said while issues like worrying about kids’ who keep their cameras off during class are an ongoing challenge, there have been some unexpected and edifying upsides to online Physical Education.
“Because we have been less focused on getting moving right away when class starts, we have been able to spend more time on health education and mindfulness, which is something that we had been neglecting before,” she said.
She added that some kids prefer working out online for a number of reasons, including increased privacy and comfort. The use of different video platforms for exercise also gives students more choice in what kind of workouts they will perform, and “gamifying” activities keeps it fun. Students participate in “one-minute challenges” to test their endurance, play “Jeopardy” to flex their health knowledge, and blindly choose workouts through various games of chance to keep them on their proverbial toes.
With hybrid online/in-person school scheduled to start on April 12, teachers are tasked with once again transforming their curriculum. Whereas some schools may be offering in-person instruction only two days per week, Roosevelt students are able to attend four days per week, with Friday being reserved for online learning. Ms. Martinez explains that the students who have chosen the in-person option will be doing more physical activity, and all of it outdoors, while the students who have chosen online-only will do more asynchronous activities. All students will work on more academic projects on Fridays.
For the time being, in-person students will be required to adhere to some new safety protocols, including wearing masks, wiping down equipment, staying distanced from other students, and bringing their own water bottles. But one detail that many students may appreciate is that they won’t have to “dress out” for Physical Education class since the locker rooms will be closed.
While it is not yet clear what school will look like next fall, Ms. Martinez is confident that some of the changes necessitated by the pandemic will carry over into a post-COVID future. This year has taught her that, while exercise is crucial to physical, mental, and emotional health, an emphasis on health education and mindfulness should not be neglected.
“The biggest changes we will continue with,” she said, “are the daily ‘mindful minute’—a time for reflection and meditation where we can get centered, and dedicating one day per week to just mindfulness and health education.”
After such a strange and often traumatic year, we could all benefit from many mindful minutes.
— Andy Hinds is a dad, carpenter, and freelance writer based in North Park. Follow him on Twitter @betadad.