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The Big Fresh August 25, 2018 Gym Workshop

Brenda Power

Gym class was, of course, where the strongest, best-looking kids were made captains and chose us spazzes last.

                                                                                                          Ayelet Waldman

I am the least athletic person I know. In middle school, I had physical education class on alternating days. Every single sick day I took in middle school was on a day when I had physical education class. When it was time to run the mile, I walked. It was the only class in which I ever had a defiant attitude toward my teacher.

This school year I was called upon several times to sub for one of our four physical education teachers because I had an extra free period. I knew they had to be desperate if they were resorting to asking me.

Much to my surprise, the experience of being a guest teacher in physical education classes brought back a positive memory.

I walked into the gym and noticed the volleyball nets were set up. It was a welcome sight. Not because I am any good at volleyball, but because the best experience I ever had in a physical education class involved volleyball.

Every time it was my turn to serve, I would dodge the rotation and allow others to skip past me just to avoid the discomfort. When I somehow got trapped into serving, I could not get the ball anywhere near the net, much less launch the ball over it. My teacher noticed. She made an important decision--she told me to move up to half court and try serving. All of a sudden, I had a fighting chance at serving the ball to the other team. I began to pay attention to my teacher’s coaching about serving technique. It wasn’t long before I was ready to move to the back line to serve.

This reminder that effective teaching is effective teaching in any classroom, even if the classroom is a gymnasium, helped put me at ease.

My first task as a sub was a familiar one--attendance. Then, it was time for the warm-up exercises. I do not have any positive memories related to warm-up exercises, so I was dreading this part of the class. I expected to have to manage unmotivated students and turn into some sort of drill sergeant. However, that was not the case at all. Warm-up exercises started with three students heading to the middle of the gym. They proceeded to lead their classmates through the warm-up. There was no battle to motivate students to follow their lead. Rather, students were more than willing to follow the lead of their peers.

After warm-up exercises, students were instructed to head to their unit locations. I watched as a mix of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders headed to various parts of the gym, some even lining up to leave. I asked a student what was happening and she explained they had been allowed to select which unit they were interested in: dance, volleyball, basketball, or soccer. Dance students were heading to another space to work on choreography and performance. Soccer students were headed outside. Basketball and volleyball divided into the two halves of the gym. Students needed very little direction. They knew where they were headed and why.

I was stunned. This is not what gym class looked like when I was younger. It occurred to me that I was witnessing a true workshop approach to teaching physical education.

When I was a physical education student so many years ago, workshop was just what I needed. The teacher who suggested moving to half-court as a step toward mastery of serving a volleyball recognized my need for an individual goal. Perhaps if I had more physical education teachers like those I subbed alongside, who recognized the value of engaging students with choice and stepping aside to allow students to take ownership, I would no longer be the least athletic person I know.

Maybe that’s all it takes. Individual goals. Choice. Ownership. Whether in a gymnasium or an English classroom, students need teachers who recognize what they need, provide options, and are willing to step aside and follow their lead.  

This week we look at how you can set expectations for reader response early in the year. Plus more as always -- enjoy!

Christy Rush-Levine
Contributor, Choice Literacy

Free for All

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Cathy Mere finds many authentic ways for her first graders to share reading insights:


As more intermediate classrooms become departmentalized, grades 4-6 teachers find they are dealing with 80 or more reading response logs instead of 25-30 each week. Katherine Sokolowski tackles the issue of providing personal response to readers and still having time for everything else.


Pernille Ripp explains how even small "authentic" response activities can do damage to students:


Our online course It's a Cycle, Not a Hamster Wheel: Getting the Most Out of Coaching Cycles hosted by Dana Murphy launches in two days. You can preview the first screencast in the course at this link:


New self-paced classes from Jen Schwanke on connecting classrooms and families and Stella Villalba with a quick-start guide to understanding English language learners launch in September. You can learn more here:



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Franki Sibberson finds teaching students to annotate while reading is one of the best ways to promote ongoing reflective response in her fifth-grade classroom. She shares how she starts teaching annotation skills early in the year:


Christy Rush-Levine integrates reading responses into her preparation for reading conferences, and then uses the responses as a tool to build goals and insights within the conference:


You can see a demonstration of how reading response informs Christy's conferences in this week's video. Christy confers with Edith, who is tracking character changes in the novel Room:


"I read 35 pages!" An elated student deflates Bitsy Parks in her first-grade classroom. By mid-fall she is alarmed at the responses of students to their reading in the whole-group share -- they are all about quantity, with no thinking or reflection. She uses modeling and careful questioning to foster more thoughtful reader response:


In an encore video, students have different response options in Katie Doherty's sixth-grade book clubs:


That's all for this week!

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Brenda Power

Brenda Power is the founder of Choice Literacy. She worked for many years as a professor at the University of Maine and an editor at Stenhouse Publishers. Her publications as an author include Living the Questions and The Art of Classroom Inquiry. She has worked as a book editor and video producer for many of the authors featured at this site.