Inside the Complex "Social Lab" of PE Class
An interview with Sherri Spelic
AHP note: This is the August Edition of the Culture Study Guest Interview series. I interview people nearly every week for this newsletter, but my inclinations and passions are, well, my own. If you have a pitch for an interview with someone who is not famous but writes or does work on something that’s really interesting, send it to me at annehelenpetersen @ gmail dot com. Pitches should include why you want to interview the person, 4-5 potential questions, the degree of certainty that you could get the subject to agree to the interview, and have CULTURE STUDY GUEST INTERVIEW in the subject line. Pay is $500.
This month’s guest interview is conducted by Antonia Malchick, author of A Walking Life and the truly fantastic newsletter On the Commons. She’s a real inspiration to me in terms of balancing a writer’s life with community commitment — and she’s regular traveler in the Culture Study comment section. Here’s Antonia’s intro:
I first met Sherri Spelic on Twitter. We connected over Vienna, where she lives and where I lived in my early 20s. Over the years, her writing and thinking about physical education, which was a nightmare for me and for so many others in school, has increasingly impressed me with compassion, insight, and ability to understand what it is about PE and gym class—and about societies—that fails so many of us. After reading a recent keynote speech Sherri gave to the Open Technology in Education, Society and Scholarship Association, titled “Hide and Seek: On Kids, Power, and Resistance in Education,” I wanted to hear more from her.
She’s a physical education teacher, essayist, speaker, and poet who lives in Vienna, Austria, where she has taught at the American International School for the last 26 years. She’s also one of the most insightful, thoughtful, and intelligent people I’ve ever had the fortune to know, and it was a privilege to meet together over Zoom for a long conversation.
You can find Sherri on Twitter here, read her blog here, and subscribe to her newsletter on social justice for educators here. Her first book is Care at the Core: Conversational Essays on Identity, Education and Power.
This interview has been lightly edited for lengthy and clarity.
As a fundamental overview, why do we need physical education? Once we learn to crawl and walk, we then supposedly know how to use our bodies, but I have always felt—and had that affirmed by reading your work—that physical education is actually really important, even if I don’t understand why and even if the way it’s done in American schools in particular is not good.
I’m really curious what you think about why it’s important to have that as an integral part of an educational arc and growth.
It’s a fascinating question, because I can’t remember if and when anyone has ever asked me that directly. It’s always been assumed in whatever capacity. “Oh, we’re talking to Sherri Spelic, who’s a PE specialist,” and so on. So for me to really think about why . . . physical education is important a kind of counter-narrative to the rest of school. In the sense that what happens in my class, in my gym, there’s a lot of movement, there’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of independent student activity. It’s supervised, but there’s often a lot of choice. It’s not recess; it’s still an instructional space, but for the kids it’s clear: This is not like in our classroom. I don’t have to sit down. Yes, I have to be quiet, but only for short periods of time.
In that way, it is a really necessary counter-narrative within school, for kids. And they can get with it, like, “All right, this is for me!” Granted, not for every child because different children bring different things to the space, but for many, many kids, the time that they spend in PE is often something they can look forward to.
I’m not sure that answers why it’s important, but I see it as something kids need. And it’s different from recess.
That seems like an important distinction.
It really is. Because recess should be, ideally, outdoors, and should be absolutely free choice, within the parameters of whatever rules there are, how the space can be used, what equipment there is, and so on. But generally that should be kids choosing their own activities and partners, or no partners, whatever. That’s what recess should be.
Physical education, on the other hand, is an instructional space — and there are clear boundaries, and there are also instructional aims. There are things that I am hoping to convey. I’m never sure “teach” is the right word, but I will say, “Today we are going to practice these things. These are some things we’re going to work on today.”
So, at a high level and at a granular level, what do you think best-practice instructional aims are for physical education?
Ideally, we want students to get a sense of what their bodies can do. And to help them become not just acquainted with what their bodies can do but also to find enjoyment with what their bodies can do, and with the process of learning what their bodies can do. I also think it is very, very much about social growth and development and engagement. Physical education for me is fundamentally a social lab with physical benefits.
Do you want to expand on that?
In the sense that you’re putting a bunch of kids together in a large space — and you have some equipment, you have some instructional aims, but it’s also highly public, in the sense that kids can see each other. They notice immediately who can run fast, who is not so fast, who is very flexible, who seems strong. That visibility can be great, but it can also be a nightmare for kids, to be exposed in that way.
I can see that. Like if you’re in a math class and you’re struggling with long division, other kids might know it but they’re not seeing your paper, they’re not seeing your work, they’re not seeing your grade. I never really thought about the visibility aspect of it. My kids are very much like me in that gym class is kind of a nightmare because we’re not sportsy. We’re not super good at throwing balls, not super fast at running, and you’re right. I remember being very aware of not being chosen for teams, other kids getting frustrated, and I can see the same cycle happening with my children. But I never thought about that visibility aspect of it.
For me, as the educator in the room, I need to create the social conditions that make it possible for every child to be able to learn. Because you cannot learn if you are fearful, if you are full of dread. There’s just no way that you can pay attention to what is supposed to be happening if you are already horrified at the idea that people are going to see you.
In my population of kids, they love PE. But I do have a special eye for exactly that child or those children for whom that hesitation is real. I may try cajoling or getting them to try different things or a different way, and for some kids it can take a long time before they’re trusting enough to see that it could actually be fun.
So how do you build that trust? I imagine you’re an engaging teacher and the kids love you. But kids can really enjoy their gym teacher and still hate gym, which is the case for my kids. So how do you embody trust?
That’s a good way to think about it because, again, thinking about physical education, so much happens through body language. I can say one thing but if my body language says something else . . . well, kids are excellent at reading body language. They can read you. They know what you’re about.
In terms of building that trust, there are lots of ways to do that. One of them is that I try to offer options and offer different types of equipment. For instance, let’s say we’re working on tossing and catching. I have four or five different kinds of balls, or things to toss and catch. So maybe you could choose a beanbag, or a yarn ball, or a bigger ball. There’s an opportunity to switch around and try a different one. And maybe we begin by tossing and catching in our own space, and then everybody’s on their own. Maybe you’re in your own space tossing and catching, and maybe it’s just barely letting something go up in the air and catching it and someone else is throwing it to the rafters. It’s the idea that you build the opportunities for kids to find their own way of practicing before you jump into doing it with a partner.
A lot of it, too, is creating the right conditions so that when a student wants to make fun of someone who is not as adept as they are, then we stop and have a conversation and say, “Hm, let’s think about that. How would that make you feel?” And then it’s very clear to them and they think, “Yeah, that would make me feel bad.” We don’t want anyone to feel bad because we want everybody to have fun. Those conversations are so fundamental to the whole project.
It seems like it would be hard in that space with those dynamics going on to keep an eye on that kind of thing all the time. How big are your classes in general?
I’m working with maybe a maximum of 24.
That’s a lot.
That’s the max. But it’s more common in my context to maybe have 15 or 16 kids at a time. Usually we have ample space and ample equipment. That’s another piece, is that I work in a place where we are well-resourced. I can offer every child all kinds of choices in terms of what equipment we’ll use. If we’re using bouncing balls, some kids want a basketball that’s hard and heavy, whereas some kids want those little rubber bouncing balls that are lighter, that are still like a basketball but are easier to handle. Those kinds of things make a difference, just the fact that we have the space and we have the resources that allow me to differentiate. And also making the choices available in the kids’ minds. It could be that I just pull out the two or three things that I think are necessary for this class, but it’s important to teach them that they can ask for things. They need to learn that there are options. Because if you’re the teacher and you’re presenting them with, “We’re doing basketball. These are the basketballs. Go,” then it’s important for them to know that you can use a different kind of bouncy ball.
That goes back to what you said in the very beginning, that physical education is a space where they have agency. I always think that’s important in every aspect of education, and kids get so little of it. Very few choices, very little control over what they’re allowed to pursue. What got you thinking about that sense of agency in physical education?
I came to physical education through the back door. It’s not what I studied. At the time that I started my job, which became my career, I was studying sports psychology. I was interested in competitive sports and positive self-talk and how you moderate motivation. Then it became taking that into a physical education space. How do you work with motivation there where it might be lacking? How do you develop intrinsic motivation? What makes kids decide, “I want to learn how to do that thing”? What makes a child decide that they want to pursue something? That has been my driving question.
One of the things I think we forget about schools in general and why children generally go to school without too much protest is because that’s where the other kids are. I know I got this from some psychologist that I was reading many years ago, but I remember thinking: Why have I never thought of that? When kids tell you what their favorite things are in school, particularly elementary kids—and actually even in high school—it’s lunch, recess, and then usually one of their specials. Art, music, PE, library, those things.
That’s so true. When I ask my own kids how their day was, the number of times it *hasn’t* been a story about what happened at lunchtime is small.
That’s their social time. That’s when they figure out who they are. It’s at lunchtime, it’s at recess, it’s in the hallways. That’s the social thing that school is.
I think so much about it — and I realized that PE is this social lab. If I can get the social dynamics right, and functional in a way that everyone feels like they can get in there and feel good and they can do what’s on their level and what feels motivating for them, then cool. That’s how we’re going to make progress.
The other piece of that is that kids, because they’re social, they learn from each other. That means that the way that I structure the class, I structure the practice so that they actually have opportunities to learn from each other. I provide the framework and the goal: “Okay, we’re going to practice overhand throwing,” and I demonstrate, and then when I ask them to go throw with a partner, already just by working with someone else you learn from how someone else is throwing. Are they throwing? Are they tossing?
That piece is really important, because peer-to-peer learning is actually what’s happening at school most of the time, even if we don’t acknowledge it. We like to put the teacher at the front of the room, but actually peers are teaching each other all the time. And that’s happening in both directions, in the way that we adults want to see it happen, and of course in the other way. The kid who cuts up? That stuff is irresistable. It’s interesting. It’s breaking up the monotony. So we have to recognize, how do we harness the creativity that the kids bring to the space, and guide them and that energy into a shared thing?
I had no idea coming into this conversation that the social aspect and social trust would be such important qualities of physical education. So what do people do wrong or just don’t notice? Because people often have such traumatic or at least unhealthy memories of and relationship with PE as children.
I think that physical education, particularly in the United States, especially in the last two decades, has really had to fight for its life. Physical education has constantly been in the sights of budget cuts. In the face of that existential threat, justifying your program in the eyes of policymakers and the people who hold the purse strings looks different than what you may philosophically know to be helpful for children.
Think of all the things that physical education under those conditions is being asked to do: “We gotta reduce obesity.” It becomes this measurement contest. The people who hold the purse strings are all about measurement and you have to be able to demonstrate in numbers that this is worth keeping. So it’s exactly those social priorities that get pushed aside in favor of demonstrating, for example, “This is valuable for fighting obesity, or so our kids have better health outcomes and better fitness results.” You get into this measurement mode. It’s the same testing regime.
Also, PE for a very long time has been closely tied with athletics. Everything trickles down from competitive sports. The skills we practice, the things we learn in elementary, they’re all designed to guide students toward being able to participate in competitive sports later. That competitive sports tradition is still very strong, maybe painfully so.
And I gotta say, there’s also the influence of parent expectations. Parents don’t necessarily expect PE to be a positive experience. Because their own experience was terrible, they assume the kids just have to suck it up, so the wider society has a skewed perception of what physical education can be, and what it’s going to have to be. People have a very narrow sense of what PE should be doing. Like, “We’re going to be measuring BMI.” No. Nobody needs to be touching BMI. We don’t need to be measuring children in that way.
Do you hear that kind of thing where you work?
No. We are in the happy position that we have a philosophy that is very much pro-lifetime physical activity. That’s what we’re gearing for. We want students to leave our care with an enthusiasm for physical activity. Our secondary department has had to do the most stretching and broadening to accommodate those expectations, like there are two or three months in the winter where they go wall climbing. They now have personal fitness. You can take that in high school, or a regular PE class, or dance. But again, we’re an independent school so we have some options and flexibility that other places may not.
Do you want to talk about BMI? Maybe you can explain why the focus on it is misguided.
There are a lot of parts of our society’s problems that get thrown into the education pot, that we then expect teachers to pick up. Like: we need to teach financial literacy because everybody’s in debt and kids should know when they’re signing up for college that they’re taking on tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. A financial literacy course is not going to save you from that bear. It’s not. It may help you in a number of ways, and I’m not arguing against financial literacy, but that is not the thing that’s going to save you from going into the jaws of that whale because we send you there. We’re going to tell you that’s how you achieve in society. Gotta go to college, own a home, build your equity. For all of that to be effective you need a political education first, and a political education that tells you the truth.
The way Americans frame things, everything’s a war, everything’s a crusade. There’s a violence in how we confront problems. We take our kids to war. In terms of handling our children, we don’t want to send them to war, and yet we are in a lot of ways with our language and with our approaches. We’re sending them into battle when the causes are beyond the scope of what a school can do. You can help kids learn what their bodies are good for and what’s good for their bodies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be able to fulfill that from home if they don’t have the resources. If they can’t buy fresh vegetables, if they live in a food desert, if soda and other sugary drinks are the most affordable option. If you need to buy water—all of those things are so huge and part of a much larger picture than you can address in school, in PE once or twice a week, where, again, you have a huge group of kids once or twice a week for 45 minutes. In order to do anything you need to develop relationships and that’s not enough time. Again, it’s interesting that you say that your kids like their PE teacher, but they hate PE.
I thought it was the shame aspect — when you realize you’re not good at this thing a lot of your peers are good at. But I’m realizing that it’s not just that, it’s also how the other kids treat you when they *see* that — the social aspect. And the teacher doesn’t notice or maybe doesn’t realize that it’s part of that learning space. Which is interesting because our district has a whole social-emotional learning curriculum that they implemented a few years ago.
But that’s an extra.
Yes. And it’s a struggle for the teachers to fit it in, you know, 20 minutes of training on a Friday. I can see they’re trying to filter the whole sensibility in the school, but I don’t get the feeling that enough people know how.
This is so typical not only of the United States but large school systems — the compartmentalization of all of these topics. “We’re going to do social-emotional learning,” they say, “but it’s an extra thing.” That’s not going to be very effective. Instead, we need to recognize all the ways in which we are practicing or have opportunities to practice social-emotional learning and social-emotional teaching. That happens, again, in the cafeteria. How are you monitoring? Is your approach strictly punitive? Or are you in a position to develop relationship with kids, to joke with them a little bit but say, “Hey, friends, that’s not cool.” It’s in those interactions, that’s where it’s made, that’s how schools become amazing.
We always hear about these amazing schools where they produce these wonderful students who love school and are excited. A lot of that rises and falls with student-teacher relationships and peer-to-peer relationships that happen in a larger community. That means that everyone is on board with it. Your cafeteria staff, your ground staff, everybody is in on it. That they are to build connections with the students in the building when they are there.
You’re making me think a lot about the school district where I live. It’s a small town in a semi-rural area but it attracts a lot of high-income people, and after observing different situations over many years now—some great, some really troubling—I’ve been wondering for a while if some of those missing factors—broken trust, lack of true connection between students and staff—get hidden because a lot of people can, for example, hire outside tutors or physical trainers.
I love our public school district and support it in any way I can, but it’s not flawless. People often think that having the resources automatically makes it good, but it doesn’t if you don’t also have that understanding and sensibility throughout the school.
It’s so interesting to think about a well-resourced community able to paper over what might otherwise be troubling. When you are well-resourced, your reliance on the myth of meritocracy and individualism is much greater. People have enough capital to be able to buy into the myth, and I suppose in your own way you have a sense of evidence that the system is working.
When you’re under-resourced, you can’t afford that kind of individualism. You absolutely need to be in some form of community in order to survive. And in order to thrive, you’re also more aware of how you need to build community to make things happen. There’s just an existential necessity for that community, but also when you recognize what is able to work, what you can achieve for your kids in spite of all the lack, that can be very powerful.
That explains a lot of the fracturing around the political current state of affairs. Those who are still very much in the individual frame and cannot for the life of them understand the notion of mass mobilization that it would require to achieve the change that would benefit all of us. Because they’re not interested in all of us. But they need all of us in order to get the things we all need.
I love the way that you think about and express all of these problems. We were talking before recording about the different Substacks we read and how some of them help us create context, and you are so good at that: at using your thinking to really see where the barriers are, and where structures are in place.
At the ripe age of 56, I think a lot of it comes from being in institutions and communities where I am in it but not of it. Being one of the few Black people, maybe one of the few German speakers among lots of my American colleagues, I have this tendency to be in it, and I can hold these conversations, but also be like, “That’s not where I came from.” I’m used to looking from the outside, so I have a different way of seeing things and seeing people.
Let’s talk about writing. How did your book Care at the Core come about and what was that process like? What did you want to bring to a wider audience?
I knew I wanted to put my essays together in a book. I am not one who’s going to sit down and write a book. My strength is curating. I’m good at collecting things, collecting and meditating on them and then sending them back out. What the book became was me curating my favorite essays that I had already written. There were a couple new things that I added as the book took shape but it was actually an exercise in curation. For me that was a joyous thing. I worked with a wonderful friend who’s a book designer, and it’s interesting, through the process of working together on categories of essays, the one category that didn’t make it in was teaching. Those were the essays that were the least compelling to a wider audience. The essays that made it were the ones about being human in the 21st century, and what does it mean to be critical, and “Why are we doing this this way?”—this whole social media business, the attention, the looking for affirmation, but also let me get in here and start a ruckus.
Let’s talk about social media. You’ve spoken publicly about the kind of community you’ve been able to build due to being on Twitter. I really appreciate that perspective because I tried rejoining Twitter recently and just couldn’t make myself do it. But it can have so much value. In fact, Twitter is how you and I first got to know each other. Can you speak more to how using Twitter furthers both your work and your connection to a wider community?
Twitter remains my social media poison/medicine of choice. Facebook never made sense to me and the younger platforms are too much that I don’t have time for. Twitter is text-based, it’s mostly people sharing stuff to read or listen to which aligns with my own interests. Twitter is the space where I’ve been able to build both community and audience through writing and reading. It’s how I know Tressie McMillan Cottom whose work has significantly shaped my own. I mean, she blurbed my book! I just traveled many miles to actually meet her and Roxane Gay in person at their Hear to Slay retreat. None of this would have happened if I weren’t on Twitter.
Twitter is, in a nutshell, where I have found “my people” and also where I have figured out and expanded on who “my people” actually are. I also know that it can be detrimental to some people and that there are dynamics that enable and, in some cases, actively promote cruelty and harm. I understand the business model relies on a degree of permanent agitation to keep users engaged on the platform. I had it on my phone for a while but took it back off. If I want to tweet, it can only be from my laptop, which also shapes how I engage.
What’s been central for me has been pursuing my interests wherever they turn up: K-12 ed, higher ed, ed tech, tech criticism, social media culture, social/political/economic/environmental decline and destruction. In different ways, all of these topics inform each other in my mind and in the world. Writing about those connections is good mental and emotional hygiene. Sharing those ideas on Twitter lets me get out of my own head and into dialogue with folks who know more.
I go on Twitter because it’s where I find smart, witty, creative Black folks I otherwise would not get to meet. Black Twitter has a lot to do with why I stay. In some ways the rise of Substack culture has been a way for writers especially to carve out more intimate and carefully curated spaces for themselves and their audience. Where Twitter mashes all these groups together through your feed, newsletters peel those groups apart again and ask us to focus a little more while also offering a potpourri of links that send us around the internet and back. Essentially we’re all trying to manage and deal with an unwieldy abundance of thought processing. But there’s also a lot of potential for thoughtful community building.
After everything you’ve talked about here, with your approach and philosophy, it seems like you could write an entire book just about teaching, but it also seems like this is all the stuff that feeds into the way you approach that work.
Yes. And all of those feed into my outlook and why I do what I do and the way that I do it. My teaching is so fundamentally informed by all of these other sources. I’m a different teacher because I’m reading queer authors, I’m a different teacher because I’m reading Indigenous perspectives.
All of those things help me recognize: look at what’s going on here, we’re playing dodgeball but actually this is all about power. Who gets to claim which rules, and how do those rules serve certain groups? And recognizing that we can change those rules. In fact, let’s do it. Let’s sit down together as a group and figure out how we change this game to make it better for everybody, not just a few.
That’s incredible. That circles all the way back around to what you’re talking about with the social dynamics. Especially dodgeball. I hated dodgeball! I just rewatched an episode of Glee where they were playing dodgeball and it was awful. They were using it as a competition, a way to hurt each other intentionally.
That exists, but it’s interesting, in my school dodgeball is one of the great bonding activities. To the point where in middle school and high school there are these massive games of dodgeball where the kids are having a great time. I think it has to do with the fact that we’ve built a culture where the kids have learned to play in ways that the vast majority love it.
If you’re able to turn dodgeball into something that a certain subset of kids don’t dread, then what you’re doing with those social dynamics and giving kids agency really seems to be working. Let’s measure that metric. Do you look forward to dodgeball, or do you dread it? Forget all the other stuff.
And that depends so much on how it’s played. And by whose rules.
Sherri and I had some further personal discussion, during which she brought up the Maya Angelou quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” which seems to encapsulate everything she works toward in her life and work.
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