First Person

Are We Failing Gym Or Is Gym Failing Us?

Travis Dove and Juliana Zaloom are students at CSI High School for International Studies. They reported and wrote this piece for their journalism class.

Physical education. The term conjures up images of running, basketball, volleyball, and stretching — and, for many students at CSI High School for International Studies, overcrowding, minimal curriculum, and disorganization. As CSI fills to the ceiling of its capacity, the question of what to do with gym class looms over everyone’s heads.

Originally, because classes lasted up to 55 minutes per day, the school offered gym at 1.35 credits for students (as well as all other classes). This allowed students to finish the required four credits in three semesters. However, after a Department of Education audit found this practice to be against regulations, gym was reduced to one credit per class. After two years, another audit revealed that gym is meant to be worth .58 credits and offered for a minimum of seven semesters. Because of this sudden change, some seniors’ graduation was in doubt, and zero block gym was created in September 2011. The class would be worth one credit to allow seniors to finish in time to graduate.

In addition to being offered to seniors behind in gym credits, some juniors behind in credits (due to taking extra music or art classes) were also placed in zero block. In some cases, students were scheduled for gym more than one period a day so they could make up missed credits.

After a semester of zero block and a period of gym, most seniors and some juniors caught up with the minimum number of credits required to be on track for graduation. But at the beginning of the second semester, these students were left in gym class because scheduling had not been completed. As the school has a 30-day grace period at the start of a semester to sort out any irregularities or incorrect schedules, the students were going to be taken out of zero block by the end of February, but by request this process was sped up.

Being taken out of the class one week into the semester angered some juniors, as they would now have to take gym for the rest of the year and all of next year instead of finishing this year.

“It got me mad that I never failed a class and CSI didn’t put me in what I needed. The least they could have done was keep me in the class so I could make up time they made me waste sophomore year in music class when I didn’t need it three semesters in a row,” said junior Yurany Salazar.

But the zero period block violated state rules. According to the New York State Education Department, unless student are deficient in credits, they may not double up or accelerate in gym to finish their four credits early, though they may use extra gym classes to earn elective credits. Since the juniors were caught up, if they were left in the class and another audit revealed this, they could have been taken out sometime during the semester or even have the gym credit removed from their transcript a year after they took the class.

CSI is also offering another special gym class, after-school freshmen gym on Wednesdays. This class was created to alleviate overcrowding in other gym classes (the maximum ratio for a gym class is 50 students to one certified teacher). The Wednesday class is 135 minutes long.

But the minimum amount of gym per week is 180 minutes, according to the New York City Department of Education. In addition, gym may only be scheduled daily, or three days per week in one semester and two in another. On top of this, gym may be substituted for extra class or out-of-school times, but only for grades 10-12.

What does this information tell us? According to the city, the freshmen gym class is in violation of the Chancellor’s Regulations about physical education. The State Education Department states that gym must be a minimum of 120 minutes weekly per semester, leaving the freshmen gym in the clear. But the state also requires gym for eight semesters instead of New York City’s seven, so in cases like this the city’s regulations might take precedence.

The physical education scheduling conflicts could be due to mistakes by school administration and faculty. Regrettably, Principal Joseph Canale, guidance counselor Marie Pastena, and gym teacher Carmela Pepe declined to comment for this story.

But the city Department of Education can also be blamed for its unclear handling of physical education. As it does not monitor schools’ physical education programs, some have not even been aware that there are requirements at all.

Organizing information about gym is just as difficult as regulating the class, as there are multiple differences between the state’s and the city’s requirements, like the minimum time required (120 vs. 180 minutes per week, and seven vs. eight semesters required).

“The 180-minute-per-week program is a special allowance for NYCDOE and allows students to earn all of their physical education credit in seven semesters as opposed to 8 which is the standard NYS graduation requirement,” said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the NYCDOE.

While the differences between the city’s and state’s websites make the entire process confusing for students and parents interested in learning about physical education requirements, the labyrinth-like sites make it difficult to locate even that information. The rule about double gym is in an FAQ not directly linked to on NYSED’s website; instead, it can only be found through a direct search for key words. If one doesn’t know what the answer is, he or she is unlikely to find it online. The same holds true for the minimum time requirements for the state, and the 180-minute requirement from the city is found in a document in the Department of School Wellness and not the section for physical education.

So perhaps the reason that CSI has a dizzying gym standard and schedule and that other schools are not even aware of gym requirements is that they are nearly impossible to find. If all information were compiled on a single page that could be found upon searching for gym requirements, New York State’s and City’s physical education regulations would be easily enforced. For the first time this year, the city compiled a 40-page guide collecting all of the disparate graduation requirements in all subjects, but even that is not sufficiently user-friendly for students and schools.

The final problem with physical education at CSI and in the city and state is the curriculum. In fact, what is the curriculum? The NYCDOE’s website, schools.nyc.gov, does not have a curriculum; instead, it links to NYSED’s, which is actually a set of broad guidelines for gym, broken into three standards. The first standard is titled personal health and fitness, the second  is  a safe and healthy environment, and the last is resource management. In short, the state wants us to perform basic motor skills, have correct social behavior and be aware of unsafe conditions, and learn about gyms outside of school and possible careers in physical education.

Michael Morrissey, a communications associate in the city chancellor’s office, explained that the city endorses a “health-related fitness education curriculum” called Physical Best but that principals are responsible for choosing the physical education curricula for their schools.

Physical Best “focuses on aerobic activity, muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, and body composition,” Morrisy said. “This curriculum differs from ‘traditional’ physical education, in that, rather than learn sport skills without the context or rationale for participating in physical activity, Physical Best enables students to learn why activity is important, and how it benefits them today and for a lifetime.”

How do these standards translate into the sports we play, such as volleyball and basketball? When our teachers attempt to create organized lessons about bumping and shooting, they are usually drowned out by the sheer overpopulation of the relatively small gym and the rowdy middle school and high school that share our building. In fact, sometimes our classes are composed of students sitting in bleachers watching other schools play. The auxiliary gyms upstairs allow us to escape the noise that the divider doesn’t alleviate, but they mostly reduce any activities to simple exercises and stretching and sometimes watching movies, such as “Coach Carter,” that can contain some themes that are inappropriate for high school students.

There are ways to steer clear of conflicting gym schedules between schools; middle schoolers need only 90 minutes of gym per week and can take it for either two or three days a week in each semester. High schools also have the option of offering gym for two or three days a week, and the only difference would be that gym would be required for eight semesters instead of seven. The four schools in the Jerome Parker Campus could coordinate specific days and times for their physical education classes so on some days a class may have the entire gym to itself.

The city and state could also look to other districts in the country; Chicago requires only one year of physical education for graduation, and that can be substituted with health, ROTC, and even driver’s education. This would allow students more time to take classes that interest them or perhaps get their permit and learn to drive without having to attend after-school or weekend classes. Los Angeles requires two years of gym that can be substituted entirely with team sports, athletics, or dance, as well as one semester of health. Yes, New York is trying to cut the obesity rate among children. But is 45 minutes a day of minimal activity really helping the problem? Do we need almost four years of gym?

Whatever the excuse may be, physical education standards in the city and state are, in short, puzzling, and it should be a priority to create the best gym program possible to help both students and administrators in the future.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk