Danielle Branciforti has taught PE for 30 years. She has been at the Hebrew Academy for Special Children in Woodmere, NY for the last year and a half.
Active Schools: How has the pandemic changed PE for you and your students?
Danielle: It’s been a disaster – trying to do PE remotely is such a disservice to the students, all of whom have some developmental, behavioral, or some physical limitations. Our school offered a hybrid model, but the state has had rolling quarantines that keep students home. Last spring we were fully remote until September. I was making a pre-recorded video per day that the students could watch and do at their leisure, and I kept the same warm-up and cool-down in each video to maintain routine and consistency for them. We had a virtual Field Day that went great. But then in the fall this year, I started doing live virtual classes as well as teaching in–person. Unfortunately, students just weren’t signing on (maybe 4 out of 15 students) or were signing on but with parents or grandparents doing something in the room that wasn’t conducive to movement. It’s been incredibly difficult to engage my classes and build a foundation for them, and the repercussions of the pandemic may take years to undo.
Active Schools: What do you find that your students respond most enthusiastically to in PE?
Danielle: I try to make class as engaging as possible. I dress in funny, quirky outfits, play kid-friendly music, and relate the fitness activities to things kids can identify with, such as Batman or unicorns. When we’re in-person, I end every session with five minutes of dancing with a bubble machine, and they love it.
Active Schools: What are some elements of a well-rounded, effective PE program?
Danielle: For it to be effective, a school needs to realize the importance and prioritize PE accordingly. This requires collaboration with other teams and departments. At my school, this means working with the occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy teams so that the students’ therapy sessions don’t result in missed PE class. Having PE three times a week for 30-45 minutes for the youngest grades would be ideal, because once-a-week makes it challenging to for them to retain skill-learning.
Also, I try to make everything play-based or group teamwork as opposed to competitive sports or things that are win-lose, and I encourage them with praise around things like who’s listening or participating well, not necessarily who’s the fastest/first/etc. I ask the students what they have an interest in doing that day so they feel heard. And to improve our PE program, I find resources and equipment every way I can by using unusual objects, applying for free items or grants, and taking advantage of every opportunity out there for PE teachers.
Active Schools: What can people, especially parents, do to support PE?
Danielle: I reach out all the time to families by sending ideas, activities, resources–including how to find movement in everyday activities. One of the best things parents can do is take advantage of these resources and engage with PE lessons. Find ways to be active as a family during all times of day, such as standing on one foot while brushing teeth, bear crawling to bed at night, etc.
I also think that, due to the pandemic, parents are going to realize that they have more power than they thought and are going to push for changes. When parents, especially of children with disabilities, recognize that movement is a necessary outlet for their children, I hope they prioritize physical education and fight for physical education to be more than one time a week.
Active Schools: What do you hope changes about PE, and attitudes around it, moving forward?
Danielle: We’ve got to keep pushing and pushing for PE support and advocating for resources and prioritization until more people get on board. One of my biggest concerns is that the school systems are going to become more reliant on or open to virtual learning in the future after the pandemic, but it’s not a viable option for atypical students—or most students. There’s no social interaction, there’s no accountability, and it would be a big detriment to kids.
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