“On the count of three, we’re going to howl,” says PE teacher Zubin Mobedshahi to a group of 12 seventh- and eighth-grade students crouched on the Tanihana trail at the edge of the Hillsborough campus. “One, two, three…”
At the third count, students erupt into wolf-like cries, a playful welcome to nearby kindergarten students immersed in scientific exploration. For the Middle School students, these howls signal the start of today’s PE class — a hike in the woods.
This year, seventh and eighth graders have a new way to experience their physical education; they have their choice of several new PE electives to choose from. New offerings include activities like dancing, hiking, rock climbing, yoga, strength and conditioning, racquet sports, and even an off-site squash class. The change comes on the heels of larger shifts in the structure of the Middle School schedule. Under the new system, seventh and eighth graders now spend the final 75 minutes of every day in an elective of their choice — two days in a PE elective, two days in electives that cover arts, music, and more, and one flex day.
“By the time students are in seventh and eighth grade, they have an idea of what works for them,” said Alyssa Richards, Lower and Middle School Athletics and PE Coordinator. “We want to support them in doing something they enjoy.”
“When you play a team sport, you feel pressure to win. I can’t ‘lose’ hiking,” said seventh grader Daniel R. of his preferred PE elective. “You can take in nature instead of being stuck in a building. You socialize with your friends. And we’re sweating at the end.”
For student athletes who crave time to hone specific skills, the shift to a PE elective at the end of the day has offered them the opportunity to start practice during the last block of the school day.
“I’m on the swim team, and now that we finish practice an hour earlier than last year, I feel a lot less time pressure when I get home,” said eighth grader Kate J. “That’s an extra hour in the evening to take care of homework. Plus, we actually get more time at swim practice.”
To support student athletes (and families counting on a later end time), the athletics program is also piloting an “Athletics Study Hall,” where students can get homework help between the earlier end of practice and their pick up time.
New changes in the schedule and the breadth of electives has offered Middle School faculty outside of the PE program a chance to design elective courses.
Before Kelly Ward ever taught humanities and writing, she spent 13 years studying dance (everything from modern dance to the dance traditions of Burkina Faso) and taught tap and ballet to young children.
“Dance is the place where athletics meets creativity,” said Kelly, who has already asked each student to choreograph a four-count dance move to teach the class. “Students are breaking off into groups to create pieces using our new shared dance vocabulary, and interpreting it in any form that they choose.”
“I love music, and I love musical theater,” said Winnie C., grade 7. “I’m so excited that I get to incorporate that into PE!”
“Before students share their choreography, we work on avoiding any prefacing like, ‘This is probably going to suck…” said Kelly. “I want them to know that the way they move has a place, and it’s OK to be yourself.”
“I can only imagine that for Middle School students, especially seventh and eighth graders, it’s a really challenging time in terms of early adolescence,” said Zac Carr, Assistant Head of Middle School. “Finding the spaces and activities that they feel most comfortable engaging in — we don’t want to miss out on that.”
While growing the PE offerings, the athletics program wanted to be sure that the key fitness pillars of Nueva’s physical education program — strength, endurance, conditioning, speed, and agility — were still woven into every class. Like any elective, teachers will do evaluations to capture students’ progress.
“The most frequent question I got was, ‘How do I know if a student is improving?’” said Alyssa, who worked closely with teachers outside the PE program to understand the developmental milestones for students’ fitness in seventh and eighth grade. “We talked about self-assessment techniques they can use with students to track their effort like rating their perceived exertion and tracking their heart rate during class.”
To that end, teachers hope the new PE electives will ultimately support the most important fitness measure — a lifetime of active living.
“We know that the highest predictor of future engagement in athletics is enjoyment, self-efficacy, and self-esteem,” said Zubin, who offers multiple hiking trail options to meet the unique physical fitness progression of each student. “Students being active into their 70s — that’s the real goal.”
Daniel has already made the connection for himself.
“To start hiking, I don’t need a team or a ton of strength, just a trail. I can keep doing this into adulthood,” he said.