In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by the director of sports at Dulwich College, Jess Byrne, to discuss what has been learned during the COVID-19 school closures and how it will shape the return to the classroom.
Get in touch with Jess: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:27 Applying what we learned as school begins. I’ve been focusing lately on the great need for educators to be reflecting on the learning and the discoveries that we’ve made during the COVID-19 school closures. What should we learn from our experiences that will shape our return to school buildings and to classrooms? I recently ran across a post on LinkedIn by Jess Byrne and she caught my attention with a post that she titled “The New Norm For Physical Education Post COVID-19.” Jess is the director of sports at Dulwich college in Suzhou, China. So welcome Jess.
Jess: 01:20 Thank you very much.
Steve: 01:21 Would you start by giving us just a little bit of introduction to your background and and then tell us a little bit about Dulwich college?
Jess: 01:31 Yeah, of course. So my background to start with, I’ve been teaching for 11 years now at the end of this year. And I’ve come over from the UK coming into the end of my third year in China. So my husband and I, we taught in the UK, in the independent sector and then decided to make the move out out to Dulwich, Suzhou in China to take a post there. So it was a big move, but ultimately the education systems are very similar. The system is set up as an international school. We have students from all over the world and we teach a very similar curriculum to that you would see in the States and you would see in the UK. So focus on a team sports, we have a lot of swimming, we focus on our competitive sports program as well as our participation sports program as well.
Steve: 02:23 And the grade levels at the school year at?
Jess: 02:27 Yeah. So we are, we are age 2 right to 13. So we have a Dulwich kindergarten which takes from Fs foundation stage to year two. Then we have junior school from year three to year six. Not quite sure how that translates into different gradings, different countries, but up till 11 years old ultimately. And then we take from year seven, so age 11, right, 18 to our IB level students.
Steve: 02:58 So Jess is ahead of many of us right now in that her school doors have have reopened. And as I read the start of her post, she listed what it was like when they reopened. And I just want to take a moment to read this to you. So as a PE teacher, they dealt with no object content. That means no balls, no weights, no equipment, no physical contact, no changing, no swimming. The students must not remove their mask and the students have to be kept a meter apart. So I’m wondering as the PE folks met and considered that, what thoughts went through your mind?
Jess: 03:47 My first thought was, thank goodness I’m director of sport, not in charge of curriculum learning. That was my honest first thought I had, I’m very lucky to work with two very good heads of PE. I had of junior school PE and I had a senior school PA, so I was in the meeting where we looked at the protocol that was going to come in place and I wrote it all down and we agreed what was safe and then I was in a very fortunate position where I was able to meet with my heads of PA. Incidentally, we were no more than three kilometers apart, but we were all in a lockdown and in our flat, so locked down in China, very different to lock down anywhere else. It was very much quarantine in your own flat. So we had a Zoom call, the three of us where I spoke through the protocol and then left them to it to work through some of it and to have that discussion and to thrash some ideas out whilst we all had the time we were in a quarantine.
Jess: 04:43 So it was an interesting conversation because it was a real case of – it wasn’t adapt, it wasn’t, let’s see what we can change. It was what can we rewrite in the space of, I think we had about five days before the students were coming back and it was a real case of what can we pull together, what can we work out and how can we draw some education out of this. So it wasn’t just about the physical activity, it was about the education.
Steve: 05:15 So the part that caught my my attention is the way you have rethought what the physical education curriculum, I guess ought to be and should be and how you go about teaching it. And I’m wondering, did that emerge first and then you began designing your program or were you pushed to design the program and as you design the program, thinking about the, the curriculum emerged? I’m kind of wondering if there’s a chicken, egg there or whether they were both happening at the same time.
Jess: 05:50 It was a little bit of both. When we had first gone into lockdown – well in school first place I was in the UK. We were all back for Chinese New year. The head of PE was in Thailand and the head of junior school of PE was in Australia. So we were told the school was closed and we moved to online learning. When we looked at online learning, because we had eight weeks of that first from totally different places in the world, all our kids were scattered everywhere. We don’t have all Chinese students, we have international students. So some are in the States, some in the UK, some were still in China, and we have to really take it back to basics because our lock down and our online learning had to work for students who were just in an apartment with no equipment. So that was the first alarm bell that we have that perhaps we needed to reflect a bit more about what we wanted the students to be able to do because quite simply some of them couldn’t take their own heart rate.
Jess: 06:47 When we looked at the first phase of the first week for our online learning, we wanted students to be able to take the heart rate and we realized that some of them couldn’t do that. That was the first alarm bell that maybe we have something missing from our curriculum because all of you know, you haven’t got that foundation, that knowledge in that. So that was the kind of the first alarm bell. And as we worked through that, it became more apparent that there were other things that we needed the students to know about different types of fitness. And we started to build that into our online learning. And we started to talk about hit fitness, we talked about different types of training. We introduced levels of intensity and many different exercises and craft technique because fundamentally we had to create an online curriculum to start with as the foundation that could cater for a student who had no equipment and very little space.
Jess: 07:39 Some of our students were just in hotel rooms in respect to countries and they only held space say down the side of the bed. So they could only do press-ups, squats and lunges within that space. And we needed to get them active doing that. So that was where it came from. So then when we had to rewrite the curriculum aspect coming back, we obviously knew that we’re going to be some changes, we didn’t realize quite how strict they were going to be. But it has to be said as well, we flipped it on its head. We had to – we were the first school, to my knowledge, the first international school that reopened. We weren’t the first, we were within a day of the first because of our province. But we proposed to the
education Bureau what we felt was safe.
Jess: 08:25 It wasn’t that the education Bureau came to us and said, hey, let’s do a protocol. So we really did have to start from scratch of what does this activity look like. And we started by saying, well, swimming might be okay. And striking and fielding might be okay, softball might be okay. But then when we looked at the difference between students passing a softball and passing a football, what was the real difference? There isn’t any when you’re looking at risk factor of transmission of virus. So that was where we had to really start thinking and we came up with activities we could do. We thought about yoga, we thought about pilates, we were sure that the fitness levels of students would be lower. So we were sure that we needed to get some fitness in there, but the first suggestion was do we do eight weeks, because that was the amount of time that we’ve got between when we went back in the summer.
Jess: 09:10 Do we just do eight weeks of military staff fitness? And we were just thinking the kids would hate PE. It’s 33 degrees here and we couldn’t have them all inside at once and we didn’t want to turn them off. They just had time away where they just done fitness. And that was all we could provide them with while we were doing online learning was fitness chart because we couldn’t say go out and play football or do this with your friends. It was really difficult. And we also knew that the students coming back would guaranteed any that were outside China had to do two weeks strict quarantine in either their apartment or a hotel. So we knew that fitness levels were going to be low for the majority of our students.
Jess: 09:57 So it’s all right to say, oh we can start with a run and we’ll do this. But ultimately that would have been absolute torture for them and really counterproductive. So that was where we started with the fitness, but then we knew it had to be better than that and we were all quite motivated to make it better. And therefore we ended up calling it for the key stage three, the road to 4k came about, which is a program that looks not just about getting students to be able to get their fitness, their continuous and cardiovascular fitness up, but actually it, it educates them in being fixed as a whole athlete, I guess. So looking at flexibility, looking at the ability, looking at high intensity training, looking at orienteering for mapping of routes, looking at pacing of routes and all of that aspect too. So it was a bit of chicken and egg. We knew what we didn’t have and then we worked from that really.
Steve: 10:53 So it’s both problem solving in the immediate, but at the same time the reflection has you questioning where the focus was in the past on the curriculum and modifying that focus moving ahead?
Jess: 11:15 Yeah. So it really became very apparent what the students didn’t know and ultimately – the question we kept asking ourselves the same question, what do we want our students to be able to do right now? And in quarantine or wherever they were away from school, we wanted them to know how to keep themselves fit and healthy when they didn’t have a PE teacher stood over them, directing them and they didn’t know how to do that. And that was the overwhelming factor that came through for us. So that then informed our planning, but then the real reflection of the E before ther P has now come since we started teaching and then seeing the light bulb moments in students seeing actually like I was drawing this out of the students. It’s been a really enlightening experience to then deliver it and see it and see that actually it does work. And therefore this isn’t just a, now this is a, how can we build this in for the future as well.
Steve: 12:20 So take away the virus concerns altogether and you’re going to have a different curriculum.
Jess: 12:27 Yeah, we’re currently doing a lot of brainstorming within the department. We’ve got a big sheet of paper just on the side, where very time we walk past it we review it and we add an idea to it and we think about it and how we can improve, refine. And the head of PE’s been brilliant and looking at the questions that we really want to ask and then building back into that, how we then teach our games through it. So we flipped it on its head to inquiry based, looking at, there’s a health module in there, but we will teach health through our usual medium of sports. So we’re not talking about getting rid of volleyball and our team sports, you know, never do that. But what we’re talking about is the reason behind why we teach them. I think we lost that.
Jess: 13:18 I was very much focused on how I can get my volleyball players in year eight to a skill level that they can attend the extracurricular CCA to go to be able to enjoy that and to be able to then perhaps represent college so that they’ll get into the volleyball system and perhaps they’ll represents [inaudible] at the top level. Whereas really, our volleyball needs to look at what skills are we developing, hand and eye, jumping and how does that transfer into other sports and then how does that relate to movements and longevity of activity and those aspects as well.
Steve: 13:56 There’s a piece here that I highlighted in your blog post I’d like to read and then have you respond to. You wrote – your team there, “we have found new strategies, new interests and new clarity. We as teachers have been forced to slow down, giving ourselves more time, time to explain heart rates, warmups and why we’re doing these things. We have more time to reflect. Reflect on how students feel, how hard it was, how hard they worked, and what THEY want to work on.
Jess: 14:42 So the time to reflect came from the time away from what we were doing. So we’ve had a slow progressive return to college. Each year group came back in one after another, so it gave us time. We introduced year 13 in and then we had year 12 in the next day and year 10 and so on and so forth. So we had quite a few days where we introduced a program to teach one lesson and then step back and sit down together and say how did that work? How’s it working for us? What did you do in that lesson? What would I have done differently? The flip side to that is we’re still teaching online, so we’re not just teaching the students physically in college, we’re teaching students who are in the States, in Europe and we’re teaching them via distance learning with live online lessons.
Jess: 15:37 And what that’s provided us with is a unique opportunity to watch our teaching back, to also watch each other teach and to discuss within the department the best strategy. So I have used this for my year nine class, perhaps I’d worked for your year eights or perhaps that’s a little bit too in depth your age. And it’s made us really slow down and draw out the real learning from our lessons. Taking the time, because as well we have the constraints of movement. We can only move one group at a time from one area. You don’t want students crowding into one place. They have to be set up in a space, they have to put their mask on. All of those aspects mean that the pace of the lesson is slower. So you’re not just rushing to get the balls out. You’re not just rushing to get onto the volleyball serve.
Jess: 16:26 You really thinking about the purpose of the lesson. And making sure at the end of the lesson, because that’s at the core that those students understood what high intensity interval training really is and why it’s important and finding new innovative ways to put that to students to talk about adaptations of exercise. I often use the analogy with students that our bodies are not like the latest mobile phone. Your phone camera will only ever be as good as the day it was made. But when we’re looking at improving our bodies, they’re incredible. They can adapt just by pushing them to the next level by asking them to do something new and drawing out that inspiration and drawing out those light bulb moments with students just because we have slowed the pace of our lessons down, gives the students time to understand and then gives us time afterwards to sit down as a department and say, did that work?
Jess: 17:24 It’s new territory for all of us. It’s a long time since I’ve changed my teaching so radically. And because of that I have to re-question like when I was learning to train, I have to question how I’m doing things. I think, oh, I didn’t get that point across very well. So we certainly reflect about it and I ask – or the teachers, how would you do that? How would you explain the oxygen flow and the blood flow around the body to my year six students. And how would you explain how muscles work without using the term antagonistic pairs as I did stay in my year six lesson and confused them all. So it’s that pace, that reconsideration of everything we’re doing.
Steve: 18:06 You’ve captured captured a new piece for me. I do a lot of work with coaching, which is teachers coaching teachers and I do a lot of work with professional learning communities, teachers coming together, working together to make the kind of decisions that you’ve talked about as a department. And reflection is always one of my one of my big words. But you’ve drawn another connection for me. And that’s that the gift that kind of came with this crisis is a slowing down. And that it’s in that slowing down, we’ve got the opportunity to reflect not only on what we are doing but what we could be doing. I see from curriculum to instruction to the way the school works adult to adult as well as adult to students, there’s a ton of reflection for us to do and a ton of new learning that can come out of it for all of us.
Jess: 19:12 Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think if you’re not inspired as a teacher right now, I would question when you’re ever going to be reinspired as a teacher. It’s a golden opportunity for progression, development, reflection, and just pushing forwards. I’m a great believer in the obstacle being the opportunity. And I think this has just presented so many exciting opportunities for the whole department, but for the whole of education for the school that we’re in. And that comes down to minutia of how convalescence can be delivered because everybody is now trained on Zoom. It means that you can set your cover work virtually through a Zoom lesson. So you could set that lesson up and set them off and then the cover teacher can come and play and they can see that teacher at the front. It doesn’t have to start and end with PE.
Jess: 20:06 It’s whole college for us. But it’s reforming action where we’re learning as we go along. Just today, we were looking at the impact of masks and exercise and that’s something that I’ve never considered. I’ve never had to consider it before. And we muddled through as a department for about an hour this morning. We sat and reflected and we looked at risk of virus versus restriction of oxygen from the mask. And we had to muddle through that and we look at minimizing risk all the time. We’re never going to remove the risk. So it’s risk minimization. So we’ve all very good at making, you know, rationalized judgment calls with what we’re faced with. We’ve got to make lots of new judgments as teachers and as PE teachers, I think we are particularly and maybe speaking out of turn, but particularly good at observing situations. We’re so used to having objects flying around. If you teach athletics, you know, you’re used to dealing with the risk. With javelin, it’s calculated risk and we’re doing exactly the same all of the time right now. And it’s such an exciting time to be in education, to be slowing down, to be considering, to be reflecting, to be using the teaching that we’ve got, to have the opportunity to watch each other, which we don’t often have and it’s in slowing down that we’re learning so much.
Steve: 21:40 Well Jess, I can promise you this, your phrase about “if you aren’t excited about teaching now,” I’m going to be pulling that and you will be quoted. So I’ll do my best to to drop you a note as I quote you. Thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.
Jess: 22:00 Oh, no, you’re more than welcome. Thanks for the opportunity.
Steve: 22:00 And the best to you and your colleagues. Please share that with your with your PE team back there.
Jess: 22:09 Yeah, I absolutley will, Steve.
Steve: 22:10 Have a great day. Bye bye.
Steve [Outro]: 22:13 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean, and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.