Most Columbia students remember gym class as a pre-pubescent nightmare characterized by itchy uniforms, bloody noses, changing in public, and balls flying into their groins. Steve Silverman says it doesn’t have to be that way. Silverman runs the physical education program at Teacher’s College (making him a gym teacher who teaches gym teachers how to teach gym) and studies PE for a living. Bwog sat down with the man behind the progressive curriculum last week to get his thoughts on dodgeball, Title 9, and lazy kids.

silverman PE
So why did you decide to become a gym teacher?

Well, I like to think of it as a physical educator more than a gym teacher…

Oh, ok, sorry…

I was interested in helping children learn about physical education in a way that would make them feel efficacious about movement. Children will only move and participate in physical activity if they’re liking it.

Gym class at my school never motivated me.

Isn’t that sad?

So how do you get kids to like PE and to keep in shape?

Well, that’s the key question isn’t it! A lot of the traditional methods that people have experienced are not the way. Children have to be in situations where they learn motor skills. Traditionally we’ve tailored PE to children who are higher skilled. For low skilled children in particular, the concentration on traditional sports does more to turn them off to physical education than it does to promote physical activity.

Do you have a PE class horror story from your past?

I feel like you want to do therapy with me here! I had junior high school teachers who were really excellent. Though it was a sports-based curriculum, they were supportive of kids. I went to a high school where it was the opposite. It was playing games and like most physical educators, I’m not really bad at those things, but I could see my friends having bad experiences with it. People getting eliminated when they pick teams, people not participating. The teachers favored the high-skilled kids so these other kids weren’t learning. That’s the antithesis of what physical education should be.

What does it take to be a physical educator?

People need a strong background in movement sciences and kinesthiology, courses in biomechanics, physiology, sports psych, and motor learning.

They have to like children. Our elite teacher certification program here requires an interview. We get tons of applicants and admit not so many. The students we want are the ones who are more interested in helping students learn about physical activity and movement, as opposed to those who want to coach. We’re very biased in that way. We want students who will naturally buy into our program’s philosophy and want to teach in a way that helps all students learn.

How has PE changed over time?

We could go back 100 years where there were trends of German gymnastics, medicine balls and pins. Certainly in the 50’s there was a big focus on fitness, more for boys and girls, so that during the Eisenhower administration they could ensure boys would be fit to enter the military. If you read those things your mother has from the sixties, how they deemed women and girls is way different from how we see it now. I mean, it was before Title 9.

What’s Title 9?


I mean, of course I know what Title 9 is… but, for the tape…

My heart just skipped a beat… that you didn’t know what Title 9 was… It was passed in 1972 to permit equal resources for men and women in education. The part that has received the most press is related to physical education and sport. It caused PE classes to be co-ed, universities to have equal opportunities for men and women in sports. It changed things immensely. Certainly my spouse and women friends grew up in an age that was much different – women should do physical activity to make them more desirable in the dating pool and to be better wives and mothers, and such. Title 9 has been very good for girls. Skill level defines how people experience physical education more than gender.

So, dodgeball or kickball?

Neither. I was one of those kids who loved dodgeball. It’s barbaric. If you’re a low-skilled kid, you fear having someone pound a ball on you. The kids who probably need the skill enhancement the most wind up sitting out early. The National Association of Sport and PE has listed dodgeball as one of the ten worst things PE teachers should do, and if I were czar of PE, I’d fire anyone who plays dodgeball in their class. There’s no instructional reason to do it. At all. Zero. Kickball is different, but I think the biggest problem is that it’s often done in ways that are developmentally inappropriate. Children start playing kickball at an age when they cannot do the skills. If you think about an elementary school child having to hit a relatively heavy moving red ball, that’s an intricate motor skills. In fact, most of the kids are just standing around during kickball.

– Sara Vogel