How often have you sat in whole staff teaching and learning meetings, arms folded, while people mutter “Wouldn’t work in my subject”.
And yet, things often do if you give them a chance. Many of my favourite lesson tasks have been inspired by work I’ve seen outside of my own department (English). I have borrowed from my colleagues in humanities, art, drama.
But PE? Is that a stretch too far?
I first realised the similarities between English and PE when I found a table of my sixth-form students writhing in academic agony in the common room. They clutched speeches on cue cards, and seemed to be chanting incantations under their breath.
It transpired that it was speech day in the PE department, and they were preparing to perform their presentations to camera. These presentations lasted about 15 minutes.
I was shocked. I had struggled to get the same students the previous year to speak for three minutes. How were PE staff doing it?
During lunch the next day I hunted down their PE teacher (who I found on the field, taking rounders practice) and grilled them for information: how did they do it? What worked for them?
I came away with a dozen ideas: filming speeches for homework; dissecting previous years performance side by side; watching another student perform their speech from their notes; making audio recordings and listening to it to aid memorisation.
I was full of new strategies to try.
And this opened a whole world of things I could steal from my PE colleagues. So here are my suggestions of how you can teach English like a PE teacher:
1. Run extra-curricular clubs like a sports team.
Take up for book clubs had been historically dire, but sports clubs at our school had a fantastic turnout – we had more fixtures one year than any other school in the county. How did PE do it? Personal invitations, and parental support. So we copied this for book club. We started our groups off by ‘personal invite’, and sent letters out to parents, and then called to fill them in on performances. This took up a bit of time at the beginning, but it soon paid off and the club was well-attended for the rest of the year.
2. Run your lessons like drills
Every now and then, I like to throw in a lesson where the students are almost circuit training in their activities. The military precision needed for a practical PE lesson is something you have to see to believe. The movement from one activity to the next with concise expositions and modelled examples translate perfectly into an English lesson and many other subjects. Teaching introductions and conclusions, for example, perfectly suits this style.
3. Treat your equipment like a PE kit
You know straightaway if someone hasn’t got their PE kit, but in English, it can be five, 10, even 20 minutes into a lesson before someone announces they’re missing a vital bit of equipment or a resource. I’ve now got into the habit of checking kit on entry, sometimes as I’m standing at the door greeting everyone coming inside. Early interventions save fussing later on, and it also impressed upon the class how seriously I took forgotten items. You can’t do PE without your trainers, and you can’t analyse Macbeth without your copy of the play.
4. Be your subject’s number one fan
Every student can tell you what each PE teacher’s ‘specialty’ is. Be it basketball, netball, hockey or figure skating, they know because that teacher will always promote their special sport. As teachers, we can all brag a little bit more about our areas of expertise. This is something I was surprised students didn’t know about – that English splits into many different areas once you get to university level. This kind of ‘selling’ of your subject not only raises its profile among the student body, but also raises aspirations by explaining tertiary education to those students who may have no one in their family who have been to university, and demystifies the experience for them.
5. Feedback like a coach
I am a massive fan of US educationalist Doug Lemov, and in his blog, there is a wealth of information about how to give feedback using ideas from sports coaches. Adopting this language into my practice has been relatively easy. Of course, it would be impossible to measure the difference it has made - but I do know I feel much more positive using the more constructive phrases.
Grainne Hallahan has been teaching English in Essex for ten years