Pandemic prompted push for more fun in Agawam Junior High School gym

AGAWAM – COVID-19 hasn’t just disrupted the traditional study schedule at Agawam Junior High School (AJHS). It also had a huge impact on the school’s physical education program — for the better.

The pandemic challenged the school’s physical education (PE) staff to re-evaluate teaching and learning by developing plans to keep students safe in a physically active environment.

“It forced us to think outside the box,” said physical education teacher Sam Lemanski, who has taught physical education at the school for eight years.

Lemanski and the other two physical education teachers at the school, Michael Peterson and Nikki Desautels, began teaching students a variety of different non-contact physical activities such as golf, disc golf, and badminton, expanding their unit to include pickleball.

They also developed a partnership with the Agawam Municipal Golf Course. Athletic students typically walk the short distance from school to use the facilities to play and practice with donated racquets and equipment.

“COVID[-19] really gave us an opportunity to incorporate a lot of new things into our classes that we’ve always talked about and now have the opportunity to do,” added Peterson.

It also led to a change in the schedule of how often seventh graders took physical education classes.

“In the past, the schedule didn’t allow these students to have physical education classes year-round,” Lemanski said. When the school adopted a new timetable in September, it gave physical education teachers the opportunity to offer physical education classes to both grades at the school throughout the year.

“As PE teachers, we’ve always advocated spending more time with our seventh graders throughout the year. Luckily we have that now with some manipulation of the schedule,” Peterson said.

While many traditional PE programs focus on recreational and competitive sports — which has a number of benefits for students — Lemanski says that many students are already participating in these sports outside of school, leading to an imbalance in the ability of participants in the classroom leads.

“Those who don’t play these sports can feel left behind,” he said. “At AJHS, we wanted to introduce some non-traditional activities that our students could benefit from for a lifetime.”

Eighth-grader Anthony Norman, who competes in wrestling and plays soccer, said he enjoys the non-traditional activities.

“The new sports take me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I really enjoy disc golf – it’s the most fun I’ve had at the gym in a long time.”

Lemanski added that all three PE teachers think it’s “vital” to introduce students to a variety of activities to help them find something they’re passionate about.

“Because physical activity is critical to our overall health and wellbeing throughout life, we want our students to be exposed to activities that they can take with them outside of school and into the future,” Desautels said.

PE staff developed a curriculum and introduced new activities for students to keep up with some national trends. Pickleball, for example, is the fastest growing sport in the country, so they gave this game more time.

“In recent years, many students have started pickleball before they were introduced to the sport,” Lemanski said.

Abigail Kovalsky, a seventh grader, said she’s a fan of pickleball: “It’s easy to pick up and gives me a lot of exercise and the ability to walk around the school a little bit more.”

Disc golf is the second fastest growing sport, so it was first added as a unit last year.

“We created a nine-hole golf course with real golf discs and cages around the junior high school. Last spring, we introduced golf into the physical education curriculum for the first time — and with the partnership with the city’s golf course, the unit was a huge success,” said Lemanski.

“We have a lot more freedom and responsibility now,” said eighth-grader Caden Tulgeen. “I didn’t know anything about disc golf so it was a challenge for me – but it’s fun.”

Peterson, a physical education teacher at the school for 13 years, added that most physical education teachers find students are enthusiastic about the curriculum and willing to try new activities throughout the year.

“A lot of the new units we’re teaching students have the ability to be more social, build relationships, and allow kids to have fun.”

Physical education classes are meant to be physically active in a social setting, said Desautels, who taught health at AJHS for six years before starting teaching physical education at the school two years ago.

“Like any other classroom, we want to encourage 21st-century skills that include critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication,” she said. “In addition, we want students to be flexible and adapt to change, develop leadership skills, take responsibility and initiative, and be socially responsible and respectful of one another.”

Seventh grader Aubri Gilmore said “it’s great” that the school has added more physical education programs.

“It’s really good for us because we need more exercise,” Gilmore said. “And if we start trying new things now at a young age, we’ll get better at it later on. So it’s good for us to have the opportunity to practice different sports.”

Peterson said each session takes six to eight days of classes, with the exception of volleyball, which has about 20 classes. Outdoor units can also change and be modified depending on the weather.

“For each unit we have pre-tests to determine how much the students know and whether they have prior knowledge. In all units, we assess student growth through skill development, gameplay and strategy, while also incorporating peer assessments,” said Peterson.

At the end of the unit, there is usually a post-evaluation or reflection piece that allows PE staff to not only measure student growth throughout the unit, but also to review their teaching and make adjustments for the future.

Soccer, football, badminton, field hockey and ultimate frisbee were offered in the fall. Sessions offered in the first half of winter included basketball, swimming (strokes, rescues and games) and floor hockey; Dancing and volleyball were offered in the second half of winter.

This spring, students will play pickleball, disc golf, golf, softball, lacrosse, and backyard games. Eighth graders attend physical education classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while seventh graders attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The three PE teachers, who each teach three sessions each term, are currently working to develop separate “Year 1” and “Year 2” plans as they now have seventh graders for the full year.

“Ideally, the activities that students had this fall will not be the same activities as next year,” Lemanski said. “Our goal is to introduce as many activities as possible that help promote a healthy and active lifestyle.”

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