How many times have you heard a middle school student say, "Why are we doing this? I'll never play field hockey again in my life!" or "I hate basketball. Are you going to make us play this for three whole weeks?" The teacher inside you wants to explain that they should enjoy the process, that not every student will like every activity presented, and that the NASPE guidelines for effective physical education recommend such participation. Students don't really care why it is good for them to do a certain activity, though; they are concerned only about how it applies to them personally. To cite a common catchphrase, it's all about them.
How do we encourage students to become involved in the lesson at hand? Capturing middle school students' attention requires lesson planning that connects to their interests. Students who are 11 to 15 years old are undergoing rapid physical changes, yet their social and emotional growth tends to drive their interests, choices, and behavior. Their desire to express their autonomy from adults signals their developmental shift towards independence. This natural shift predisposes them to question adults' ideas and, oftentimes, to express their thoughts in a defiant manner. One might suppose that such students would enjoy being active during a school day filled with ever-increasing academic demands that require more concentration; yet many middle school students express displeasure at being made to dress out and participate in "stupid" physical activities.
It seems that some middle school physical education programs are either extensions of elementary programs or watered-down versions of high school curricula. Yet, middle school students need specific curricula that meet their stages of development (Pangrazi & Darst, 1997). Purposeful, motivational curricula can arouse student curiosity, which in turn leads to heightened engagement. This may result in a decrease in behavior-management problems and an increase in students' active participation.
The challenges of middle school physical education are being addressed by several researchers. Some have sought ways to reverse the decline in participation that occurs as students move through the middle school years (e.g., Thornton, 1998). Others have found clear warning signals in students' negative responses to physical education (Ennis, 1999). These responses come in the form of apathy toward activity (e.g., due to low skill level) or an unwillingness to dress out, participate, or comply with teacher directions (Ennis). With a popular culture that dissuades students from being active, we are facing an educational call to arms with respect to encouraging lifetime activity among youths.
A "Health-Club" Approach
With all of this in mind, the authors devised a pilot unit in an attempt to meet middle school students' need for relevance in their learning and their desire to enter the adult world. This unit incorporated aerobic dance, weight lifting, personal training, kickboxing, step aerobics, and resistance training into a sequence of lessons entitled "Health-Club Fitness." Many physical educators have incorporated group fitness activities into their curriculum with great success. Presenting these activities as a means of learning how to make use of a health club (i.e., the adult world) is the educational twist that can create interest among middle school students.
The unit was presented over a two-week span in a co-educational environment for seventh and eighth graders. Physical education classes were scheduled for 50 minutes per day, five days per week. A different health-club activity was offered each day, with relevant topics for discussion centering on that particular activity. Dressing-out time was 14 minutes per class period, leaving 36 minutes for administrative duties, instruction, and practice time. Class instruction was generally given in direct style, just as the students would …