That wish came true for Neidel and 265 of her classmates April 21 as they spent five hours at Anderson Hall banging drumsticks, shooting arrows at balloons, practicing martial arts, line-dancing, playing disability sports, testing fitness levels, trying their hand at yoga and parkour and even developing empathy skills.
“Just a second ago, we were in wheelchairs, which was kind of scary – but the basketball part made it cooler,” said eighth-grader Neidel, 14. “I think this is really fun. We’re getting to try a lot of cool activities.”
“We also ran agility courses to see how high we can jump, how fast we can run – and we’re competing against our friends,” added Ella Boyer, 13, also in eighth-grade. “It’s cool to see what you can do.”
About three dozen KNPE faculty members and students volunteered to run the 10 stations.
“NIU has a professional development school relationship with Clinton Rosette. Our students do secondary clinicals and teaching at the school,” said Kim, who likes watching the “action and excitement” between professors, college students and middle-schoolers.
Clinton Rosette students also enjoy an aspirational opportunity to visit the NIU campus, explore one of its buildings and interact with college students, she added, while they participate in some physical activities outside of the typical middle school curriculum.
For Jen Montavon, a P.E. teacher at Clinton Rosette, the annual trip allows her to dangle a carrot in front of her students. They must earn their places by being dressed and on time for class each day, following directions and participating in at least 80 percent of activities.
“It gets our kids out of the building, and it gives them some incentive. These are the kids who made it all year long,” said Montavon, who earned her NIU bachelor’s degree in Physical Education in 1996 and completed a master’s in Adapted Physical Education here in 2008.
Bringing “the best of the best” also allows those students to focus on physical activities and fun rather than waiting while the teachers discipline less-behaved students, she added. Some of the children who come to Anderson Hall are quiet by nature, she said, and maybe missing out.
“It’s good to see those kids come here and shine in a different light,” Montavon said “and this is a P.E. teacher’s dream. The kids are all here doing different activities and having fun. How many kids are going to sit in a wheelchair and play basketball? To have these opportunities is amazing, and I’m really grateful to the KNPE department.”
Montavon also is a bit envious of the current KNPE students.
“We didn’t do this when I went through the program, but I wish I could have,” she said. “It’s really kind of a good step for them. In teacher preparation, they’re usually teaching their peers. Now they’re working with middle-schoolers who are the best of the best. It’s a good stepping stone.”
“This is awesome,” Flicek said, taking a quick break from KNPE instructor Gail Koehling’s “drum fitness” activity. “I love how all of the kids get to be a part of our program, and it’s fun to interact with the kids. It helps you to get a lot of experience with students, to interact with them at different levels and realize that every student is different.”
Sean Carpen, a junior P.E. major, volunteered to earn extra credit. Within an hour, however, he no longer cared about boosting his grade.
“It’s a great experience for the kids, and it’s a great experience for us in learning how to teach the kids and assist them,” said Carpen, who spent his day at the archery activity. “This is hands-on experience. This allows you to connect. It gives you practice. I just love working with the kids.”
Carpen, who was motivated to pursue career thanks to an excellent P.E. teacher in high school, also found affirmation of his abilities. Before April 21, the native of Oak Lawn had never instructed anyone in the bow-and-arrow.
“This is great for me,” he said, “because now I know I can teach it.”
Bright sun peeked through mist and bare trees just after 10 a.m. on a late February day as the first hints of record warmth boldly unleashed an early spring.
For two groups of students – one made up of 20 fifth-graders from Aurora’s Krug Elementary School, the other composed of 10 Physical Education majors from the NIU College of Education – the appointment with nature couldn’t have come at a better time.
Within a few hours, the skies gave way to flawless blue while the mercury soared past 70 degrees. Birds chirped. Chainsaws growled. Neither a snowflake nor a chilly wind – usually facts of life in a Midwestern February – could be found.
This trip to NIU’s Lorado Taft Field Campus, an outdoor education center located within Lowden State Park in Oregon, Ill., truly offered the perfect conditions for teaching and learning for young children and young adults alike.
NIU Physical Education major Brandon Palmer helps fifth-grader Yvonne Chanda learn how to start a fire.
“It’s just the best experience for our NIU students,” says Gail Koehling, an instructor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. “I hear from them, ‘This week really showed me why I want to be a teacher.’ They’ve had this more than 48 hours of working with these groups of children, and it really validates for them why they’ve chosen this career.”
As future P.E. teachers, Koehling says, the students are adding a priceless distinction to their resumes.
“One the major things they learn during this class is, ‘I’m teaching something that is brand new to me. This shows what a great teacher I can be. You can give me anything – any content – and I can teach it. It doesn’t have to be the thing I’ve done all my life,’ ” she says. “These students are ready and prepared to go out and teach any content you can give them.”
Kelly Miotti, a senior P.E. major from Lockport, made progress at Taft toward her goal to “change people’s lives.”
“I’m learning to be able to talk to students. I’m learning to be more calm,” Miotti says. “The skill that you learn at Taft is basically learning how to keep kids involved for three days straight – and that you have to adapt to every situation. You have to go with the changes.”
Nick Wiltsie helps fifth-grader Angelina Sifuentes with her compass.
“Coming out here, you’re testing more than content knowledge,” adds classmate Nick Wiltsie, a senior P.E. major from Elgin.
“You’re testing confidence levels, resilience levels, character-building skills. Their personal character is begin challenged throughout this experience, and so as a teacher myself, I’m able to take notes to help them become a better individual in the future.”
NIU’s students made an initial visit to Taft about 20 days earlier, during Super Bowl weekend, when they took on the roles of the fifth-graders.
Guided by Taft’s professional and enthusiastic staff, the future P.E. teachers explored the beautiful woods while they learned about orienteering, pioneering, birding, forest ecology, survival and Native Americans. They took night hikes through the darkness, played outside games and performed campfire skits about nature.
Most importantly, though, they saw the outdoor education modeled for them while they planned their own delivery of those same lessons.
Such skills were clearly on display when the children from Krug arrived at Taft, which Koehling calls “a hidden gem.”
After whooping up a rousing welcome for the fifth-graders, the Huskies quickly escorted the boys and girls and their backpacks to the cabins for bunk selection and unpacking.
Kelly Miotti works with Angelina Sifuentes.
Formal introductions followed – the P.E. majors gave their names, revealed their favorite colors and ice cream flavors and demonstrated their favorite dance moves – as did theatrical presentations of the basic rules: Be on time. Dress for the weather. Respect property, others, nature and yourself. Walk. Stay with an adult.
Quick tours of the grounds led to the dining hall, where the campers and their temporary teachers shared lunch, their first of seven meals together.
By 1 p.m., the real outdoor education had begun.
Miotti, Wiltsie and fellow P.E. major Brandon Palmer marched their quintet of fifth-graders to a large field. They opened their lesson on Native Americans with a poll of the favorite family activities of the children – answers included charades, hide and seek, Uno and dancing – and questions about what the children learned from those things.
“Just like you play games with your family, the Native Americans also played games,” Palmer told the group. And, he added, they learned and sharpened hunting skills amid the fun time of bonding.
Dusk falls over the Rock River at Lorado Taft.
The children then were taught a different way to play tag, one where the tap had to come behind the knee. A player tagged could remain in the game by hopping around on the untagged leg; if that hopping leg also was touched the player still wasn’t “out,” but had to sit on the grass.
After a few rounds, the NIU students asked their campers what they had learned about hunting from playing the game. Be agile, quick and strategic. Stay low. Keep your hands out. Swivel. Face the other players. Don’t let your opponents strike from behind.
Questions about hunting continued with Fox Walking, a game where one child was blindfolded while her classmates tried to sneak up and steal a stick placed at her feet. The child without sight had to rely on other senses to point in the direction of the would-be stick-stealer.
What senses do the prey use? What are some ways that foxes creep up without being detected? How can being slow, steady and quiet apply to rummaging for food? How can we think like a fox?
Krug children also hurled spears and sticks at empty laundry soap jugs standing in for animals – What were some of the struggles you had while throwing? – and then worked to make fire by rubbing rope against wood. No matter their effort and sweat, unfortunately, the labor produced little more than some warmth in the stick.
Just think, Palmer told the children: Native Americans needed to make fire in this way every time they wanted to cook food or to stay warm – and imagine how lucky we are to simply flip switches.
Lessons in using a compass came next. Children received a crash course in moving the housing and reading the needle before walking around the field in directions dictated in degrees. Later, they worked in groups to tromp through dense woods in search of orange-and-white posts that would disclose the bearings to the next checkpoint.
Success wasn’t easy; many footsteps were retraced and then retried after the compasses weren’t set properly.
“A little change makes a big difference. It’s not only in orienteering. It’s in life, too,” Miotti told the children, then turning to her NIU classmates with a smile. “Yep. I went there.”
During the walk back to the cabins, she offered more wisdom to the girls. “Ladies, we need to talk about respecting ourselves and others,” she said. “Your attitude will reflect your time here.”
And, naturally, this: “It’s OK if we make mistakes. You learn from every mistake you make.”
“I just kept motivating them,” Miotti says.
Wiltsie watches as fifth-graders Cindy Garcia (center) and Bella Davila try to make fire with rope and stick.
“This is so real-life,” Koehling says. “This gets them to step up and be the teacher they are – the teacher they’re becoming. They learn about classroom management; about teaching multicultural students; about always being ready to work with other people within your school, whether they’re teaching on non-teaching staff.”
NIU’s course in outdoor education, designed and originally taught by Jenny Parker, an associate professor of P.E. teacher education and now NIU’s acting associate vice provost for Educator Licensure and Preparation, prepares students to teach independently and in teams.
They get the chance to teach curriculum typically not found in the gym, including history and science, along with experience in chaperoning field trips.
“Peaks and Pits” debriefing sessions each afternoon allow them to swap stories of what went right and what could improve with change. It’s important for these almost-teachers to make each other look “golden” in front of the fifth-graders, Koehling says, and it’s already working.
“Our kids are so sweet,” one NIU student shared with the group. “They told us, ‘You’re going to be great teachers.’ ”
For Koehling, who fell in love with this outdoor education course years ago when Parker invited her to Taft to watch for a day, these professional conversations among her students are a joy.
She’s also a passionate participant in the Taft experience.
During the early February weekend, she taught her students the nighttime “Alpha Wolf” game, a non-aquatic version of Marco Polo with howling and jump ropes. No need to keep eyes closed in the pitch-black darkness of a state park.
Koehling also demonstrated to her flock a daytime game that explores survival instincts and the food chain. Players represent herbivores, carnivores and omnivores working to prey on each other – eating down the food chain, or course – while trying to avoid the hunter in search of dinner.
“I’m the hunter,” she says. “We run around like crazy, and I show them how fun this can be.”
Not surprisingly, Koehling hopes to see the outdoor education course expand beyond KNPE to other NIU teacher licensure programs. She also hopes to bring KNPE 200 students to Taft for team-building exercises.
“I just had a former student say to me, ‘I got my principal to OK a trip to Taft for the spring.’ My students know what this experience was like for them, and what this experience was like for these children who get to learn outside of a classroom and away from a desk,” she says. “We’re getting these students outdoors, away from technology and actually moving around.”
Meanwhile, her students are enjoying independence in their teaching for perhaps the first time. They’re being pushed out of their comfort zone, and they’re growing in their confidence and abilities with every happy exclamation from the fifth-graders.
And, even though they’re with the children constantly for three days and two nights, “it’s not about that.”
Wooden stairs meander along a Lorado Taft hill.
“It’s about all the other pieces that you need to know about as a caring, loving teacher,” Koehling says. “On Friday, when they leave, the students will be crying, and sometimes, my students are crying. The nurturing piece is what I hope they will take with them.”
Wiltsie, who spent four years in the U.S. Army Reserves during his time at NIU, understands. He wants to teach younger generations to become lifelong learners who are physically active while making the most of the gifts and skills they possess.
“If students feel comfortable out here, they’ll definitely feel comfortable back in a gym,” he says. “And if you feel comfortable teaching out here, you can definitely translate that over to the gym setting and the school setting – and be more confident in yourself.”
“I just want to be there to make a difference, even if it’s just one student at a time,” Miotti adds. “(In) physical education, I know that I’ll be able to improve children’s lives by the hundreds.”
“Wen’s area of expertise is outdoor education – we have some common interests in those areas – and he’s here to explore other approaches to teaching and developing curricula in outdoor education,” Ressler says. “We don’t have an outdoor education class, per se, but we do have an adventure education class (KNPE 365) that he regularly attended.”
“NIU has a good research atmosphere,” Xia says, “and I am interested in research direction, a good research team and selfless and useful research support system. I learned a more-advanced administrative system, and cultures and methods of research and teaching at NIU.”
Ressler and Xia connected through the Internet.
“He had a colleague from Yunnan here as a visiting scholar during the last academic year. He did some web-searching, found our program and my profile and, at the time, noticed one of my interests was outdoor education,” Ressler says.
“I have some strong connections with colleagues at other university in the United States that do teach in more-traditional outdoor education programs,” he adds. “We’ve spoken with them, and used some of their materials as sources, to help us mold two new courses that Wen is proposing to his university.”
Voracious in his reading and journaling, Xia devoured “Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming” by Simon Priest and Michael A. Gass, “Outdoor Adventure Education” by Alan W. Egert and Jim Sibthrop, and “Motor Control and Learning” by Richard A. Magill.
He designed two outdoor education courses. He joined NIU experts, community leaders and visiting scholars for a panel discussion on outdoor education and adventure-based counseling. He observed NIU classes in Exercise and Sport Psychology, regularly attended NIU Athletics events and enjoyed numerous activities in DeKalb in Sycamore.
Ressler and Xia also co-authored a research paper on a water safety education program with data Xia had gathered previously, “but he wanted to write it in English.”
Language presented a barrier at first, Ressler says, but the two worked diligently in the beginning to overcome it.
In the interim, the American learned a great deal from his visitor.
“He is a really nice man, very kind and generous, and extremely committed to his family and his profession,” Ressler says.
“His wife is an elementary school teacher in China, and she stayed behind. He brought their 11-year-old daughter with him because he wanted to provide additional opportunities for her. She went to Jefferson Elementary School last year and Huntley Middle School this year.”
Professionally, Ressler says, “the experience as a whole was wonderful for me to see how Outdoor and Adventure programming is delivered in other countries and other contexts.”
“I’m fascinated by the structure and expectations of his courses – and how students are engaged and assessed. They seem to have many more grad students deployed to support delivery of the courses,” Ressler says. “I’m hopeful we can continue to collaborate, maybe through an exchange of grad students, continued writing projects and curriculum development.”
Now that Xia is home, he is already sharing what he learned here. “I am preaching my experience and knowledge to my university leaders, colleagues and students,” Xia says, “and I will actively create opportunities for them to visit and communicate to NIU.”
Wright is currently on a research sabbatical in Scotland, where he’s examining the approach to physical education there. He is working with several Scottish schools to observe how such learning objectives are interpreted, promoted by teachers and experienced by students.
His time in Scotland also has included presentations to physical education research and professional organizations.
“However, in practice, teachers have very different interpretations of what that means,” he adds. “Most of the teachers I see are very competent and doing many things right. However, their approach to teaching personal and social skills is less coordinated and less intentional than their approach to teaching psychomotor skills, fitness, etc.”
Based at the University of Edinburgh, where he is a visiting scholar in the Moray House School of Education, Wright also has met with collaborators in other European countries such as Finland, Greece and Spain.
NIU colleagues also are helping to expand the scope of the research project, including schools in New Zealand, as they conduct a cross-cultural analysis.
“Much of what I am in seeing in Scotland matches what I have seen in the U.S.,” Wright says. “By the end of this year, with a large international sample, I think we can share findings that will bring a lot of attention to this topic in the physical education research community.”
Part of that will deal with educational policy and curriculum at a broader level.
To that end, he and his collaborators are uncovering a wealth of best practices that already are proving successful and “developing a good sense of what support is needed for teachers to turn this corner.”
“We are seeing that ill-defined learning objectives are less likely to be implemented in practice, especially when they are not accompanied by professional development, accountability or follow-through,” he says. “This is an educational policy issue that many countries and states need to be aware of.”
Scotland shows potential to build on its great foundation for promoting social and emotional learning through physical education, he says, but that job will require a more coherent framework, consistent pedagogical strategies and a more intentional approach.
“Like in the United States, there are opportunities built into physical education to explicitly teach personal and social skills. These are teachable moments that many teachers aren’t capitalizing on,” he says. “Physical education is an ideal setting to teach transferable life skills like cooperation and teamwork, but I think it’s falling short of its full potential at present.”
Coming months will keep him involved; he’s already debriefing with teachers in Scotland to assess their interest in moving forward with real-world applications of what he and his collaborators are learning.
Primary cohort Shirley Gray, who is helping Wright to develop this community of practice and action research, will facilitate its activities. Wright does plan to stay in touch through virtual meetings and occasional return visits.
Eventually, he and his colleagues plan to share their findings with policy makers as well as educational researchers and teachers.
“By taking this grassroots approach in each of the nations in this study, we hope to have a positive impact that goes beyond the traditional academic presentations and publications,” Wright says. “Social and emotional competencies are life skills that can help students in the present and in their future.”