In times like these, it often becomes more obvious what we all have in common.
Empathy and sympathy for friends, family and strangers who are suffering. Admiration for people courageously and selflessly serving on the front lines at their own risk. Material needs – and, clearly, the same needs – from the supermarket.
But there are less-stressful ways to see these connections, something 20 juniors from Geneva High School saw for themselves Feb. 26 in Anderson Hall.
Participants in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s third P.E. Leadership Summit began their morning by stating their preferences with their feet, congregating with whichever crowd shared their opinion.
Cubs or Sox? Raking leaves or shoveling snow? Morning or night? Chick-fil-A or Chipotle? Biting directly into a KitKat or breaking off one section at a time?
Jim Ressler, an associate professor of Physical Education Teacher Education and one of the college’s Senior Faculty Fellows, then made it harder. Students gathered randomly inside hula-hoops on the gymnasium floor and needed to find a commonality: They all own dogs. They all love tacos. They’re all right-handed. They all have the letter “A” in their names.
Ressler then upped the difficulty again.
Students inside the hula-hoops were asked to find something unique to just them – something no one else could claim. It wasn’t easy, but it was eye-opening to see the teens realize that others shared many of their life experiences.
“We’re building a stronger community,” the NIU professor told them, “and increasing the likelihood that we can work on bigger challenges with higher stakes, because we know each other.”
Later, they were told to run toward hula-hoops and occupy them in groups of whatever number Ressler would shout out during the scramble. Teamwork surfaced: When the groups were too small, they would call and wave: “We need one! We need one!”
Yet something else happened that day.
“Help Me Tag,” an altered take on the classic backyard game forced the teens from Geneva and their Huskie counterparts from Ressler’s classes to rely on each other for survival and to lay bare their vulnerability as humans.
“The activity reinforced the notion of asking someone for help,” Ressler says. “It could be in a group project, or if you’re having some sort of crisis in your personal life, and you’re leaning on a friend or a neighbor or at least someone you trust. These games can transfer to the ‘real world’ because no one is going to give you help unless you ask for it.”
NIU students routinely engage in such conversations “because they’re preparing for a future as an educator,” he says. “But it could be more influential having these conversations with high school students who’ve been identified as being leaders. They’re getting to know other people and learning from their perspectives.”
It is designed to empower high school students with the knowledge to identify positive behaviors – decision-making, accountability, honesty, integrity, fairness, equity – and then to demonstrate those in their schools, homes, social circles and communities.
Visiting Anderson Hall also allows these younger students to interact with each other rather than only serving in their typical co-teacher roles in the school gymnasium, and provides them with an up-close glimpse at college.
“In this second year, we’ve really tried to be more intentional on the programming side. During the morning sessions, we’re getting very specific about leadership, and how it’s framed in their Physical Education program and in their high school,” Ressler says.
Afternoon sessions, meanwhile, “turn toward pressures of being a high school student in 2020 in terms of coursework, in terms of peer groups and college readiness.”
For Ressler’s undergraduates, currently in their practicum semester, the events offer a hands-on preview of student-teaching.
“Our program values the importance of developing relationships with your students. Early interactions with high school students build comfort and confidence. It’s just a reminder of how perceptive and aware high school students are, and how necessary it is to engage and hear from young people to improve our practices,” he says.
The inverse is also true, something apparent from insights provided by Geneva students during smaller conversations around tables in the New Hall community room.
“It reinforces how important the impressions that adults, in their sphere, offer them,” Ressler says. “The role of being a teacher, or a parent, or an adult, is relatively important in shaping how younger adolescents see things.”
Scott Hennig, chair of the Physical Education Department and head basketball coach at Geneva High School, appreciated Ressler’s invitation to bring his juniors in his “Introduction to Leadership” class to NIU.
“I just thought it was a natural fit,” says Hennig, who earned an M.S.Ed. in Kinesiology and Physical Education (Curriculum and Pedagogy) from NIU in 2019. “It was a great way for a local university and a local high school to partner up and do some teambuilding, and it allows the high school students to get on a college campus. I just think the possibilities are endless.”
P.E. leaders at Geneva High School mostly assist with the freshman/sophomore curriculum of team sports and personal fitness, Hennig says.
Jobs include the start-of-the-year assigning lockers of lockers and the daily set-up of equipment and recording of attendance to the actual delivery of lessons in the gym with a regular teacher.
First, however, those leaders spend their junior year preparing under Hennig.
“They can use the skills they’re learning now in this class next year, and for the rest of their lives, because these are leadership skills,” he says. “Daily, we discuss different leadership skills – accountability, honestly – which are life skills that students can use outside of the P.E. environment for the rest of their lives.”
Visiting to NIU for a day allowed them to “hear a different voice,” he adds.
“Every day is only 50 minutes with me. Here we really dug deeper into some leadership concepts that take more time,” Hennig says. “My challenge to them was that if they got one or two things that can impact their leadership, and that can improve their lives, then it was worth it. This was a cool way for them to network with college students and interact with them. I hope that this was a valuable experience.”
Clark Giansanti, 16, thinks it was.
“I wanted to come here just to learn about how to be a better leader and, more importantly, how I can lead underclassmen in my school in an effective way,” Giansanti says. “Mr. Hennig came here, and he’s a really great teacher, so I kind of wanted to know the secrets of what he was taught so that someday I can be a great leader like Mr. Hennig is.”
Giansanti is taking Hennig’s class to start gaining some of the skills he will need as a pastor.
“You need to have leaders in this world to help us be successful as humans. You need to lead people the become the best selves they can be,” he says. “I think that translates to gym and physical education because it’s an easier environment for people to learn about it. In P.E. class, you’re able to put yourself in positions of leadership.”
He most appreciated the “Help Me Tag” activity.
“You wouldn’t think as a leader, especially when you’re the person in charge, to ask for help. You kind of think of them as the person who knows everything, but that’s actually wrong,” Giansanti says. “A leader needs to be willing to ask for help because they need to hear the opinions of the people they’re leading to make sure their actions are the best actions for the group.”
Mary Corkery, a 17-year-old senior from Geneva High School, is already a P.E. leader.
Corkery took Hennig’s leadership course last year and was happy to accept his invitation to accompany the current juniors on their trip to NIU.
“Mr. Hennig wanted me to come along as someone who’s already an experienced leader to gain even more experience, and to help them come out of their comfort zones to become strong leaders themselves,” says Corkery, who also serves as a teaching assistant in a sixth-grade classroom.
“I like that you can really connect with people, and that you can get people to come out of their shell. You can definitely see a growth in your students,” she adds. “I think I’m very outgoing, and I’m not really nervous of embarrassing myself. I’ll do anything to help other people and will do anything that anyone needs of me.”
P.E. teachers – and P.E. leaders – who succeed in “making students feel comfortable and able to do physical activity” change lives, Corkery says.
“Once you are open to trying new things and getting active, you open this whole new realm to all the different activities you can do,” she says. “Having a strong leader, in that sense, changes a person completely.”
Ressler’s approach and activities impressed her.
“A lot of them I’ve never seen before, so it’s really a cool new experience. With a lot of leadership stuff, you do the same thing over and over again,” she says. “I definitely know how I can help my students more, just watching what they’re struggling with, what they’re succeeding with and how I can be better as a leader for them. You don’t have to be the loudest in the room to be a good leader.”