Javon Davis lifted the bottom of his T-shirt to his forehead, simply to mop the sweat that comes from shooting hoops with teenage boys and young men.
Then they saw it. Couldn’t miss it. The scar across his stomach.
Davis could explain. He’d had gall bladder surgery a few years back. No big thing.
But to his basketball competitors – inmates at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles – the long-healed wound immediately suggested something else. Was that where a doctor removed a bullet? Some had matching scars, and bullets were why.
No. Just a gall bladder – and, more than that now, a connection.
For Davis, one of the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education graduate students working in Project FLEX, that moment became another path to build positive and productive relationships. Another way to earn trust. To earn respect.
And, for members of an international community of practice using the late Don Hellison’s holistic model of Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility through sport, that sobering anecdote offered a deeper glimpse of a truth inherent to underserved children and adolescents who occupy gyms, playgrounds, after-school programs, community centers and even prisons.
They’re still kids.
It also provided inspiration and motivation to the practitioners who logged in July 22 and 23 from more than 30 different nations as NIU hosted a first-ever virtual edition of the annual (and normally in-person) TPSR conference.
Breakout sessions during the keynote addresses, and even during the unprogrammed lunch times, allowed participants to meet each other, talk about their work and hear what others are doing. To talk about the importance of relationship-building. Of establishing a common vocabulary with socially and culturally relevant language. Of prompting reflection. Of embracing and promoting the core value of human decency.
Others were rookies, curious about how they could empower their athletes, students and communities to grow through TPSR’s values of respecting the rights and feelings of others. Of effort and cooperation. Of self-direction. Of helping others. Of transferring these lessons.
Of recognizing that a school culture can change. Of understanding that parents are teammates in the transfer of personal and social responsibility. Of believing in the courage to overcome.
Wright, NIU’s EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education, opened the conference with the questions on the minds of everyone.
How can an approach to teaching that dates back 50 years remain relevant today?
How can it help during the challenges of COVID-19, which continues to upend the entire world, leaving people of all ages isolated, disconnected and unengaged? How does the social reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder reinforce TPSR’s unique ability to constructively navigate political tension and class division?
Good ideas – and good examples – were plentiful.
NICK FORSBERG, A PROFESSOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF REGINA in Saskatchewan and an alum of the NIU College of Education, reflected on his “privilege” of spending four decades studying and cultivating TPSR.
Forsberg wanted to effect systemic change in the preparation of physical education teachers, one that would create teachers who engage in the curriculum in a way that involves every student, even the kids typically on the sidelines.
TPSR, open to interpretation and flexibility but non-negotiable in its core values, offered that.
Both initiatives consider Hellison’s work foundational to “humanistic physical education,” Forsberg told his colleagues. Both projects aim to nurture individual spirit into a moral compass. A sense of purpose. A passion. A vision.
And, when Hellison visited the Regina campus in 2000, the professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago told future teachers of a key ingredient of his philosophy – that teaching is a way of being. Your emerging identity as a teacher must reflect your true self. You cannot differ personally and professionally.
It is who you are.
Teachers who understand that, Forsberg said, are critically needed: “I know the youth will be better for it.”
KAYA CATTOUSE, NATIONAL SPORTS COORDINATOR at the National Sports Council in Belize and a longtime collaborator with NIU faculty, spoke about using sport for social change in her home country.
Cattouse has teamed with NIU on numerous projects, including Alternative Spring BAE (Belizean Academic Experience), a national women’s sports summit in Belize and the Belizean Youth Sport Coalition Project.
She spoke of first noticing the inequality between male and female athletes in Belize when she took up cycling, and how she tried to serve as a voice for women. She spoke of how she worked to bring high school girls into the sport of cycling.
When NIU first brought its training program to Belize in 2014, the lessons were packed with new strategies – and, she told the online audience, she and her colleagues have appreciated that the partnership came not only with continuation but with two-way communication and exchange of information.
The lessons have stuck with the participants, and the National Sports Council is putting those teachings to good use.
Youth leaders and coaches now invite, welcome and respect “voices and choices” from the young people under their direction. Not every kid is athletically inclined or wants to bounce or throw a ball for physical activity; some kids just want to run or skip.
It’s made a difference. So has an understanding of how to “do more with less” when it comes to sports equipment.
And for those participants who grabbed the reins offered them – the young women who’ve registered for competitive cycling races, and more specifically, the pair who represented Belize at a Caribbean championship and earned medals in the process – TPSR has broadened the benefits of sport.
Traveling abroad. Learning about other countries. Feeling pride in yourself and what you’re doing.
Cattouse credited those outcomes to the concept of “transfer” – and, she shared proudly, TPSR has “transferred in a whole lot of ways into their lives.”
KINESIOLOGY STUDENTS AT the University of Virginia’s College at Wise learn TPSR from Cody Sanders, an associate professor of Physical Education there.
Sanders is passing on – transferring – the lessons of Tom Martinek, one of her professors at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.
Martinek is among the authors who contributed to a special issue of the Journal of Teaching in Physical Education published to celebrate the life and legacy of Hellison, who died in 2018. Sanders knew Hellison as well.
Her keynote address began with a prompt: Find an item within reach of your computer that describes your journey through COVID.
One person showed a golf ball; your goal is to hit it straight into the hole, but sometimes sand and water traps prevent that. Another – a P.E. teacher – grabbed a whistle; its chirp demands a response from students just as the pandemic demands a response from everyone.
Some things weren’t as philosophical. A pair of headphones. A bottle of hand sanitizer. A foam stress ball. Still, however, they all offered familiar reminders of life under quarantine.
COVID, appropriately enough, was the focus of her talk on TPSR in higher education: In a video provided to conference participants, Sanders runs a drill in the gym with her college students to model what they can do with their future pupils.
The professor and conference co-organizer also was joined live on screen by two of her students: Johnathan Baker and, logging in from his native Botswana, Sylvester Maduna.
Baker and Maduna spoke of their experiences delivering TPSR to P.E. classes at Wise’s Coeburn Middle School, where they aspired to help the rural adolescents with limited resources to “grow into well-rounded people” by demonstrating cooperation and respect and by allowing students to serve as leaders.
What did Baker see? A smile on the face of an overweight student who found within TPSR a way to become involved in P.E. class.
And Maduna? A lesson. Everyone is different, everyone is from different cultures – and everyone deserves an equal opportunity.
JAVON DAVIS WASN’T ALONE at the Illinois Youth Center, of course.
Gabrielle Bennett, a Ph.D. student in the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education is among several members of the Project FLEX team showing the young inmates a better way to live after release and introducing the “deferred hope” of college degrees.
Bennett is also fairly new to NIU, but her work behind the walls already has given her quite an experience.
Like Davis, she’s identified the trials of a sometimes hostile environment, whether they’re tempers flaring or hot and buggy conditions.
She’s seen the diverse levels of educational backgrounds of the young men, something that challenges her ability to determine “the bottom line” or what will motivate the group. She’s realized that their sense of family or belonging is different – which can mean that their responses are not technically disrespectful.
She’s acknowledged that the young men can read her “emotional intelligence,” and that she, in turn, must “read the room” to distinguish between their book smarts and street smarts.
She’s also embraced the concept of “adaptive leadership” – giving the young men the work, and pushing them to succeed, but also making sure they’re comfortable with the task.
And, in dealing with misconduct, Bennett models a constructive way to respond.
You disrespected me. I would never disrespect you like that. I thought we were building a relationship. I hope I can expect better from you.
IN THE END, it was co-organizer Michael Hemphill who connected the dots – and underlined the purpose – of two days, four keynotes and asynchronous presentations.
Members of the TPSR alliance are about putting kids first, said Hemphill, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
TPSR is about human decency. Holistic self-development. A way of being.
We cannot choose the challenges we must face, Hemphill told his colleagues, but we can choose the way we respond.
“The challenges will remain,” he said. “The question now is how we will confront them.”