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Establishing Deeper Partnerships Between College and K-12


Our successful 3.5 year service learning project began when one of us, Professor Kathy Barlow, reached out to a local principal to see if her school could benefit from Whittier College students teaching physical education (PE). I was already teaching the undergraduate course entitled Movement in Elementary School PE, which had a service learning component, but my students were teaching PE at a different school with a higher socioeconomic status and significantly more resources for PE. Through a variety of encouragements by our Dean and community organizers who were focused on a low SES neighborhood near the college, I was able to move my students to the needier school.

The lack of physical education classes being offered at the elementary school level especially among under-resourced children and children of color has been a real concern for teachers, principals, and parents in California. I was aware that only 30% of children in California get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 2008). Working in this field for over 30 years, I knew the need for physical education and that more physically active children: (1) perform better academically, (2) exhibit better classroom behavior, and (3) have a decreased risk for chronic conditions, including obesity and diabetes compared to less physically active children. I wanted a local school with greater need to benefit from our students’ PE lessons and I also wanted our students to learn from the children and families in this area close to the college.

Once the principal agreed, the project developed to provide weekly PE lessons for more than 600 children from first to fifth grades over 3.5 years. Our students’ dynamic lessons promoted moderate to vigorous activity for 30 minutes and resulted in lasting benefits to the children’s fitness, teachers’ incorporation of physical education in their classes, and the community’s health but the focus of this paper is the college student learning that came from this project. From students’ reflections at the end of the class, you will see that they learned a great deal about teaching, physical education, team work and appreciation for service learning.

One of the reasons students learned so much was that Principal Mary Salcido of Lydia Jackson Elementary School asked for a three-year commitment from Dr. Barlow from the beginning. Principal Salcido already had one successful long-term partnership with two Whittier College professors who have a reading tutor project at the school. Though her approach was direct, Principal Salcido had other community members want to “help” her school only to leave after a semester and a short photographic moment. Making this expectation clear at the outset signaled to all involved that we shared a commitment to the fitness of the children. Because there was already a service-learning project at the school, Principal Salcido might have been more willing than many other principals to work with college faculty on a variety of topics. If your leaders (principal and dean) are not supportive at the outset, trust and openness can be developed over time once leaders see a successful partnership between one teacher and one professor as we saw our colleagues make.

To start a collaboration between a college and school, both parties must make themselves available to each other and work together to overcome challenges. At the start, our biggest challenge was the timing of the course at the college did not correspond to the best time to teach PE at the school. Because college class schedules are often planned a year in advance, the first year did not have the timing exactly right and students struggled to get to the elementary school on time. In future years, travel to the site was built into class time and all enrolled students committed to an extra 30 minutes from a normal class. When the project began, the school also did not have enough equipment for our students to teach an entire class (between 20-30 students) the same lesson (e.g., throwing Frisbees, sack races, etc.). Students had to learn to create circuits, work with smaller groups or plan obstacle courses that could work with larger groups utilizing different types of equipment. Over the first two years of the project, equipment kept coming both to the school and the college. Both partners found money, saved alternate funds and did everything to make sure the children had enough footballs, soccer balls, volleyballs, and hula hoops to increase children’s experience with a variety of equipment. One lasting legacy from the project is that all the children at the school (even those who were never taught PE by college students) had access to more sports equipment at recess, lunch, and when their teachers and the district representative taught PE.

Once those challenges were worked out after the first year, the project expanded to include undergraduate research as well as service learning. Enter first author, Professor Anne Sebanc, who created a new Child Development Methods course for two years to teach the undergraduates how to study child behavior. This additional research dimension added another level of commitment from the undergraduates. We asked them to select a research topic of something they wanted to learn about their work with the children. Students selected topics such as school lunches, overall fitness, as well as media and parental influence on fitness. Conducting research taught college students what the children at the elementary school had to teach them and how to create academic knowledge from a community partnership. Obviously as the word partnership implies, any service learning project between a college and a school should be mutually beneficial. While our undergraduates were learning about physical education and child development, the children benefitted from having weekly PE, more equipment at the school, dynamic PE lessons planned under the supervision of an expert, and potential role models promoting not just physical activity but going to college.


Through the coursework of both classes, we taught college students to always put the children first and this related to a variety of topics in the class starting with safety in physical education and ending with ethics in research. Our college students, however, were able to see how these were not just abstract concepts taught in a book but that teachers, principals and college faculty have to make ethical calls in the field when a child says they cannot do a certain movement or it’s too hot to play. In fact, in addition to rainy days, we had PE classes canceled when the weather was too hot or too windy. Undergraduates still went to the children’s classrooms and taught a “rainy day” lesson and therefore, learned how to handle these events to show they cared more about the children than their lesson plans or their research projects. At the end of the class, students bound their lesson plans and gave them to the elementary school teachers. Whether the teachers use them or not, all the games, lessons and rainy day activities were provided so that the teachers and substitute teachers could pull them out and set up the lesson developed by our students.

Teaching physical education at the elementary school level was quite a new experience for many of the students. Some of the students had performed observations at elementary schools, coached or worked at summer camps. But many commented their “prior experiences did not prepare them for the onslaught of over 30 students, most willing, but unskilled; excited but apprehensive of them as PE teachers.” Anther student said after the first day at the elementary school, “Boy, this is nothing like I thought. I assumed teaching PE was easy. Gone are the days of the ‘rolling out the ball, or just keeping them amused’. This is serious stuff and I am not sure that I can do this.” The challenges for the college students ranged from learning to use a much stronger voice with a more assertive style of teaching to realizing after seeing the children attempt the activity for the day that the children did not understand the painstakingly precise demonstration that had worked perfectly in the college lab. One student wrote, “I didn’t realize teaching physical education required a completely different skill set.” In numerous student reflections, comments such as “We need an entire semester dedicated to just being at the elementary school because I feel I learned so much more about how to demonstrate skills, move students from station to station, and praise them on their accomplishments.” Many students also learned how important it was to teach physical education and commented on the lack of physical activity in schools and encouragement or support from the adults at the school.

Some of the undergraduates who went through the program plan to be teachers and learned the skills of classroom management and discipline from their experience on this project. “When I taught the last time, my quality of teaching had matured. I took the corrective feedback I received from my peers and professors and made changes in my teaching. I feel a lot more confident when I teach, and more assertive as well.” An important aspect acknowledged by a majority of the students was an increase in their confidence to handle the vast array of situations that occur in a school setting on a daily basis. One student wrote, “I have a newfound respect for my teachers because teaching is by no means an easy profession. I believe that I grew professionally by participating in this class, because I have more confidence in speaking in front of others now.” Alumni of the program have reported being able to modify instruction and activities better than some of the other new teachers at their schools due to the fast-paced responses required in teaching PE in a large physical and potentially dangerous area.

Many of our students do not plan to be teachers but learned about teamwork and themselves from the service learning portion of the project. One student reflected, “Working with others also helped my communication skills because I was able to provide ideas and give feedback on other students’ lesson plans.” As their professors, we tried to promote teamwork and not letting the children or their fellow students down. One student shows that she was able to learn from her diverse group:

At first I wanted a group with people who had similar skills to me, because then we would have all worked in ways that I am used to. However I realize my skills are not perfect for being out there with the kids, and we need a little bit of everything in the group to help us work to our best abilities.

As professors, we promoted group cohesion and communicated our expectation that everyone pull his or her own weight. Students recognized a greater purpose to this class rather than just thinking of their own grades and assignments, as demonstrated by another student’s reflection:

If someone was not performing to their full potential it could really hurt us, and even affect the children. This experience has helped me step up and not be afraid to make changes to other group members’ ideas if I felt that they were not the best ideas for the children… I think this experience has taught me the most about being a leader.

Most of these reflections are from the final reflection where we asked students what they learned related to a variety of class topics. We also required students to write weekly reflections so they could use their insights the next time they taught PE and students showed considerable growth at being a reflective teacher over the course of a semester.

One contribution that we hope lasts longer than the project is the students’ appreciation for service learning and involvement in their community. One student reported “I believe that this class and the experience of teaching children has helped me grow as a person... This experience has humbled me and re-established a need to find service opportunities in every neighborhood that I live in.” Another student, Katie Back, encapsulated this appreciation so well that we invited her to share the bulk of her reflection here and include only the following snippet that encapsulates her call to action related to physical education and service to her community:

Helping the school with their P.E. program caused me to care more for the school than I did before. Even just looking at the website I could see that this school is a very integral part of the community, especially due to its very prominent location. I really feel a strong sense of obligation to help this school in any way I can.

These students’ reflections show growth in their awareness of community needs and a commitment to continue to serve the community in the future from having this service learning experience.

Along with our student Katie Back, we want to share the importance of promoting physical education for children and continuing to work with the community. If schools are not able to hire certified physical educators, then other ways to help them solve this problem must be sought. The coordination and collaboration of developing a service learning project at your school is one way to do this. Resources such as materials, money, expertise and man-power are keys to helping elementary schools combat the lack of physical education classes being taught. Service learning can provide these keys. Teaching service learning courses and partnering with schools provides both exposure of the college students to the real-world environment of teaching and the opportunity for the children to participate in quality programs. Service learning creates a lasting reciprocal relationship for everyone involved. When undergraduates participate in service learning instead of sitting in an “ivory tower,” they learn more than the content of the course, in this case physical education, and instead learn first hand the challenges of elementary schools and teachers as well as struggle to manage children and their PE lessons. From this trial by fire, they leave questioning the policies that have amounted to less physical activity in schools, like Katie, and more committed to dynamic PE approaches and making time for PE with their students, should they become teachers.

Other content areas besides physical education would work equally well for college-school partnerships. Undergraduates can have something to contribute to children’s learning from conducting science experiments with them, teaching accounting, or promoting good nutrition. Similarly they could study many aspects of children’s behavior, teacher instruction, and school structures. We encourage teachers and principals to think about the needs of the children and then peruse the nearest college’s websites to see the topics that faculty teach or research. The college may have a match between your needs and a faculty member’s expertise. Instead of expensive consulting fees, see if the professor wants to do research or has a class that would benefit from a service learning project. Any school can be a potential “training ground” for students who want to be teachers or a “data rich environment” for faculty and students with research questions related to child development or education. Viewing a school that way may seem strange to most teachers and principals but if you want to reach out to college faculty or students to get something started at your school, putting it in those terms can help sell us on what we will get out of it (besides helping the children in our community) and reasons to make a longer commitment to the school. Many colleges have a community service day or clubs that commit community service hours, but by involving faculty and an academic class, service-learning projects are likely to persist as well as benefit from free faculty expertise.

STUDENT REFLECTION —Revisiting A “Final” Reflection


As a junior, I participated in the service learning project taught by Sebanc and Barlow. The combination of lectures, practice labs with classmates, followed by immediate application with real fifth graders provided an extremely unique learning opportunity that resulted in a tremendous grasp of teaching and service. The experience left me passionate about the importance of good teaching, especially in physical education and excited for future engagement with any community I find myself living and working. Looking back a year later, I realize I learned an incredible amount in a short time about teaching, physical education and service learning and that my final reflection from a year ago on each of these themes remains true and is the basis for this paper.

learned how important of a profession that teaching is. The children do not necessarily listen and behave well just because a teacher is an adult. It takes a lot of skill to really command a classroom, especially at that age. I feel as though I have learned many details about teaching and about child development that really change how I view working with children. There is a lot of thought that has to be put into how to carefully make a lesson plan tailored to a specific group of students. Yes, there are standards that guide where the student should be, but often the children fall on a very broad spectrum of ability.

My 5th grade class learned the best through a particular process: an enthusiastic introduction of the activity, a clear concise description of rules and/or cues, a demonstration, and several trials with process-oriented feedback. They like to know that they are learning a new skill. I can tell because when they try a forearm pass for example, they tell me to come over and watch if I did not see it the first time, because they are very excited to show off what they can do. For the hearing impaired students, I have to usually explain things a second time, and provide a lot of reassurance to them because they always seem to be willing to try, but slightly hesitant. This perhaps could be because they may wonder if their impairment would affect the activity.

As a professional, I now understand better the ethical and legal issues involved in teaching, particularly in physical education. There is a lot of responsibility involved in the preparation and execution process. I know it is important to stay vigilant when watching the children on the playground and it is important to document everything. I understand that I am an agent of Whittier College when I am teaching on that campus and it is important for me to act in a professional manner. I always watch my language when I am on their campus, I am polite to the office staff, and I am a responsible teacher.

My instructional effectiveness has definitely changed from the first day on the campus. I am relatively good at keeping a group of children organized and I can be responsible for them. I am very future oriented, so a lot of my thought processes involve risk management. This is a very important skill to have, but I feel that sometimes it keeps me from actually enjoying the moment. The first day, I was not the best at keeping my class under control but the second day I knew names a lot better which improved my ability to get everyone to listen. The interesting thing is that the students actually behaved extremely well when I was going through all the fitness testing with them during the first two weeks; it was when we brought the class all together after testing, where everything seemed to go awry. I don’t believe I really gained any disciplining skills. For whatever reason, I can’t get that concept into action when I need to discipline a student. I know that when I needed to give instructions I could speak well. I was loud and I gave clear directions in small chunks. I had a hard time being happy-peppy about it, especially on my lead day because I lost my voice in the middle. I would not say that enthusiasm was my strong suit. I got a lot better at teacher movement by the end. Although I do not feel that I improved all that much, I do feel a lot more confident about being able to come in and implement a lesson plan.

Physical Education
Teaching P.E. at this school is easy in some ways, and hard in others. It is easy because the children are used to Whittier students coming and volunteering at this point. My class has actually gone through the P.E. program before. They also were very familiar with many of the activities we brought. For the most part, it was not difficult to get everyone to participate to some degree. The difficult parts of the teaching came with planning around physical ability and disability. The testing showed that not too many of our children are obese, but even the ones that had normal BMI had issues performing well on a lot of the fitness tests. This told us that we would have to make our fitness development activities challenging, but probably not at level that ended up challenging the students who were very fit. The hearing impaired students were initially our focus when figuring out lessons. We quickly realized that as long as we are talking directly to them, and constantly checked for understanding, they did fine.

I found it interesting just how little emphasis is placed on P.E. in schools. The main issues I noticed are that schools do not seem to recognize the importance of physical activity, they sweep it under the rug to avoid extra spending, and they find every way imaginable around the rules. All this seems to stem from a huge level of ignorance among the people who make the decisions about P.E. for the schools. The majority of the problems with P.E. implementation could be solved through the requirement of teachers, schools, and districts, to learn what P.E. is, what kind of qualifications a teacher should have for it, the importance of it, how it can be implemented, the four part lesson plan, and exactly what children are gaining from participation in a credible P.E. program. I know lack of P.E. programs often come from budgetary issues, but I also believe the programs that are currently implemented are not being done correctly. Many P.E. programs that are implemented may or may not go with the standards, but they are definitely not instructional. A lot of the classes involve a teacher rolling out a ball and letting the students have at it, or telling them to walk around the track for the remainder of class.
Giving a more detailed education on how P.E. can be properly implemented will really benefit the school. The use of the four-part lesson plan does not even require a budget increase necessarily; it simply requires the teachers to change their mindset about what P.E. is. For schools that do not have P.E. teachers, it could become mandatory for the teachers to go to workshops to learn what they should be doing. Current P.E. teachers would benefit from attending these workshops as well.

Service Learning
Helping the school with their P.E. program caused me to care more for the school than I did before. Even just looking at the website I could see that this school is an integral part of the community, especially due to its very prominent location. I really feel a strong sense of obligation to help this school in any way I can. I am highly considering speaking with the principal to learn about other ways I may be able to volunteer at the school since I am not necessarily the strongest P.E. teacher. I would really love to find a way to get a community clean-up day for the campus because my group often picked up trash to make the field and play area safe before we began our lesson.

Based on web research and observations from my teaching days, Lydia Jackson is very community oriented, and seems to reflect the neighborhood surrounding the school. They have partnered with families in the community, as well as Whittier College, to help implement reading.

Anne Sebanc is an Associate Professor of Child Development at Whittier College. Her Ph.D. is in developmental psychology from the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota, Twin Studies. She has taught several courses with service learning projects that encourage undergraduates to work with children in a variety of community contexts.

Kathy Barlow is an Associate Professor and Pedagogy Specialist in the Kinesiology and Nutrition Science Department at Whittier College. Before attaining her Ph.D. from Texas Woman’s College in Athletic Administration and Educational Leadership, she spent numerous years teaching health and physical education in elementary and high schools in Louisiana. She is currently looking forward to a sabbatical and looking for partners to collaborate in the area of sports management or service learning. She would like to thank Whittier College’s Center for Engagement with Communities, specifically the BCM Foundation, for supporting this service learning project.


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