I enjoy all sorts of exercise: biking (outdoors and spin classes), running, strength training, yoga, hiking, dancing…but Pilates always scared the crap out of me. More than biking in Manhattan. During rush hour. Why, you ask? One word: Teaser.
That’s not entirely true, but that is one exercise that I found quite intimidating. Pilates just seemed like something that my body would not be able to do. I didn’t think I was strong enough. I have a really hard time with spatial relationships and visualization, so when someone describes what I’m supposed to do in words, I have a really hard time figuring out (1) what I’m supposed to do, and (2) how to get my body to do it. Also, whenever you see people doing Pilates they complete things so effortlessly that it’s intimidating. They just float. It’s like some sort of magical power. Pilates seemed nearly impossible to me. Plus, I really don’t like doing things I’m not already good at (yes, I know, I’m working on it). I was never doing it. No way.
Then, about a year and a half ago, I hurt my ankle. I don’t know how I hurt my ankle. The best I can figure it’s one of those injuries that mostly happens to New Yorkers. You’re wearing heals on the subway, heading home from work. The car stops suddenly. Physics happens. The subway and your firmly planted foot stop moving, but the rest of your body keeps going for a bit, somehow straining a ligament or a tendon. And then you are in pain. Forever. Because there’s no way to avoid walking or stairs when you have no car and live in a 5th floor walk-up in Brooklyn.
My doctor told me to rest it, to ice it, to wrap it.
I begged for a boot at least, so people would offer me a seat on the subway.
My doctor told me to rest it, to ice it, to wrap it, and to wear my hiking boots or invest in a pair of Dansco clogs.
I asked when I would be able to exercise again.
My doctor told me I could do core work on the floor, or seated strength training. And once I had a full week where I could comfortably put weight on my foo use an exercise bike, do yoga, or do Pilates. Aquacise was also an option.
I thought Pilates? Hell. No.
Once I could put weight on my foot, however, I really wanted to get out and exercise, so I tried it. And it was hard.
But the instructor, she was amazing. She was helpful, encouraging, and it occurred to me later, the best differentiator I’ve ever met. She does all of the things that I hope to get teachers I coach to do and that I strive to do better myself. This is why–no offense to Bill and Ochan Powell–I think my Sunday afternoon Pilates instructor, Nathalie, should lead our next differentiation PD. Or maybe she should just come and do a class with the faculty and really model good differentiation.
This is either the best or the worst idea I’ve ever had, but since it will likely just float around as an idea in cyberspace and never come to fruition, we can leave that part ambiguous. I am, however, going to enumerate her qualifications below.
She always does a preassessment and engages in formative assessment throughout the lesson
Every week Nathalie walks into the class and asks a few quick questions to get a sense of who her students are and what they need, something we as classroom teachers should be doing as well. Maybe not in the exact same way
- Is anyone new to Pilates? (What’s your experience, skill, or content knowledge with what I’m about to teach you?)
- Does anyone have any injuries? Had abdominal surgery? Anyone pregnant? (How will I need to modify things for you based on your particular needs?)
- Everyone’s feeling OK? You guys look tired/happy/content. (Anything else going on that’s going to make today difficult for you?)
During the lesson, she watches us perform movements and stops to explain how and why things work, how to do the movement correctly, or how to modify the movement as necessary.
Preassessments and other forms of formative assessment are so important for differentiation. It’s how we know how to differentiate. Sure, we all have things in our toolbox that we can pull out to differentiate reactively during class, but preassessments help us to differentiate proactively. During the lesson, ongoing formative assessment in the form of observations can help us to provide additional differentiation.
She gives instruction in a variety of ways
Each time she asks us to do a movement or a series, Nathalie gives the instructions orally, sometimes explaining in two different ways. She also models the movements in two different ways. Once modeling what it looks like laying on the ground, and then frequently a second time offering an “aerial view” while standing.
As classroom teachers we should always be presenting information in a variety of ways in order to reach all of our students. Making this a habit is one simple way to support everyone in the class.
She offers adaptations and modifications of activities
For nearly every movement, Nathalie offers several ways of completing the movement. The movements are different based on your skill level, your body type, any injuries you may have.
However (and even more important, I would say)…
She never refers to a modification as easier or harder and never privileges one way of doing things over another
This is the thing that finally convinced me that Nathalie was one of the best differentiators I had ever met was this: every time she demonstrates a modification she lets us all know one important thing: the modification makes the exercise work for your body. She tells us several things
- Modification doesn’t make it easier: It makes it so your body can complete the exercise and benefit from it. Which, yes, does feel easier to you that the original exercise, but makes if feel about the same to you as the “typical” person doing the unmodified move.
- Modification doesn’t make it less work.
- Modifications are explained completely and we all know why we should choose them. I don’t do my hundreds with my legs straight in the air because I’m trying to make it easier or I’m lazy, I do it that way because I have a tendency to to have a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders, whereas the guy next to me always does modified hundreds with his knees bent because he’s a runner and has really tight hamstrings. And someone else is doing modified hundreds because she’s had a C-section. No one really needs to know why each of us selects what we did but us. But having the instructor explain the exercises and the work that’s involved in each modification creates a safe space for us to all do what we need.
As teachers sometimes we unintentionally value one form of work over another (I know I’ve been guilty of it–love to analyze, but really struggle with creative assignments, so sometimes I don’t work as hard at creating them. I’m getting better about it now that I’m aware of it) and set a classroom climate where students feel like choosing that isn’t the one that the teacher clearly values or is deemed the “normal” or “right” way to complete the assignment isn’t OK. If we value all ways of completing assignments and make sure that the work is different, not easier or harder, or better or worse, our students will see the work in the same way. Normalizing the fact that all brains are different the same way Nathalie normalizes the fact that all bodies are different creates the type of classroom where students thrive and learn.
She doesn’t let us get away with slacking–she pushes us toward growth and celebrates it
Yes, Nathalie differentiates and offers modifications, scaffolds, if you will, for those of us who may have been at a lower level of readiness when we started the class, but she observes and assesses (see point #1) and then encourages us to try something new. She doesn’t let the scaffold become a crutch, or let us define ourselves by needing a particular scaffold. She’ll tell us to try a different modification or without a modification if she sees that we are doing really well and should challenge ourselves more. Then, whether we succeed or fail, she applauds us for increased strength, for trying something new, or just for smiling through it all.
As classroom teachers we need to know when to push our students to try something new and different, and when it’s OK for them to stick with activities they feel comfortable with. We need to be aware of growing skill levels and help guide students to choices that will make work a bit more challenging for the student, or when to pull back our scaffolds a bit to promote growth. We also need to celebrate growth and trying new things.
In conclusion, Nathalie should run a Pilates class during our differentiation PD
So, if the higher-ups at my school are reading this, I think our August differentiation PD should include a Pilates class from Nathalie where we can all experience differentiation and gain some empathy for our students who might be out of their comfort zone in a traditional classroom setting. If they’re anything like me, school was always a place where I felt pretty comfortable and I was pretty good at it (that’s part of why I elected to go back there full time for my career). For me, Pilates took me outside of my comfort zone, and really highlighted for me what good differentiators like Nathalie do. And even though I always knew differentiation was important and it was something I valued as an educator, this is the first time I was really cognizant of benefitting from it. I’d like other members of our faculty to experience that as well.
And just in case you were wondering, all that differentiation worked. I can totally do Teaser now. I may not float completely effortlessly yet, but I’m going to get there.
Where else in the world outside of K-12 education do you see excellent differentiated instruction?