AUGUSTA — There’s a lot of cheering in P.E. 2.
Students clap when their classmates successfully walk from tree to tree across a swinging log. When someone loses their balance and steps off onto the ground, they get encouragement: “Take it slow. That’s all right.”
Elsewhere on the Cony High School ropes course, students egg on their classmates to tackle the trapeze.
One day in September, sophomore Cierra Harding launched herself, screaming, from a platform 25 feet off the ground, toward a trapeze bar hanging several feet above and in front of her. She missed.
A student belayer halted her fall, and Harding slumped in her harness, exclaiming, “Oh my God, that was so scary!”
“That was so awesome,” said a student watching from the ground, clapping.
“All you have to do is catch it one time,” P.E. teacher Tom Hinds told Harding.
“I know,” she said. “I will next time.”
P.E. 2 involves movement, and agility and balance are useful, but it’s not really a workout. Instead, it’s intended to help students develop confidence, discover their strengths beyond the physical ones and learn how to communicate and solve problems within a team.
The class is part of a long-term movement in physical education that de-emphasizes calisthenics, competition and, to some extent, team sports, in favor of alternative activities, development of workforce skills and grading students on their individual effort or progress.
“I think very traditional physical education was a great place for athletes or people who had some genetic predisposition to athletic ability, and everybody else hated it,” said Cheryl Richardson, an official of the American Alliance For Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. “That obviously is not the environment that we are trying for now. Now we’re trying to motivate and inspire. If they hate P.E., they may not choose to be active outside of P.E. class.”
Some teachers may still use the Presidential Physical Fitness Test — with its sometimes daunting standards for things like number of push-ups and time for a mile run — but this year it was replaced by the Presidential Youth Fitness Program, which focuses on health rather than on athletic performance.
Skowhegan Area High School teacher Soren Siren said he spent more time on traditional team sports when he started teaching 20 years ago. Now he modifies the sports or teaches outdoor activities to keep the kids moving during class and give them skills that will transfer to life beyond school.
During the basketball unit, for example, you won’t find two teams of five playing while everyone else is on the sidelines. Instead everyone’s involved, playing variations of the game such as around the world on the gym’s six hoops.
With the help of the New Balance Foundation, the school has also been able to purchase equipment for outdoor activities such as snowshoeing, mountain biking and geocaching, which Siren said keep the students more engaged.
“You can’t make kids do anything today. I’ll have kids look at me and flat-out say, ‘I’m not running,’” Siren said. “If I take them snowshoeing and we walk two miles, I personally think I’ve gotten more out of them than if I sat there and was on the track having them run a mile.”
The setting and emphasis of Cony’s P.E. 2 are unusual even among nontraditional P.E. classes.
Hinds said the rope course was built and the class started about 20 years ago.
“The No. 1 reason why people lost their jobs in America at that time was the ability to work with other people,” he said.
All students at Cony take both P.E. 1 and P.E. 2.
The first class is focused on physical health and fitness. Over the course of a semester, students strive to improve their cardiovascular endurance or percent of body fat, for example, through the sports, games and exercises they learn, but they’re competing only against themselves.
The P.E. 2 class starts with work in the gym on trust-building activities, group games and belaying techniques for about a month before students are assigned to teams — which Hinds said are supposed to be balanced in leadership, personality and athletic ability — and heading out to the ropes course.
Some examples of indoor activities include Body English, in which a group of students form a symbol with their bodies and challenge other students to guess the word or phrase it represents, and Tube Relay, which involves working together to move tennis balls across the room through a series of 3-foot tubes.
On the outdoor ropes course, there are high elements like the trapeze as well as low ones like a web of ropes stretching between two trees.
One task the teams have to try at the rope web is to thread a rope through every gap in the web and hold it in place without allowing it to touch any part of the web.
Richardson said classes like Cony’s give everyone the chance to participate and contribute, rather than establishing a hierarchy of athletic ability.
“Those rope courses require a lot of trust, and some people are going to be better at some parts of it, but every person is going to have a part in accomplishing that task,” Richardson said. “And those are skills that they can take into their workplace.”
In addition to collaboration, communication and critical thinking, Hinds said the class builds students’ courage and confidence.
“What’s the point of climbing up the tree? It’s not about the tree climb itself, it’s about overcoming a fear. If I can climb this high object, maybe I can do this other thing in my life,” he said. “If you can do that, you can do your oral presentation in your science class or you can get that A in the English class that’s very hard for you, or whatever the case is.”
A football player, sophomore Elijah Tobey, is the kind of student who would probably excel in traditional physical education. But in P.E. 2, he faced challenges in which his size and strength weren’t much help.
Tobey had to be cajoled by Hinds and other students through every step of the trapeze: putting on the harness, climbing up to the platform and taking the leap toward the bar. After he gripped the bar for a split-second, then slipped and fell, he proclaimed the experience the worst he’d ever been through.
Back on the ground, though, Tobey said the jump, and the class, had been good for him.
“It teaches you a lot about teamwork and how to overcome things that you’re nervous about,” he said. “I’ve told people ‘no’ for a lot of things because I’m afraid of heights, but now I know I’ll be OK.”
Sophomore Sabbath Peridot also said the class helped her be more courageous. She realized that people on her team were nervous about different things, so they could encourage and support each other in turn.
“You’re getting to know your classmates and you’re learning to trust them more,” she said, “because they’re holding you when you’re up there.”