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Secondary Focus Courses Promote Lifelong Healthy Living

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 10:30
teacher with group of students outside pointing to the field

How focusing in can lead to big-picture thinking.

When it comes to being active we all have our preferences. Some may enjoy a fast-paced game of competitive soccer, while others may enjoy hiking in the woods.

Now, based on new expectations set out in the 2015 H&PE curriculum, Ontario secondary educators have the direction they need to plan and implement quality H&PE Focus Courses. This means teachers now have more support to make connections to students’ interests as a way to engage students in H&PE. Furthermore, providing students with the opportunity to identify and pursue what they love when it comes to healthy, active living, and perhaps to even set their sights on a career focus in physical activity, health education or promotion.

“Offering Focus Courses is really about honouring and acknowledging that being healthy and active for a lifetime isn’t always driven by a large group or a sport-focused course,” says Joanne Walsh, Ophea’s Secondary Health and Physical Education (H&PE) Curriculum Consultant. “They allow us to offer students experiences that will help them figure out how to be active and healthy for a lifetime.”

What are Focus Courses?

Focus Courses cater to varied student interests by using an activity theme—for example, outdoor activities or rhythm and movement activities—that acts as the vehicle for student learning. The courses use the same expectations as a Healthy Active Living Education (HALE) course, including the healthy living expectations and the integration of the Living Skills. The difference is that the course’s focus provides a lens through which students learn about and experience a variety of related activities, in turn, supporting them in developing their physical literacy skills. 

“It ensures that they’re doing something they want to do and like to do,” says David Inglis, Secondary H&PE teacher and Athletic Director at HB Beal Secondary School in London, Ontario. “In this way, we keep them engaged in H&PE.” he adds. This is critical in a subject like H&PE where only one secondary credit is required for graduation and yet the learning is so important for lifelong health and well-being.

Focus Courses must fall under one of the following six categories, which are outlined in the 2015 H&PE curriculum: Grades 9-12:

  1. Healthy Living and Personal Fitness Activities
  2. Healthy Living and Large-Group Activities
  3. Healthy Living and Individual and Small-Group Activities
  4. Healthy Living and Aquatic Activities
  5. Healthy Living and Rhythm and Movement Activities
  6. Healthy Living and Outdoor Activities

Selecting a Focus Course to Offer.

Exactly which course(s) from the six options (and which activities within that course) to offer will depend largely on student interest and available resources.

“In my experience it’s always about student surveys,” says Walsh. “Speak to them at the end of the course. What did they enjoy and want more of? What would encourage them to take another H&PE course?”

“A lot of it also has to do with the community,” adds Inglis. “What supports, facilities and resources are in play? It’s important to make connections to the community so kids can gain some experience outside the confines of the school.”

An educator’s interest and experience can also be a factor when deciding what to offer. At Inglis’ school they are lucky to not only have access to a pool but also to a teacher who has done competitive swimming and has experience with lifesaving and the Red Cross. This teacher was a natural fit to lead an aquatic activities class, and the school also happened to have contacts with local paramedics and firefighters who could build community connections by coming in to support various aspects of student learning within the course.

Finally, the socio-economic status of students is important to consider. “If a course requires two or three hundred dollars to participate we’ve already created an inequity,” says Walsh, who has seen time and time again that secondary students are much more likely to opt out of a course than to ask for financial assistance. 

Variety is Key.

One thing a Focus Course should always stay away from is zeroing in on a single sport or activity. “We need to think about what will support students across their lifespan,” says Walsh. “For example, if we offer a hockey focus course, what happens when a student can no longer participate in hockey... due to a concussion perhaps, or to lifestyle issues?”

Instead, aim to think as broadly as possible. By offering a wide range of activities linked to the focus, educators can ensure that —no matter what their student’s individual interests may be, and regardless of their financial or life situation—students are likely to find an activity they can pursue independently and well into their adult life, helping them to engage in physical activity throughout their lives. 

 “If it’s aquatics, it’s not just a lifesaving course or a lifeguard course,” explains Walsh “—although those could be part of it. We might try synchronized swimming, aquatic aerobics and more. In outdoor education, we often think of canoe tripping, hiking and backpacking, but that’s not the full breadth of how we participate in outdoor activities. We could do cycling, inline skating, trail riding...”

Focus Courses Incorporate the Five Fundamental Principles of H&PE.

Like all H&PE courses, Focus Courses incorporate the five fundamental principles laid out in the curriculum. These include that the learning be student-centered and skill-based; that H&PE programs are most effective when delivered in healthy schools and when student learning is supported by communities; and that the learning is balanced, integrated and connected to real life. (For a full breakdown of the 5 Fundamental Principles, see p. 9 of the 2015 H&PE Curriculum.)

“The Focus Courses really are student-centered because they’re generated based on student interest,” explains Walsh. “What they’re learning also needs to be connected to their life. They need to see it holistically and make connections between what they’re learning and how they can continue to pursue it in their community to set them up for a lifetime of healthy, active living.”

Delivering the course within the context of a healthy school community is also foundational—and Focus Courses provide wonderful opportunities for community involvement, whether it’s by having a representative from the Red Cross come in to lead a life-saving lesson in an aquatics course or by accessing a local rink while doing outdoor activities.

Focus Courses Foster the Development of Physical and Health Literacy.

Likewise—as with other H&PE courses—Focus Courses foster physical literacy. After all, through their array of linked activities, they’re a natural fit for helping students learn to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities. “We’re looking for those same transferable skills but making connections to whatever the focus of the course is,” explains Inglis.

Making connections to healthy living topics—such as substance use and abuse and healthy development and sexuality—can be more challenging for educators, but with a little creative thinking, there are plenty of opportunities to make links between the activity and the living skills, such as interpersonal skills and critical and creative thinking skills.

“If you’re in the woods talking about survival skills in an outdoor education course and you want to make connections to substance abuse, you can talk about what you can and can’t eat; what substances are poisonous,” says Inglis.  “Or you can talk about consent in an aquatics course. Whether we’re talking about consenting to administering first aid or consenting to sexual activity ... all the same kinds of decision making skills are used.”

Walsh also suggests using the inquiry process to address healthy living expectations. Inquiry is a powerful approach to learning that puts students in the drivers’ seat as they formulate questions then seek out and communicate their answers. It’s effective in all subject areas, but can be especially helpful in cases where students may have already taken another H&PE course at the same grade level. “With inquiry, I’m not delivering the same lesson that was just delivered in another course, alternatively, I adopt an inquiry stance. I use the topics or concepts as the context for students to formulate their own questions and that drives their learning.” explains Walsh.

She also points out that, even in cases where educators aren’t able to make connections between the topic of a focus course and the healthy living expectations, the expectations still need to be taught to support students in developing their healthy literacy which is essential for their life-long health. “ The focus is a vehicle for learning. Not the learning itself,” she says.  

Advocating for a Focus Course.

If you’d like to see a Focus Course offered in your school but aren’t sure where to begin, collecting data from students is always a strong start.

“Student voice is very powerful,” says Walsh. “Take that data forward to the administration or the school-based team that makes decisions about what courses to offer. Demonstrate that students want the learning and argue that it’s important to keep students engaged in H&PE throughout high school because the learning is so connected to their lifelong emotional, mental and spiritual health.”

New resources are in place to support you!

This month, Ophea is proud to release a Focus Course Planning Guide component as part of Ophea’s new H&PE Secondary Resources. The Focus Course Planning Guide has been specifically designed to support educators with the planning and development of quality Focus Courses that address the expectations of the Grade 9-12 H&PE Curriculum.

Furthermore, the Guide helps educators to understand the purpose of a Focus Course, ensure that all curriculum connections are addressed, and how to integrate the inquiry process, advocate for a Focus Course, and market it to students.

“There’s been a huge need for a Focus Course Guide for some time,” says Walsh. “We’ve tried hard to offer support through professional learning, and now we have a curriculum that we can use to frame the resource we’ve developed.” The online Guide is available to teachers from school boards that have purchased access.

Walsh also suggests that educators consult Ophea’s Inquiry-Based Learning in Health and Physical Education resource for a more detailed approach to using the inquiry-based learning process in H&PE.

The Big Picture.

 “If a Focus Course is the only secondary H&PE course a student takes we need to be sure that we’ve prepared them for a lifetime of healthy living,” concludes Walsh. That means making sure all curriculum expectations—including the healthy living expectations and the Living Skills—are addressed, that the course focuses on the development of physical literacy and that it is built around the five fundamental principles of the H&PE curriculum.

Plenty of careful planning goes into the creation and delivery of a good Focus Course, but although it’s hard work, it’s also a whole lot of fun. After all, Focus Courses are about helping students discover which physical activities they love most—and, as an educator, that’s an exciting thing to be part of.

“As long as kids are enjoying what they’re doing and they see its relevance, they’re going to be engaged,” says Inglis. And it’s that engagement that will help them to see the big picture: that physical activity is fun, that it’s meant for them, and that it can and should be part of the rest of their lives.