A grassroots organization of teachers helping teachers — specifically in physical education — has a key partnership with SUNY Cortland, including a number of alumni and faculty.
Aaron Hart M ’99 is the executive director of OPEN, the Online Physical Education Network, a public service of BSN Sports and U.S. Games. OPEN is a free service that uses a network of 42 national trainers to provide curriculum support and professional development experiences to physical education teachers across the country. To date, OPEN, which officially launched in March 2015, has seen more than 33,000 teachers download lesson plans and resources that have reached 17.5 million students.
Through presentations and school visits, Hart has heard about the impact of the partnership firsthand.
“The appreciation that the teachers had for the resources we’re providing them was just enormous,” he said. “I can’t even really express it.”
Hart is an adjunct lecturer in SUNY Cortland’s Physical Education Department and had previously worked as a professional curriculum writer. In conjunction with Nick Kline M ’05, also an adjunct lecturer at SUNY Cortland and the Northeast manager for U.S. Games, Hart developed a model for creating and providing an open source curriculum for physical education teachers. Hart works with SUNY Cortland students in the Physical Education Department’s Activity and Movement Pedagogy (AMP) Lab in Park Center. BSN Sports and U.S. Games, retailers of athletic equipment and uniforms, decided to provide financial support for OPEN as a public service organization.
The need for providing free curricula stems from two factors. One, many physical education teachers have an annual budget in the range of $400 to $500. Purchasing curricula from private companies often erodes most of that budget, leaving little money for purchasing new equipment.
Two, the Common Core State Standards Initiative, adopted by many states beginning in 2010, changed the way physical educators teach and are evaluated. OPEN has helped tens of thousands of teachers spend their budgets more wisely and allowed them to keep up with changing standards.
“Physical educators were becoming required, because of teacher evaluation, to incorporate academic rigor concepts into physical education,” Hart said. “The same concepts as math, science, social studies and language arts, but they weren’t given physical education-specific resources and training to be able to do that.
“From the beginning, we made sure that we had administrators on our development council who were very well-versed in the teacher evaluation process,” Hart said. “We knew exactly what teachers were going to be held accountable for and we built that into the curriculum.”
New curriculum modules are uploaded throughout the year and are aimed at students from pre-school through high school. Because of the open source nature of the program — OPEN asks only that no one resell their lessons for profit — the documents are available in both PDF and Microsoft Word formats, allowing teachers to customize lesson plans to fit their needs.
“Once you go to an open online platform, you can be nimble and adapt as things change,” said John Foley, professor and chair of the Physical Education Department, and director of the AMP Lab. “You can adjust content rather rapidly. Case in point, we did an Olympics module and we added a Paralympics module. We were able to put that online in time for the Paralympics. If you have your old, traditional curriculum book, you don’t get an update just like that.”
OPEN relies on its team of national trainers, many of whom are teachers or retired teachers, to go into schools and work with physical educators on how to best implement these programs. Of the 42 OPEN trainers across the country, three are SUNY Cortland graduates: Brandon Herwick ’10, Elyse Loughlin ’07, M ’13 and Mike Miller ’07. Helena Baert, associate professor of physical education, is also an OPEN trainer and a member of the OPEN Development Council.
Additional OPEN Development Council members include Kline, Professor of Physical Education Diane Craft, and Hart’s wife, Andrea Hart, nutritionist for Auxiliary Services Corporation.
The trainers’ reach extends beyond in-person meetings. Miller hosts a podcast with Mike Martinez, a SUNY Brockport graduate and a fellow teacher at Democracy Prep in New York City, the OPEN Forum podcast. Since launching in late 2017, the podcast has already reached more than 2,000 subscribers and offers more creative ideas for physical educators. OPEN also published PhysEd Magazine and the OPEN Blog.
SUNY Cortland students and faculty are making the most of the partnership with OPEN. Recently retired professor Eric Malmberg, an expert in the field of gymnastics, helped author the upcoming gymnastics curriculum module. Baert and Craft have lent their knowledge in early childhood physical education. Two graduate students and two undergraduate students are also working with Hart in the AMP Lab. Of course, many faculty members are introducing some of OPEN’s main concepts in their classes, exposing students to new ideas.
“It’s an ideal partnership and that’s really the best way to look at it,” Foley said. “It allows us as faculty to contribute curricular content to OPEN. The OPEN project can pick our brains and seek our input.”
For Aaron Hart, the in-person visits are the most meaningful experiences he’s had through OPEN. In December 2017, he and a team of trainers visited rural public schools outside of Baton Rouge, La. Partnering with EatMoveGrow, a federally funded grant program that aims to close health gaps in underserved elementary schools across Louisiana, OPEN trainers reached educators who desperately needed their help.
“Many of the physical educators we worked with, they felt as if they were completely forgotten and alone,” Hart said. “We walked into a situation where one of the physical education teachers had just bought sponges on clearance from Dollar General to use for beanbags. That was the equipment he had.”
Not only did these teachers have access to OPEN’s vast array of free curricula, they received essential equipment packs. For some of the veteran teachers, it was the first new equipment that they had ever received.
“You would’ve thought we were bringing them brand-new cars,” Hart said of teachers bursting into tears upon claiming the gifts.
Most of all, OPEN’s expert trainers are now familiar faces. They are a mere text, email or phone call away from the teachers in Louisiana. Hart hopes to continue to build those links across the country in keeping with OPEN’s simple mission: teachers helping teachers.
“For the teachers in Louisiana to interact with these high-caliber teachers, it opened their eyes a little bit to what’s possible,” Hart said. “A lot of those teachers have reached out and communicated with our trainers asking for advice. They no longer feel alone. That’s the important piece. They no longer feel alone.”
Many physical education teachers are able to travel to professional development conferences to learn how to be better teachers. Others, however, either can’t afford registration costs or can’t travel long distances to these events. So OPEN goes to them. A partnership with the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) Colorado, provided a free professional development session in a rural and remote part of the state.
“We were hoping to have 20 teachers show up because of the rural nature, but the two sessions averaged 70 teachers at each event,” Hart said. “It speaks volumes to the dedication and passion of physical educators for what we do. Some just need the resources to do it.”
A similar free professional development event in Ashville, N.C., drew 120 teachers on a Sunday afternoon in the summer. OPEN will host another free event on March 18 in Nashville, Tenn., prior to the SHAPE America national convention.
OPEN has partnered with a number of national and state-level organizations, including The Cooper Institute, a non-profit that is dedicated to promoting life-long health and wellness through research and education. In April, OPEN will release a curriculum module that will help teachers improve students’ FitnessGram scores. FitnessGram is a non-competitive assessment that is used annually in tens of thousands of schools across the country, reaching more than 10 million children.
Recently, OPEN became a partner with Active Schools, an organization that promotes 60 minutes of physical activity each day in U.S. public schools. Hart sits on Active School’s strategic advisory council and is working with Executive Director Charlene Burgeson.
“That’s been an important development for us because our entire mission is helping teachers, which in turn helps students,” Hart said. “The success of the organization has gotten national attention and we’re building on that constantly.”
OPEN dipped into the SUNY Cortland alumni base again in its relationship with the Virginia Department of Education. Vanessa Wigand ’77, specialist in health, physical education and driver education for the Virginia Department of Education, has worked with OPEN and the AMP Lab to develop custom curricula modules that are posted to the Health Smart Virginia website. Virginia’s educational standards are more rigorous than the national standards, so OPEN’s modifiable open source lesson plans have been a hit with the state’s physical education teachers.
OPEN, the AMP Lab and the Virginia Department of Education have agreed to work together through the 2019-20 school year, which locks in funding for graduate student assistants.
Curriculum modules from OPEN have been downloaded nearly 1 million times. Hart expects to hit that mark sometime in the fall. The teachers using the free lessons plans are not limited to the United States.
“When you think of the breadth of this project, this impacts a lot of people,” Foley said. “We have people downloading content from other countries. This has a potential to be global in impact.”
Hart hopes that SUNY Cortland’s large base of active alumni in physical education will experiment with OPEN lesson plans in their classrooms and help spread the word about the program. If teachers continue to help teachers, students across America will better learn to develop healthy lifestyles.
“I never thought we’d be over 30,000 teachers at this point,” Hart said. “If we were over 10,000, I thought we’d be a success. We’re growing at more than 1,000 members a month. It’s really been a blessing.”