Life is all about shared experiences. It’s that simple. We create bonds around these shared experiences. Those bonds may change over time but they do not disappear. No matter how much you grow apart from those throughout your life those shared experiences will always be there. It’s why when I hang out with my high school friends we inevitably end up talking about the glory days. No matter how much we have changed after those formative years we fall right back into the nostalgia of yesteryear laughing or lamenting our actions and behaviors with those who we shared them with.
This spring break we packed some bags and children into our SUV and drove 21 hours straight down to Ft. Lauderdale from Trenton NJ. The purpose of the trip was to visit my grandfather who is the namesake of my youngest child. Tax money had come in and the need to see him outweighed the logic that this trip would be expensive and set us back a pretty penny.
My grandfather was the kind of family member that usually only exist in stories. He is a retired guidance counselor who was quite athletic in his younger days. This combination made him the perfect playmate for two young boys such as my brother and I. We would go camping, fishing, play basketball, bike ride, drill math facts, learn to read and do all the other things that grandparents and grandchildren are supposed to do together. We were a match made in heaven.
I was around 7 years old when my grandfather and grandmother moved to Florida. The one positive thing for me was that they would come home every summer and stay in the addition that they had put on my parent’s house. I vividly remember coming home from elementary school in late spring and seeing their white Crown Victoria with Florida plates parked in front of the house. This sent me sprinting as fast as possible to see my grandparents. I can only describe the feeling as the joy of combining Christmas, my birthday, Hanukkah, and a having a snow day off from school.
I realize now what their arrival meant. It was the arrival of fun and new opportunities to share experiences. Where would the summer take us? Would we go boating or find a new campground? Would we take trips to Shenandoah Valley or travel to the Pine Barrens in South Jersey? Wherever we went I knew that we would enjoy every minute of the day and night we could.
Fast forward 25 years and that spry athletic grandfather has mellowed out to a man who barely leaves his room anymore. It is a painful process to be a part of. The last remaining parts of my childhood are rapidly deteriorating. I no longer have the carefree attitude and freedom of a child. I understood that when I had children this was the tradeoff I was making. That doesn’t make it any easier to see the man who I admired and shared so many experiences body failing him. When I see him now it really makes me reflect on just how amazing he made my childhood.
While in Florida my grandfather and I looked at old photographs and watched home videos on his VCR while my children ran around like nuts and tried to eat jolly ranchers by the handful. One moment that brought tears to my eyes was watching my son read to his great grandfather. I remember clearly being in the same position and reading in the same struggling staccato method. My grandfather just sat there and smiled the entire time. It was obvious it meant as much to him to see that as it did to me.
This trip created new shared experience for my family. We suffered the marathon car rides, played on the beach, went to our first movie in a theater, and strengthened our familial bonds with my aunt and cousin. That is the part of trips and vacations that are terribly undervalued. It’s not just about seeing the world or doing something fun. It’s about having people to share those experiences with.
As I get older and barely wiser I realize that my classroom and my summer camp are wonderful opportunities to create positive shared experiences. I now outright state to my students and campers that we are going to create shared experiences throughout the year and the summer. When I focus on this idea of shared experiences in the classroom it changes the way everything is done. The power automatically shifts onto the students. My class becomes a meeting place where ideas can organically grow. I tell all my students they are more than welcome to create a game or activity they would like to play in my Physical Education class. They have to share the game with me beforehand and I reserve the right to modify the game slightly to meet the standards and grade level outcomes. Most games and activities I create last about five minutes. After that beginning round, I ask the students to make one rule change to improve the game. This is one way I attempt to create an experience that they find enjoyable.
We also use circle time in the beginning and end of the class to reflect on our previous weekend or day as well as the current class period. This creates an atmosphere of unity amongst the class and allows the students to connect on a humanistic level. That is the beauty of Physical Education, we can focus more on the journey than the destination. In an era of unprecedented cognitive state mandated testing, we are missing the big picture of why our students learn. I am attempting to create an atmosphere where my students can look back on their schooling with the same fondness that my grandfather was able to create for me.