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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Manchester

#DidntQuitTeaching: James, the Canadian PE Teacher

This is a transcript of the mini-podcast episode of A Different EduPodcast, #DidntQuitTeaching: James the Canadian PE Teacher. You can hear the audio podcast from our podcast page, Apple podcasts, or most major podcast distribution services.


The boys began tackling. Kicking and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free for all in the middle of the gym floor...


What began with punching in the clenches became one of the most copying and celebrated lesson plans/Classroom structures of all times.

It was 1891 and Springfield, MA was experiencing an extremely cold winter at the YMCA International Training College, now Springfield College. The young men were growing restless and starting to get physical on the hallways. Fights were breaking out and the administration needed to respond.


We had a real New England Blizzard. For days the students couldn't go outdoors, so they began roughhousing in the halls. We tried everything to keep them quiet. We tried playing a modified form of football in the gymnasium, but they got bored with that. Something had to be done.


This is James. At the time he was a second year graduate student and an undergraduate teacher studying the relatively new field of physical education at the YMCA International Training College.


The trouble is not with the men, but with the system that we are using.


James thought that with the right structure he could not only contain all of this youthful energy, but put it towards a creative gain that engaged mind spirit and body.

James wrote 13 rules and had his secretary typed them up. He posted the rules and the young men started to play.


The boys began tackling. Kicking and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free for all in the middle of the gym floor before I could pull them apart. One boy was knocked out. Several of them had black eyes and one had a dislocated shoulder. It certainly was murder.


James' first iteration of his lesson plan was a complete failure. Most teachers would not have the courage to try again and most school administrations would not let them. Perhaps the problems with the young man's behavior were deeper than a need to use up that physical energy. Would finding a creative outlet for their energy really prove to be better than extinguishing it through harsh zero tolerance consequences?


Well, after that first match, I was afraid they'd kill each other, but they kept nagging me to let them play again. So I made up some more rules.


James waited a few weeks to try the lesson again. By this time his students were begging him to bring the game back, knowing that he now had some leverage. He instituted more guidelines, more rules that would define the play of the game more safely.


That stopped tackling and slugging. We tried out the game with those rules and we didn't have one casualty.

We had a fine clean sport.


This teacher was James Naismith. This was the first game of basketball.

In 10 years through the National YMCA network, the sport [would] spread all over the country. Just 45 years later, James Naismith [would throw] up the jump ball for the first basketball game in the Olympics.

The game of basketball has proven to be much more than a way for students to spend their energy while cooped up during a New England blizzard. Basketball has not endured because of its safe structure, but because of the flexibility and creativity that this safe structure allowed to flourish.

There is no way that James Naismith could have prescribed or even anticipated the way the basketball play has developed out of 13 rules developed millions of hours of play, and nearly that many approaches to the parts of the game.

This started with Naismith insisting that a narrow, consequence driven, top down approach was not the way forward. His supervisor responded "Naismith," he said, "I want you to take that class and see what you can do with it."

So to those educators out there that see the high out of control energy of students and think there can be a better way, we challenge you to take that class and see what you can do with it.

Use Naismith's playbook of creating a lesson from specific objectives, creating a minimal level of structure needed for safety and security, and allowing lots of freedom for continual improvisation and learning.

If there ever was a time for #NaismithSizedLearning, it's now.

If you are looking for more specific ways to engender #NaismithSizedLearning, check out this article for Three Creative Ways to Introduce New Content:

Special thanks to Jack Murphy for the voice acting of James Naismith. The words of James Naismith were taken from a radio interview archived at the University of Kansas, where James later became the head basketball coach. Below is the YouTube video link.

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