Sunday, February 14, 2016

Russian PE

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) --  As Moscow is again engulfed by a flu epidemic and some schools are forced into quarantine, Russians are attempting to address the question as to why their children are afflicted with such bad health. For every year, many children come down with some virus, flu or suffer from chronic diseases. In response to this, the Russian state has been attempting to impose a compulsory program of Physical Education in not only schools but all institutions of further education. Second City Teachers discovered that many children expressed reservations or mixed feeling about this. 

              It was odd. Why was my student of English Dan so cheerful when arriving at my English lesson?  Had he seen the light? Did he now grasp the importance of working hard to improve his English? So I asked him, 'Daniel, are you ill?  'Well, yes, I was ill in the morning but now I feel fine. I have just been told I'm to get one week off school. Our school is in quarantine because of the flu epidemic. It is great! I'll beable to watch the Chicago Bull basketball matches!'

              The secretary of the school in which I worked confirmed that many children were not attending classes after coming down with some virus. A flu epidemic has begun in Moscow and appears to have assumed the character of what sociologists regard as 'a moral panic'. 'Don't treat yourself  but go to your local doctors.'  The latest epidemic and the failing health of a rising number of school children raises the old questions, 'Who is to blame?' and 'What is
to be done?' However, divergent opinions are on those questions, the general consensus is that the health of Russian children is poor and has been deteriorating over the past years.

              According to President Putin, two thirds of children develop chronic diseases by the age of 14 and half of all pupils show signs of Musculo-skeletal development. An increasing number of children are becoming overweight and as many as one out of four Russian adults appear to suffer from overweight. Russian children also appear to have a frail
immunity system and constantly come down with flu not once but two, three or four times a year.

              What are the causes? There are several explicit explanations. Moscow is cursed by dreadful pollution, an overcrowded metro, a dreadful climate for health, poor diet, and a new form of environment where  both pupils and workers are hunched over computers for endless hours. However, a highly competitive environment where many people are isolated without families, friends and a sympathetic ear boosts stress levels. Poverty, unemployment or the threat of unemployment and abuse by insensitive         employers all do their part to weaken mental and then physical health.

              Those wider causes are seldom explored by many Russian officials.

              Instead, officials attribute the weak health of Russian children to poor diet and lack of exercise. Therefore, the solution lies with fostering a cult of sport as well as a healthy diet.

              STATE RESPONSE
              The response of the Russian government has been to pass laws where every student, whether in schools or further educational institutions, must do a minimum of three hours of P.E. a week. The Russian state has been attempting to revive the old Soviet sports program, the GTO, or 'Ready for Labour and Defence, introduced in 1931 to 'enhance the
Physical Education and readiness for mobilisation of the Soviet people primarily the youngest generation.'

              School students also are tested in physical education and have to do special tests where they attain a mark. Those measures were welcomed by most sportsmen and P.E. teachers. Pavel Karpov stated, 'It is natural to expect the government to impose requirements on its future citizens and general physical education fitness does not hurt anyone.' Sportsman Viacheslav maintains that, 'Being involved in sports from an early age can help children develop a strong aversion to both alcohol and drugs by the age of 12. We need a health nation to attain a healthy successful economy'.

              Not everyone agrees that 'general physical education does not hurt everyone'.

              Some pupils think it does and don't relish attending P.E. lessons.

              You might expect children to welcome the chance to do more sport than be confined behind a desk solving maths problems or doing dull grammar tests. An economist told me, 'When I was at school physical education was one of the most popular subjects. Everyone preferred to do sport than attend Russian literature classes. It is difficult to understand why some children are averse to P.E. lessons.'

              There are indeed pupils who loathe physical education! I spoke to some Russian school children and received some odd answers.

              I asked a 12 year old boy Peter,  'How do you like Physical education?'

              He answered, 'Oh this is my favorite subject. I can hand the teacher a letter and then go to a room where I can either sleep or do my homework.

              'However, when the P.E. teacher entered the room and noticed I was not ill but doing my homework he got very angry'.

              Another student, Kirill, a student at the Institute of Agriculture told me, 'I hate this subject. The teacher makes us do difficult exercises and we spend most of the time running round the school. The teacher has made it clear to us she does not want to teach us. Once we had a lesson and she did not even turn up claiming she was ill. When we saw her in another class room chatting away to another teacher when she should have been teaching us we signed  a petition of protest. The students complained about the lax
behaviour of the teacher and wanted a replacement. The students boycotted the classes.'

             'The director of the institute summoned us and told us, 'You don't have the right to write this petition and boycott the P.E. classes.'  Nevertheless, an understanding was reached and most students returned to the classroom.'

             Why the reluctance by some to attend P.E. classes? Russian pupils tell me they find it impossible to do some of the daunting physical exercises, find it humiliating, are too tired after course work or find lessons are held at the worst times -at the end of the week when they are dead-beat. Other students tell me me that P.E. is irrelevant to their future education. It represents an inconvenient and annoying         distraction. Other students tell me P.E. just consists of either playing one limited sport or running around the school several times. If teachers attempt to make students do a sport they are not good at, the children are less inclined to go to classes. If students don't go to classes for good reasons, their grants can be cut!

             One of the problems appears to be that many teachers are imposing one general standard on pupils without acknowledging  the vast differences in physical abilities. There appears to be a gross overestimation of the
physical abilities of pupils. Some teachers appear to lack practical common sense. If a student finds it impossible to do a particular exercise then you offer him a realistically challenging exercise. Even President Putin acknowledged that,  'We can't overtax kid and cause heart attacks. We
need to have a system of guide-lines.'

             For some Russian students, P.E. represents a form of mental and physical torture. Sergei Nazarov, who has recently formed 'The Russian Club of Tolstyakovs (overweight people) is campaigning for the creation
of independent schools designed specifically for overweight children. He has already appealed to the local council to support his initiative. One of the main reasons for setting up such a school lay in how P. E. lessons became a dreadful ordeal for school students. Sergei Nazarov explains that, 'I already think that it is worth having lessons in tolerance toward overweight children in ordinary schools. Children have many complexes and other children worsen the situation. That was my experience in childhood. Other children offended us and only the teacher could put a stop to this. It was also very difficult during lessons of Physical Education.

             'Therefore I think that overweight children require a separate and lighter program in this subject.'  

             According to Sergei, you have to explain to children, 'That not all people are the same, they have particular           characteristics and you must not call them names and tease other children who are overweight'. 

             Evidently, any programs designed to improve the health of school children require deeper thought as well as subtle tact.

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