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This past summer, my husband asked me to go to a CrossFit gym with him. He was looking for something different, something that would motivate him to exercise more. He’d heard about CrossFit and thought it sounded promising, so he asked me to go with him to a “newbie night” to try a sample workout. Knowing full well that this would be a one-time favor, I went along.

When we approached the gym (or box, as they call it in CrossFit), my skepticism only grew stronger. The building looked like a garage and the black rubber floor filled the room with the smell of tires. There appeared to be a few pieces of workout equipment around, hanging on the walls mostly, and a few people were lifting these huge barbells, but mostly everyone was just hanging out, talking. And drinking coffee, for some odd reason. My plan was to politely tolerate whatever the next hour brought, but I was positive this would never be a place I’d call home.

Fast-forward three months, and I am completely in love with this place. I have cancelled my other gym membership, I’m thrilled by how strong I feel, and I’m more motivated to exercise than I have ever been.

This is ironic, because I kind of suck at it. If you compare what I can do to what the more experienced people can do, there’s no contest. I am absolutely in the lower tier of students: I use lighter weights, I do fewer reps, I need more breaks, and I take longer to do just about everything. For the first time, I understand what it feels like to be a struggling student. I understand what it’s like to feel totally lost, confused, and unskilled, surrounded by others who seem to know exactly what they’re doing. But because of the way CrossFit is structured, I keep trying. And I have no plans to stop.

Why is that? Why am I, a struggling student, still motivated? I’ve done some thinking about it, and I believe it comes down to four principles, four aspects of the CrossFit approach that are really working for me. I think we can apply these same principles to our classroom teaching and get better results, especially from students who don’t naturally perform to their potential. Here they are:

1: Student choice + well-crafted options = powerful differentiation.

Every time I show up to the gym, I look to a huge blackboard for the Workout of the Day, known by CrossFitters as the WOD. The WOD is a list of whatever exercises we’re going to do that day, how many reps, for how long, and so on. But on most days, the WOD is not alone: Beside it, there’s usually some extra information titled “JV.” This is a list of the modifications we can make if the prescribed WOD is too difficult. (In almost every case, it is way too hard for me). Usually, these modifications involve scaling down the weight we use or reducing the number of reps we have to do. If the JV version is too hard, they often offer a “Frosh” version that’s scaled down even further.

Suppose the WOD includes a series of overhead presses with a barbell. The prescribed weight for women might be 90 pounds. The scaled weight might be 70 pounds. But when I first tried it, all I could lift for any length of time was the 25 lb barbell, alone, with no weights added.

 

Me, struggling to hold a 25-lb bar over my head. I’m a beast, I know.

 

Here’s the most important thing about these modifications: We are never assigned  to use them. Modifying our workout is our decision, every time. So on some days, I’ll look at the WOD and know for sure that I’ll need to make a lot of modifications. On other days I look at the WOD and think, I’m going for it. Sometimes I get partway through and think NEVER MIND. But other times I nearly get there. Those days are golden.

Also: No one ever, EVER makes you feel crappy about scaling down. People were cheering me on with those little barbell presses. It didn’t feel condescending, either. Just supportive. I knew they had all been beginners once, too.

Classroom application: Whenever possible, we should tier our assignments, but let students choose which tier to work on. Students should be able to change course if the tier they’ve chosen turns out to be too hard or too easy: Spend time helping them understand how both of those situations feel. Make sure that in your classroom, scaling down is looked upon as a smart, self-aware move, not a sad option for the weak or the slow. And keep raising the bar: As soon as they show signs of readiness, encourage students to attempt the next level.

2: Variety matters.

One foundation of CrossFit is that the workouts are constantly varied, sometimes not repeating themselves for months at a time. This allows participants to learn and develop a wide range of skills and prevents us from hitting plateaus. I like it because I’m never bored. In every other fitness regimen I’ve tried, I could eventually predict the routine—even Zumba got boring—and dragging myself to the gym became a chore. With CrossFit, I never know exactly what we’re going to do, and because certain exercises aren’t repeated for long periods of time, I’m excited when they come up.

Classroom application: Find new ways to add variety to your class routine. This sounds obvious, but so many of us get into a rut without realizing it. Yes, students thrive on predictability, but if you can chunk your content and skills into shorter, more intense activities, then mix them up, the energy level in your class will go up and you’ll keep students wanting to come back. For an English language arts class, this might mean one day includes a grammar review game, then a quick write, followed by two student read-alouds of pieces they are working on. The next day could start with a 15-minute session of Philosophical Chairs to practice speaking skills, followed by 15 minutes of self-selected silent reading, and finishing up with a fast proofreading exercise. In a math class, students could start with a Reciprocal Learning activity to review learning from the day before, followed by a Number Talk, and finally a team competition with Kahoot. The next day could include some work with manipulatives, then a Gallery Walk where groups solve problems together, finishing with a few minutes singing a song that helps students remember an important math concept.

3: Gamification works.

Our gym encourages us to use an app called SugarWOD to record our stats for each workout. Earlier this week, for example, we had to do 5 rounds of “Thrusters,” where we lift weight up over our heads, and in each round are supposed to increase the weight a little bit. Once I was done, I went into SugarWOD and entered my information:

crossfit-3

 

Just the act of entering my numbers is satisfying. It’s motivating. It makes me want to finish the workout just so I can put my numbers into the app. Then I can check out the leaderboard to see what other people have done. I can give them virtual “Fist Bumps” and they can give some to me as well.

As a rookie, I don’t know much about what lies beyond this, but when I look around my gym, I see a lot of numbers and charts all over the place; people keeping track of all kinds of stats. A quick search on Google shows me that CrossFit coaches and gyms everywhere are developing systems of levels for athletes to work toward. And for me, this is motivating. Just doing “whatever I can” probably won’t sustain me, but knowing that reaching a certain max weight in a certain exercise means I’ve reached a new level of fitness? That will push me to get there faster.

Classroom application: Whenever possible, find ways to let students track their progress. In education we have trended lately toward focusing too much on data, but I’m not talking about anything that gets reported to the state or turns into a grade. I’m talking about recording your own growth over time, for your own personal satisfaction. To add more motivation, look for ways to add game mechanics—like leveling up and badges—to your classroom. In cases where a skill isn’t easily quantifiable, consider a more descriptive way to measure growth, or have students self-assess their progress based on identifiable characteristics of their work, rather than a score.

4: Personal best is most important, but a little competition helps.

Beating my own personal record is satisfying, yes. But one of the reasons CrossFit works so well for me is the fact that they have us do our workouts in groups. In a lot of cases, we are timed. This is a huge motivator for me. If someone told me I had to run one mile by myself and record my time, I would want to beat my previous time, sure. But have me run with a group of people? Now there’s peer pressure, and that pushes me harder. Because so many people at my gym are so far ahead of me, I don’t kid myself into thinking I’m going to beat their time, but I sure as heck don’t want to be crossing the finish line way, waaaaay behind them. Ultimately, doing the work with people who are better than me makes me work harder. Here’s the thing, though: If every single other person could run laps around me, and if there was no chance I was going to come anywhere close to anyone else’s time? My motivation would probably fall apart. Knowing that I was completely out of my league would make me cut myself way more slack than I should.

 

Crossfit-4CrossFit Fever Games (recolored) by CrossFit Fever licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

Classroom application: Build opportunities into your instruction for healthy competition. Team challenges, individual challenges, competitions for time or number of items completed can all boost student motivation. But because timed tests can cause unhealthy anxiety in some kids, and competition in general isn’t for everyone, consider making these kinds of competitions strictly voluntary.

 

It’s easy to draw parallels between fitness and education: Achieving either one is a complex task, especially if we’re trying to help lots of people from different backgrounds get great results. You only have to watch late-night TV or open your spam folder to find proof that plenty of us still haven’t figured out how to maintain a healthy body, and no one has fully answered the question of how to effectively educate all students. CrossFit’s explosive growth in popularity is a good enough reason to look more closely at its methods and see what we might be able to apply to the classroom. As an average-to-low-level student of fitness myself, all I can say is that it’s definitely working for me. ♦

 

 

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34 Comments

  1. Lovely!
    “But what about the standards?” I hear them cry.

    • You know, Howard? I think this approach can totally work with standards. If we treat standards like CrossFit treats the WOD, as a goal to be eventually attained, students and their teachers can work to scale down if needed, but always with a push towards attaining, and eventually surpassing those skills.

  2. Sherri Spelic says:

    Way to go, Jenn! So great to hear how this approach is working for you and exactly which aspects are making the critical difference. Much of what you describe fits into my approach to teaching PE. What I really appreciate here are the connections you draw to the regular classroom and how several of these principles can be applied. Which leads me to the notion that specialists in various areas likely have a great deal to share in terms of methods and strategies which transfer well to the classroom but may be overlooked. Thanks for highlighting great practice for all of us. Enjoy your CrossFit journey!

    • Nancy, this article is WONDERFUL! For anyone reading through these comments: If you like this discussion about the connection between CrossFit and teaching, read Nancy’s post (link in the previous comment). It addresses the same topic, but she covers some areas I don’t. Definitely worth a read!

  3. Kelley Camp says:

    I love this! My only concern is the idea of tiered assignments sounds great, in theory, but I know all of my students would automatically run for the easiest level just to be done with it! How do you think that could be prevented?

    • Hey Kelley, I think the answer to that lies in how you build the culture of your classroom. If students are encouraged to try challenging things, and if you communicate to them that they need to make thoughtful decisions about which level to attempt, I think in most cases they will choose appropriately. I would like to hear from more teachers about this, though, about what has worked for them to address this potential pitfall. I could see arguments for several approaches:

      (1) Just let them choose easy; ignore it and don’t fight them. They will eventually get bored and try to level up.
      (2) Make “choosing” a privilege, and if a student regularly insists on selecting a level well below his ability, take away that privilege. (I’m not sure how well this would work…it removes the freedom of choice that is so motivating.)
      (3) In a standards-based situation, a student is expected to eventually master that standard–which in many tiered assignments is the “middle” level (yes?). I think the idea with those who scale down is that they are doing this as practice and working toward being able to reach the actual goal. So by choosing a lower level than they are actually capable of, they are either opting to not meet the standard or to take twice as long to get there.

      I don’t know. I’m still thinking about this myself. Most students WANT to be smart and capable, and although I hear from high school teachers all the time how much they struggle with student motivation, but it seems that the motivation would naturally come if the task itself is well-designed and appropriately challenging. I’m going to stop fiddling around with my response now and see if others pipe in.

  4. Betsy says:

    I had the same thought about students being free to choose their level of difficulty. It made me think of how, as far as literacy goes, we should teach students to vary what they read- some for fun and easy reading, some for more thought-provoking stuff. What if students were given a card with 10 boxes for each- easy, medium, challenging- and had “guided freedom” to choose the right type of activity? If all of the easy boxes have been used up, then they would only be able to choose a medium or challenging activity. I guess I made it sound like a lot of extra work, but if implemented right and if the kids became familiar with the process, I think it would eventually become habit. Maybe if students wanted to do more challenging activities than what is required, they would earn a privilege? Any thoughts?

    • Izabella says:

      Betsy, I love this idea! I would maybe even go so far as to change the number of boxes (3 easy, 10 medium, 5 challenging) so that students have to challenge themselves. Another option is for each student to get boxes based on their skill level. If I know they are a struggling students, I might give them 10 easy, 5 medium, and two challenging… but if they are excelling in class, they might have 3 easy, 5 medium, and 10 challenging.

  5. Dawn Rauto says:

    I’m a fan. On my way to becoming a better teacher. Thanks!

  6. As an educator…who is also a fitness instructor in my other life….I LOVE THIS! For me there are so many parallels between teaching and working out. Getting out of your comfort zone…and getting that AHA! moment is one. Because I am a group fitness instructor and teacher of third graders, I find myself using the same methods to motivate and inspire my students. I love creating a sense of community in the classroom and also in the gym. It keeps ’em coming back for more. GREAT article! AWESOME job working out too!

    • The community is huge, Lisl! I could have made this post twice as long, and one of the things I would have added is that sense of community. I have never seen anything like it at any other gym.

  7. Kendra says:

    I love teaching and I love CrossFit. Great connections to the classroom. I think I might try a group competition with different levels for a literary analysis with my seniors. Hopefully the competition and ability to choose levels of tasks will keep them focused on school and not on graduation.

  8. Dan Freeman says:

    Bravo, says this social studies teacher and 6th year crossfitter. Haven’t read all replies, but to me, the crossfit box is littered with CLEAR STANDARDS. Take the muscle up, for example. It is readily apparent what success looks like. It becomes really obvious, too, what exercises will build the proper strength and coordination to complete one. The standard doesnt go away at the end of the semester, it is always there. Continued work toward that standard WILL get you there. This is one of dozens of examples. Thanks for this post.

    • So true. That clarity really is motivating. Having other people there who have already achieved many of the goals that are still way off for me is also strangely motivating (rather than discouraging me into thinking I’ll never do it). I see other people doing it, people who couldn’t do it at some earlier point in time. And they can HELP ME with those specific progressions!

  9. Tom Triolo says:

    As another member of the Crossfit community I think your parallels are spot on. Further, what I have re-learned is that every movement is taught in a series of progressions. The most complex lifts can be broken down into small components that must then be put together in a orderly fashion. Make a mistake in one movement and it can blow the whole lift. Or, we can find a way to compensate. For instance, I can do double unders 20 or 30 at a time but can’t string them together yet. My current way is to do a single in between. It’s not the most efficient and it’s longer but it works. I inform my students that they don’t have to do a particular Math problem my way but there is a most efficient method. I guide them to the most efficient (elegant) method. I do this all of the time in my Math classes. Never saw the connection until now. Still working on stringing my DU’s! Thanks for the epifany!

    • Hey Tom,

      Now you’ve got me thinking about how we can apply the concept of progression to academic skills — love that. Also, double unders are my nemesis, even worse than pull-ups. I still haven’t been able to do a single one yet. When I see DUs on the board, I just want to cry. It’s incredibly humbling to be the only person in the room who can’t do a single one. But I know if I keep trying, I’ll get it. I just did my very first adult handstand two days ago, so I have hope for the jump rope!

  10. Mary says:

    Hello, I have never tried cross fit. I have tried a Les Mills class called body pump. What I like about Pump, is the opposite of one of the things you like about cross fit. I like that it is basically the same exercises in the same order for months. I like knowing what to expect. And I like knowing that I put in my hour, and then I’m done. And I like the music. Of course the body part focused on changes every five minutes, so you don’t get bored. Aren’t there are students who, like me, thrive on predictability?

  11. Wow! I am loving your online magazine. I am one of those teacher nerds who is always looking for the bigger ideas like this. I have been thinking a lot about a group of fourth graders I work with in math. It is a small class but their abilities and skills in math have quite the range. I have been thinking about how to structure personalized learning for them and this article has given me some great ideas. I also think I would love Cross fit but there are no cross fit gyms within a reasonable drive of my house or my school!

  12. Jenny Gump says:

    I love Crossfit. From the first class, I thought to myself,”this is how I teach math” in first grade. Everyone come over here, this is how you do this “thing”, now go practice, see how good you can do. Then, the varied activities come after that. Being a newbie to Crossfit has totally helped me see the struggling students and motivated me to help them not feel so awkward. Plus, watching the beasts in my box, makes me want to challenge the advanced students in my class. Crossfit has made my methods (to my madness) in my classroom crystal clear! You put it into words so well…thank you!

    • YEAH! Another CrossFitter! I’m so glad you liked this. You’re so right about the “beasts” being a great parallel to the advanced kids, and yes, they do get plenty of challenge in CrossFit, as they should in the classroom. Thanks for taking the time to write, Jenny!

  13. Mary Beth says:

    I am also new(ish—5 months) to CrossFit. In those first few weeks, I was reminded, in pretty much every session, to be more empathetic toward my fifth graders. Setting up for a CrossFit WOD, especially in the beginning, often put me in the students’ shoes. When we’d have to get equipment ready, find floor space or a rack, or claim rings or pull up area, etc., I would find myself lost. Everyone but me would seem to know what she’s supposed to be doing. By the time I had figured out what I needed and found a space to work, people would already be a few reps in. Aack! I was behind not because I was dawdling/talking or not paying attention or not wanting to work but because it’s an unfamiliar activity. So, the CrossFit/classroom parallel is in preparing for an activity that involves meeting up with partners and getting materials and claiming workspace. During those times in my classroom, (after having given clear directions, of course!) I keep an extra eye out for someone who might seem lost or confused. And just in general, those frustrating CrossFit moments are a good reminder to me that my students do want to do what they are supposed to do, and, if they don’t, I need to figure out why and then help them get back on track.

    • Mary Beth, so much of what you have written here is familiar to me! I’m just now starting to feel like less of a “new kid” and more like a regular. I actually got to help a newer person just the other day with something, and it was such a confidence booster. That’s another lesson to take from this: once a new student has learned a few things, give them an opportunity to be an expert, if the opportunity presents itself. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience!

  14. Homie says:

    Thanks for this. New cross fitter too. The tears and feelings of wanting to run away when it was soooo hard or intimidating were real. I totally felt like a student might and it was a good wake up call. I didn’t love Crossfit at first but now I do. Why? Constant and clear coaching, constant and genuine encouragement, and the constant level of surprise and fun in the workouts. What a concept!! Keep it up girl. Now if only I could get those overhead squats with ease and grace. Looking forward to the next opportunity. And I know someone will be waiting for me to reach my potential at the box.

  15. Hey Jennifer!
    I love the post! I’ve been doing Crossfit for almost four years and its transformed who I am as a person and as most certainly as a teacher. I’ve never been a part of a community like the one at my box who were so dedicated to growth, yet were so open to failure as a part of the process. At a particular rough patch in my teaching career in 2014 I wrote a piece on how Crossfit would change my classroom. I’d love to get your thoughts on it! Thanks for everything you do!
    http://theledproject.com/led-project-blogs.html

  16. I completely agree! The gym has made me a better teacher as well, and I had a few different revelations. I wrote an article a while back that shares my connections between fitness and teaching.
    https://lifewasgoodtoday.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/teaching-the-teacher/

  17. Stacey says:

    I loved this podcast! Thank you! i have been tiering my assignments for Spanish and also looking into tying the tiers to proficiency levels. This tied it all together for me. Thank you Jennifer!

  18. I’ve learned so much from becoming a runner and I have tried CrossFit one or twice. I think this is a really great podcast wonderful take aways and I will be taking a few of these and applying them to our PD at my high school.

  19. Christopher Miller says:

    Jenn, I read this a while ago. Great stuff (of course!). But now that I’m 3+ months into CrossFit training, I’m glad I revisited it! You are exactly right about the community of a CrossFit gym. And applying the lessons we learn there to our teaching is pure gold!

    I’ve been dabbling in gamification with my kids, and the results are off the charts! I mean really off the charts!! So now a couple months to prepare, and let the games begin!!

    Thanks for always being spot on, Jennifer!!

  20. Erica says:

    Thank you so much for this post and thank you to all of the teachers who replied. I am new at Crossfit too and it humbles me every time I walk in the door, because I am that struggling new kid. The flip side is that I walk out feeling like I can conquer the world. There are workouts that I considered walking out on when I saw them on the board, but those are the workouts that helped me grow the most. It’s the first day of summer break and now I am reflecting on how to bring the spirit and strong sense of community from Crossfit into my classroom. I already tier assignments as much as possible, but rarely give a choice of tiers. I love this idea! Some people expressed concern about this, but I think creating a growth mindset will help students approach the choice wisely. I also have no doubt that I will sometimes have to step in and challenge students that create a pattern of shooting too low or give students who didn’t succeed at a higher level the chance to succeed at a lower level. Thank you for new seeds of inspiration!

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