Embracing Bellyflops: My Virtual Rock-Paper-Scissors Tournament

Embracing Bellyflops: My Virtual Rock-Paper-Scissors Tournament

These are the show notes for my latest episode of The #PhysEd Show Podcast. Take a listen to the episode by using the player below or subscribe to the show in your favourite podcast app!

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Show Notes & Transcript

We all know the feeling of a solid bellyflop: you get up on the diving board, you have this vision of the Olympic-level perfect dive that you are about to perform, you make your approach and get a solid bounce off the board, and then – as you’re soaring through the air – you realize that something isn’t right. You hesitate. You try to adjust. You try to recoup, but before you know it… SMACK! Your belly hits the water, your whole body stings, and everyone has turned to see what made that sound.

Bellyflops are the worst and can be pretty painful (even if only at an ego level). That being said, we can also learn a lot from them. But we can’t learn anything unless we get over the shame or frustration they cause and reflect on what actually happened. One of the best ways to get into that reflection is to open up and share our experiences with others. 

So let’s dive in!

When the province went into lockdown in the spring of 2020 and we made the switch to distance learning, relationships got interrupted. This – combined with messaging from the government that said that school wasn’t mandatory during the initial lockdown – led to a pretty significant drop in my students’ engagement in PE (especially in grade 6). Although most of the work I was posting was in the form of asynchronous lessons, I still had a live lesson block with my students once a week. For many of those lessons, students were MIA, disengaged, or had their cameras & mics completely turned off. 

I wanted to try to do something to counteract this phenomenon, to reinvest in my relationships with my students, and to give them something to be excited about.

So… I decided to create a virtual Rock Paper Scissors tournament.

Here’s how I put it all together:

First off, we had 30 students in our grade 6 class. Like every other grade, the class was divided into two equal groups: group A and group B. I decided to create a 32 player tournament bracket with students from group A being in the “Eastern” Conference and students from group B in the “Western” Conference. Students had to register for the tournament via a Google Form (which they all did) and were seeded on a first-come, first-served basis (e.g. the first kid to register in group A became the #1 seed in the East, etc.). The extra two seeds were assigned to “Mystery Opponents” which were the students’ homeroom teacher and me. The bracket was created in Google Slides to be easily updated, and I shared it with the students via Google Classroom so that they could always see where everybody was at in the tournament standings.

With the bracket made, it was time to get into the matches! Each day at 11 AM, two students would face off in a best-of-seven RPS battle. That time was selected because it was right after all of the students were together for math class, and the thinking was that it would be an easy jump from math class to the RPS match for the kids involved. 

Students knew when they were scheduled to play because I had made custom match graphics that showcased who would be battling. The graphics featured photos of the students (which I pulled from the school database), the students’ names, their RPS player nicknames (which they shared with me in the registration Google Form), their original seeding, and the round they were currently in. I also emailed the students the day before their match as a reminder that they had next and shared with them the Zoom link they would use for the match (Zoombombing was still a concern when this whole thing started).

When students logged into Zoom for their match, here is the scene they’d walk into:

First off, I’d have Jock Jams playing. I had downloaded a looping video of a sports crowd going crazy and used it as the virtual background for our Zoom meeting (I have a roll-up green screen here at home). At times, I may have been in costume. Basically, I wanted students to feel hyped up and – more important – happy to be there.

All of this work and setup was designed to make this tournament a lot of fun. That being said, the RPS tournament wasn’t about the tournament itself: it was about giving me some one-on-one time with each of my students (although technically two-on-one time, but more on that later). It gave me a chance to make them laugh, to see if they were doing ok, and to show them that – regardless of all of the madness going on in the world – I still cared deeply about them. It was a chance to reinvest in relationships in a way that I would never have done before and in a world that didn’t really make sense. In my mind, I thought this was good work, done well, and done for the right reasons (shoutout to Jerry Colonna for that line). 

I gotta tell ya: I thought this was going to be a hit! I was standing at the end of the diving board, feeling strong, rocking my palm tree swim trunks, and ready for a 10/10 dive. I even let the rest of the faculty in on what was going on and invited them to draw their own brackets, the equivalent of yelling “Hey everyone, check this dive out!” to the sunbathers hanging out poolside.

Lemme walk you through what happened next:

After getting everything ready and promoting it in our Google Classroom as “the only sporting event happening in the world right now”, I logged into Zoom on that first day for the first match.

Both students logged in, cameras on, and I even managed to get a few smiles out of the hardened “I’m 12 and way too cool for this” faces. After spending a few minutes catching up, we played the match – a 4-0 knockout, if I remember correctly – and then the students headed out for lunch as I shared the match results in Classroom and updated the bracket.

The next day, my wife – who is also a teacher and was fully virtual at this point – had her online lesson run long, and I was on daddy duty until she got offline. As I try to get my Zoom setup all ready for the RPS match, my kiddo – fully embracing his new two-year-old status – decided to throw a tantrum over who knows what. Honestly, it could have been that the Megablock in his hand was red and not blue. Anywho, just a little bit of excitement to add to the day, but I still managed to log into Zoom only to discover that I would be the only one logging into Zoom that day. Two no-shows. “Oh well, glitches are going to happen. I’ll contact the students and try again tomorrow.”

The next day, only one student logged in on time for their match. I emailed the second student who did manage to log in before the cut-off time (I’d usually wait 15 minutes before declaring a forfeit or accepting the fact that the kids weren’t going to show up). We played the match, took some time to catch up, and went on about our days.

For the tournament’s opening round (which lasted 16 school days), this was pretty much par for the course: not all students would show up, lots of matches would get rescheduled, and pretty much every morning became hectic in its own way.

I’m not going to lie; I was pretty bummed. In my head, this was going to be a hit, but the reality was that it felt pretty “meh.” Looking back, I also realize that the fear/frustration of the lockdown situation (which – let’s be honest – all of this is freaking scary) made me focus on the negatives rather than the positives. Yeah, was this opening round the incredible experience I thought it would be? Hard nope. However, did it provide me with opportunities to connect with my students? Definitely. 

I kept pushing through to see if things would get better, and – to be honest – they did. First off, fewer and fewer students were bailing on their matches. As kids moved forward in the tournament, they became more invested in it. Some students even told me they had practice sessions with their siblings and parents at home. Second, I noticed more and more students turning on their cameras for our live lessons together. 

To support this – with the OK from my school – I divided my grade six class into four smaller squads: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water (a.k.a. the Planeteers). Since the lessons I was providing my students were mostly based on asynchronous work, I decided that I could get by with much shorter “live” lessons (20 minutes instead of 75 minutes). How it worked is that I would teach a condensed, 20-minute live lesson to the Earth squad. Once that lesson would be wrapping up, the students from the next squad (Wind) would log into the Zoom, and I would re-teach the lesson again. I’d repeat this process two more times so that the lesson was taught to all four squads by the end of my block. Doing so meant that I would teach smaller groups at a time, which boosted student engagement and interaction during the live lessons. Between this and the relationship-building we were achieving through the tournament, I barely had any cameras off during the students’ live PE time. Did it lead to 100% of asynchronous work being completed? Nope. But… it did feel like a step forward.

All of this was fine and dandy until the Final Four, when I decided to switch things up a bit. For each conference final, I invited all students from that conferences’ group (so Group A for the Eastern Conference and Group B for the Western Conference) to log in to Zoom and be spectators for the match. I can’t remember exactly how I managed the screens and all (I think I pinned the two finalists’ videos on Zoom… nowadays, you can spotlight up to nine concurrent speakers at once), but we made it work. It was ok. Lots of excited behaviour and a couple of students acting silly in ways that felt like they were trying to steal the show. 

Once the final four round was completed and it was time for the championship, I decided that I would learn from my experience and come up with a better solution so that all students could be in attendance for the tournament final. To do this, I had to use my personal Zoom account (which – at that point – gave me access to additional features since I pay for Zoom) and my website’s YouTube channel (which allowed me to livestream). The idea was to stream the final match as an unlisted YouTube livestream, share the links with the students, and have the class join in via YouTube’s live chat feature.

I was really excited. I felt like I had gone the extra mile to make this fun and expected this big turnout and lots of excitement for the two students in the final. I had sprung off the diving board and was soaring in the air, getting ready for a perfect finish in the water.

As the match was about to begin and I got the Zoom meeting up and running, I could see that many students (and teachers) had joined in the chat and were hyped up. Here’s where things started to turn: I underestimated how students interact with each other in live stream chats. There were so many spammy comments – some borderline inappropriate – and they were happening FAST. I was trying to play my RPS moderator/referee role on Zoom as entertaining as possible while also trying to be chat police on the YouTube stream. It was messy.

And then it just stopped. The stream – suddenly – got taken down. I was super confused because I thought I had played all of my cards right and couldn’t piece together what was happening. Plus, I couldn’t just relaunch the stream (I think I had to wait 24 hours or something). After a bit of investigating and talking to YouTube support, it would appear that my stream got flagged for “inappropriate content.” Without wanting to point any fingers or anything like that, I’m pretty pretttttty sure that it was flagged by someone in the audience, an audience of people who had the link to the unlisted video that had only been shared moments before the match in my grade six Google Classroom. I’ll let you all do your best detective work there. 

Oh… the joys of teaching online in the middle of a global pandemic.

Luckily, the Zoom meeting did not get shut down. The two girls in the final got to play their match out, and what a match it was! Tied 3-3 going into game 7, it took multiple – MULTIPLE – throws before we were able to crown our champion.

The finalists congratulated each other on a match well played, and then I created a champion graphic to be shared on our Google Classroom and emailed to the champion’s parents, teachers, and our heads of school. 

I’m not going to lie: I was pretty pissed after the championship. Having all of the work of figuring out the livestream – not to mention the weeks and weeks of commitment to put this whole thing together – all result in a flop because I hadn’t predicted a student could take the stream down… it stung. I didn’t want to talk about it; I just wanted to put this whole thing in the past and move on to whatever bad idea I had next. This actually wasn’t the case, as the next project I would tackle in the spring would be the virtual school community run I called The Dragon Run, which was a hit (although not without its own fair share of drama).

Up until about this moment, if you were to ask me whether or not I would ever plan a virtual RPS tournament again, my answer would probably be “hellllll no.” When I think about it, I think about spending too much time making graphics, scheduling my day (including daddy duty while we were in lockdown) around this thing that felt like it was just adding to my plate, and the final bellyflop moment of having the livestream taken down and potentially affecting my website’s YouTube channel (which was only a fear and never a reality). 

That being said, I know that my mind is hardwired to remember negative emotions more than positive ones. As I put this post together and took a more objective look at what actually went down, I can see that there were way more items in the “wins” column than in the “fails” one. The effort I put into this helped me connect with each of my students when it was tough to do so. It helped them feel more comfortable during our virtual lessons, which isn’t always easy for a twelve-year-old to feel. It gave them something to cheer for and look forward to during a time where it wasn’t always obvious how to find those types of things. Finally, and I hate saying this because I really don’t want to hear it, it taught me what works, what doesn’t, and what to plan for: all important information as we try to build these planes of ours as we fly them. 

So yeah, I’d do it again. A little bit better and a little bit wiser. I’d do it because, ultimately, I’m a sucker for helping kids feel safe and feel as though they belong. I’d do it because they deserve that.

I’d probably skip the YouTube part though lol

Bellyflops sting in the moment, but they can also be funny when you look back on them. They’re also great and helping you learn what not to do when diving into a pool or any other kind of adventure. The trick is not to sweat the small stuff, keep your eyes on the prizes, and take stock of your wins along the way.

I hope that sharing this here can help you reframe some of your own bellyflop moments in your teaching. I also hope you can learn from my mistakes and make this RPS tournament format a little better.

To help you out, here is a template you can use to create the daily match graphics (just check the instructions in the speaker’s notes)…

Click this image to add the Match Graphic template to your Google Drive. I left instructions on how to use it in the Speaker’s Notes.

…and here is a 32-seed tournament bracket template you can use to help students track the standings.

Click this image to add the Tournament Bracket template to your Google Drive. I left instructions on how to use it in the Speaker’s Notes.

If you do run with this, I’d love to hear how you made it better than mine! Hit me up on Twitter (@phys_educator) if you can!

That’s it for me! I’ll catch you at the pool! 

Happy Teaching!

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Joey Feith is the founder of ThePhysicalEducator.com. He currently teaches elementary physical education at St. George’s School of Montreal in Quebec, Canada.