You’re never too young (or too old) to spin poi

One of the things I love the most about spinning is being able to share what I’ve learned with others. So last year, when my former teacher, Mrs. Lenhardt, told me that the new head of Physical Education at my old school, Avery Coonley, was looking for new activities to add to the curriculum, I suggested that he look into teaching the kids poi. It’s not an activity one would find in your average PE class and the unique nature of poi spinning would be perfect for a school that prided itself on exposing its students to the new and exciting. I was thrilled when she told me a few months later that the teacher, Adam Metcalf, loved the idea and asked her to put us in touch as Adam had some questions as to how I might suggest he teach poi to the kids.

Adam was familiar with poi since he’d spent some time in New Zealand and over the course of several emails, my involvement went from casual consultant to Adam inviting me to come to the school for the last day of “World Cultures’ Week” in February to spend the day teaching the basics of poi to the entire school during PE period, from kindergarten through eighth group. In preparation, Adam would have the kids make sock poi to use in class. How could I say no? Avery Coonley was my second home – I attended the school K-8, which means I pretty much grew up there, and I’m still very connected to the school community. I was graciously allowed to invite other poi spinners to join me and my friend and fellow Chicago Fire Triber, Shorty Belle, agreed to come with me.

After a bit of a late start due to car issues, Shorty and I spent an amazing day teaching the basics of poi spinning to 288 students (as well as both Adam and his teaching partner, Joseph Schallmoser) over nine gym periods. The classes all followed the same format: after the students went through a 10 minute warm-up period, Shorty and I started off with a short spinning performance (either using LED poi in the auditorium or comet tail poi in the gymnasium) set to music we had brought on our iPods. With a few exceptions, none of the students had ever seen poi spinning before and I can’t express how wonderful it felt to be the one introducing them to the art form. At the very least, they seemed to enjoy the spectacle, especially the younger ones, who clapped and cheered during our performances. We then did a Q&A session and oh boy, were those kids curious about poi. Most of the questions were what one would expect – Where did we learn to spin? How much do we practice? – but the prize for the most unexpected query came from a second grader who asked us (in reference to a stall move that Shorty had demonstrated), “How are you breaking the laws of motion by doing that?”

Did I mention that Avery Coonley is a school for gifted students?

The last 20 minutes or so of class was spent teaching the kids basic series of moves: forward & backwards same time/split time spins, spinning with arms forward, backward, arms high and arms low, and if they were up for it, forward butterfly and crossover. I was surprised by how quickly the kids were able to pick up the concepts of spinning in controlled planes, even the little ones. Of course, there was quite a bit of the inevitable hitting one’s self with the sock poi, poi got tangled, and every now and then, the sight of a sock poi flying through the air, all of which set off a torrent of good-natured giggling and laughter. The middle school kids progressed so fast that we were able to get them started on trying the 3-beat wave, with several managing pretty good form by the end of class. I hope those kids were enthused enough by their progress to keep up with practice at home!

The enthusiasm and energy of the students was heartwarming and infectious, and before we knew it, the day was over. It was humbling to have so many students thanking us for our time and telling us how much they enjoyed the class – some of the younger kids had started out shy but came to hug us before leaving for their next class. Adam and Joe were fantastic to work with – they showed a lot of trust in Shorty and me by allowing us to run their gym classes for the day, stepping in only to quiet down their students, and for the most part, being students themselves for most of the day. Before we left, Joe even confessed to us that after watching us spin the first time, he’d thought it didn’t look all that hard, but after knocking himself quite a bit with the poi, he had to admit it was a lot harder than it looked. The smile on his face when he finally managed a crossover and forward butterfly without tangling the poi or hitting himself was one of the highlights of my day.

It has to be said that Adam and Joe do a wonderful job with the kids. Even the start of class warm-ups were tailored for the kids’ age groups. The younger ones played a variation on freeze tag as a warm up and the older ones did a series of warm up exercises – laps, sit ups, push ups – according to what was written on the wipe board. It took me a few classes before I realized that the number of sets was indicated on the board using algebra equations – who knew math could be related to gym class? They know how to make gym class FUN and it was obvious that they had a great rapport with their students. It was a wonderful gift for them to share the teaching of their charges with Shorty and myself.

And I especially have to thank Mrs. Lenhardt (it’s been 18 years since I’ve graduated and I STILL can’t bring myself to call her by her first name!) for reaching out to me and making this happen (and also, for taking Shorty and me out for our lunch break – Downers Grove has some tasty cafes). I hope I’ll be able to return to Avery Coonley again to share poi spinning with more students and hopefully next time, I’ll be able to share fire spinning as well!

The spring issue of the Avery Coonley magazine had a feature story on Adam’s changes to the PE curriculum, and included a sidebar article on my trip to ACS. You can find the digital copy of the magazine here. The sidebar is on page 15.