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Beyond The Gym Floor—Allison Pentti

Jamie O'Connor, a Teaching Associate Professor in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, speaks with Allison Pentti, department chair of physical education and health at Urbana High School.

Click here to see the full transcript.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So Allison Pentti of Urbana High School, thank you for joining me on Beyond the Gym Floor. Allison, let's dive right in. So tell me a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?

ALLISON PENTTI: I grew up in Fisher, which is just 15 minutes north of here. So yes, I was a Bunny.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: You're a Fisher Bunny.

ALLISON PENTTI: Yes, I was. I went to school in Monmouth, Illinois-- Monmouth College. And then, after that, I actually went to Arizona for eight years, started a family, came back because I missed the area, missed my family. So I've been back here for eight years and at Urbana High School for five.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So what led you to this wild ride known as education?

ALLISON PENTTI: I would say, it wasn't my initial ride. I really wanted to go into-- athletic training was my destination to begin with. So I double majored in college as a social studies minor. And then I was PE. And at Monmouth, they start you in the classroom day one.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Getting teaching experiences? Wow.

ALLISON PENTTI: Yes. One of your first things-- one of your first Ed classes is going in and aiding in a classroom. And so the thought behind it was kind of interesting, because it was like, well, if you don't like teaching, and you don't like kids, here's your chance to get out of it early--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love that.

ALLISON PENTTI: --so you're not in junior, senior year and have to start all over again.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That makes sense.

ALLISON PENTTI: Yeah, and it was good for me, because I was not a person that was going to go that route. And so getting in and being with the kids, I was like, maybe I want to do this instead and not be in school for two extra years, and have to write a thesis, and all that craziness. So that's kind of where it diverted, was right away, freshman year.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's so neat. So through email, you told me that you're the department chair for physical education and health at Urbana High School and that you're also a nationally board-certified health ed teacher. How did that happen? I know that that is an incredibly rigorous process. Why did you do it to yourself, Allison?

ALLISON PENTTI: So I had started the process in Arizona. They used to have this program-- it was called Take One-- where you could do just a little, tiny piece of it, see if you liked it, and then go through the rest of the process. And so I did that. And I scored really, really well on that.

But then I got pregnant. So it was like, I had a toddler. And being pregnant, I was like, there's way that I can go through this whole process with little kids. So I put it off.

When I came to Urbana, Urbana is a nationally board-recognized school district. We have several teachers that are nationally board certified. And so they had a cohort that met once a month. And they were very big in, if you've done it, and you're interested, just do it. Just go for it.

And so I got in contact with a lady at ISU. They paid for everything. So there are scholarships available that you can take and do this process. But it was amazing. It was the best thing I've done.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Do you think it's made you a better teacher?

ALLISON PENTTI: Oh, by far.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah.

ALLISON PENTTI: I know the biggest part of it was doing the videos, and watching yourself teach, and thinking, OK, how did that go? Or how did that not go? And putting aside what you look like or what the kids sounded like.

But it's more of what was happening, the conversations that were happening. And being able to hear that and see that pretty directly was really interesting. It was really fun to listen and watch.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So my first two positions were private school-- one Catholic, and one Quaker. And they did not require a health ed certification to teach those courses at the time. And in retrospect, I wish they had.

I remember feeling very overwhelmed by students' questions regarding a wide variety of topics. And I feel like, if I could watch videotapes of those lessons right now, more than likely, most of them were a hot mess-- like, I'm sorry, Jessica, I'm going to need a day to find out the long-term ramifications of herpes simplex 2. I'm in way over my head. Thank you for your patience, kids.

So it leads to my next question. How is health ed adapting with the times? We're kind of entering an era where people are being held more accountable for their behavior. In other words, don't touch me, unless I give you my permission.

ALLISON PENTTI: Right. As a health teacher now, I cover so much more than I ever did before. And with the LGBTQ plus community, that is happening to show up in the classroom. So it has led to me doing a lot of my own outside-of-school learning.

I am not afraid to ask the kids, either. That's one of my first questions-- is, who are you? What do you want to be known as? What is important to you for me to know?

And I think that initial connection with my kids opens up a whole different world to say, hey, she doesn't know everything. And she's OK with not knowing everything. But we're going to teach her, too, just as much as she teaches us.

So my flipped classroom works out really well with that-- that I can develop those relationships. And then it turns into, if I don't know an answer, we'll look it up together. We'll Google it right there together. And so it's kind of nice, because they understand that I'm learning, just as much as they are.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So you mentioned flipped classroom. So do you have your students, then, digest a lot of the material ahead of coming into class?

ALLISON PENTTI: They pretty much do everything on their own.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yeah, and then it's more conversation-based--

ALLISON PENTTI: Correct.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: --when you get to the class?

ALLISON PENTTI: Correct. So everything-- all this classwork, all the tests-- everything is more collaborative between the students and the other students than it is me and the students. A lot of times, I am just standing in front of them as the face in the classroom to make sure that everybody's doing what they're supposed to be doing.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: This doesn't sound like the health ed that I experienced back in 1993 or '94. This seems like I would have really enjoyed this.

ALLISON PENTTI: And in a lot of my trauma-informed learning that I've done outside of school, too, classrooms are changing. And for me to put myself on display, and for it to be the teacher show every day, is not what kids want, need, or learn from. And so if they can create the community of learning, and they are doing the learning, and teaching each other, so much more is getting absorbed in my classroom everyday. So it's just a totally different environment and experience.

And the kids say that, every day-- like, this class is not like other classes. This class is so different. And it was intentional, but not intentional. I learned a lot from flipping it around and saying, I'm not the one who knows everything. You guys need to learn it, as much as I did, on my own.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So kind of shifting from that sage on a stage to the guide on the side.

ALLISON PENTTI: Correct.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's really neat. What is one of your favorite units to teach-- or to facilitate, maybe, is a better word.

ALLISON PENTTI: So our unit three is all human body stuff. And I would love to be able to take kids to a cadaver lab and play with things as much as possible. But there's just no time, money-- or place, really-- to do that well.

So we do a lot of hands-on projects where they are putting things together-- like, they're holding a stomach, and they have to put it where it's supposed to go. So it's kind of an elementary-based project, but the learning that comes from it is really exciting. And it gets those kids that are interested in some of that to take anatomy in high school or to take kinesiology in college. It's kind of starting the learning of, OK, this is pretty basic. But what else can I do with this?

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's great. So what challenges do you feel like you still face in health education?

ALLISON PENTTI: Just in education, in general, is just making sure to keep the peace. Even this morning, a conversation turned much more-- went a totally different way than I was expecting for it to go. And--

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Do you roll with it in those moments?

ALLISON PENTTI: In this one, I had to intervene, just because it was more of a physical thing. But for the most part, yeah. I just let him have the conversations up to a point to where I feel like, OK, this is starting to go the wrong way.

But I love-- like, this morning, I was so excited, and I was encouraging them. And then I would, every once in a while, throw out, well, what about this? And then it would change the conversation. They'd go back out to talking.

But they were learning everything that I was trying to get to them today. And even in the incident that happened, it was part of the learning-- like, OK, this is where we got to because of what we were talking about. So it's been really interesting to see the dynamics, and just rolling with it, and letting it go.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So what's the most important lesson your students have taught you over your years teaching?

ALLISON PENTTI: Relationships are the most important thing that I can do in a kid's day. And sometimes, it's the relationship of knowing that kid came to my class, and that's a huge improvement today. He hasn't gone to any other classes. He hasn't gone anywhere else today, but he came to my class. And even if it was 10 minutes late, he's sitting here.

And that relationship of knowing, he can come here and be safe, is super important to me. Even if you know they don't learn anything of the content, if they can come and feel safe for 50 minutes a day, that's my big thing. And that's the most thing that I've learned from them-- is just creating those relationships that make them know that they're safe, and wanted, and that they can come in and be themselves in my class.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: How do you try to reach your students, especially the ones who have checked out, like the kid who is just showing up to your class?

ALLISON PENTTI: So a lot of times, I'll find ways to get them the content unknowingly. So I will have conversations with them when they come in-- eventually. I may not bombard them as soon as they walk in the door, every single day. But at some point, I try to connect with them some way, between the content and my relationship building with them.

There are some that I just-- even though they fail the class, eventually they come back to me, because I pretty much teach all of the health. So the second time they come, they're like, I wish I'd have listened to you the first time, or I wish I would have just done it the first time. And I have a lot of different methods and ways of things.

I'm not big on, if you're not in class, you just fail my class. They can turn things in anytime. They can do homework up until the last day of the class and turn it all in, if they wanted to. If they do well on the final, I may not make them make up everything from the whole class, because they obviously got the content. If they know the answers on the final, they know what we were talking about, whether they were checked in or out.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Seems like you're taking a very humanistic approach to teaching health ed.

ALLISON PENTTI: I almost have to. If I were to just get rid of every kid that came into my class, and didn't do something, or didn't do well, I wouldn't have class. And so it's been a lot of learning through being at Urbana, too, I think, and really trying to-- as much as I possibly can, for 148 kids-- individualize their instruction as much as possible. And it's hard.

And there are days where I know that I just have this group of kids that there's nothing I can do about it. But that number has gotten smaller every year. So to me, that's a big thing. If I only fail five kids this year, there was a reason why. And I know why that is. So next year, when we try it again, I can fix it, hopefully.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Any advice you would share with the current cohort of Illinois undergrads who are, perhaps, thinking about seeking an endorsement to teach health education?

ALLISON PENTTI: Do it. [LAUGHS] It makes you more marketable, especially at the high-school level. But I also think it's important because we do have some underserved elementary places, too, that don't have it built into their curriculum. It's whatever the PE teacher decides to do, or say, or incorporate into theirs.

And I've always-- even when I just taught PE-- have always tried to incorporate it somehow, some way, so that there's some multiple learning going on, because I think it's important that they know and understand themselves, especially now that things are changing so much around them. If they can understand them, maybe they can understand the things around them a little bit better.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Do you have a teaching highlight that comes to mind? I mean, it sounds like there are great things happening in your class every day. But do you have a moment?

ALLISON PENTTI: Yeah. Recently, the one that comes to mind is I had a student last semester who-- he struggled a little bit. He was kind of the class clown. He got his stuff done, but it was on his time. And he always just seemed halfway checked out.

And he was walking down the hallway with one of my students this semester. And the student looked at my classroom and walked away like he wasn't coming to class today. And he's like, dude, you should go to her class because it's the best class of your day. So for a kid who I thought was half checked out to say that, it was huge, because I was like, wow, he's actually trying to encourage somebody to walk in the door.

So it was cool for me to hear them say-- and all the kids that come back-- and be like, I just want to be back in your class again. And I don't know that it's the class. I think it's just the environment. And I think that's important. That's been big for me, in the last couple years, of changing that environment.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Another lesson for those Illinois undergrads to think about-- the environment that you're creating.

ALLISON PENTTI: Absolutely.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That's, perhaps, even more important than how much you know about the content.

ALLISON PENTTI: Yeah. Oh, it's bigger than the content. There are days where I get no content done. And I'm OK with that now. That really bothered me 15 years ago when I couldn't-- like, no, we need to do this today.

But now, it's much easier for me to be like, in health, that's the great thing-- everything can be content because, even if we go off on this and it's not what we were supposed to do today, it can be wrapped back around into health somehow, some way. So everything can be a learning lesson in health, which is kind of unique, because I don't know that there's a whole lot of other classes that you could do that.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Allison, as an Urbana hometown legend, your students and the fans of this podcast need to know a few silly things about you.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So what do you listen to in the car?

ALLISON PENTTI: It's all country, usually, unless my kids are in the car. And then it's 94.5, which is nails on a chalkboard to me. But hey, my kids-- they dictate things in the car.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: How old are your kids?

ALLISON PENTTI: Emmy is 11, Sophie's 8, and Kendall is 7.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Wow. And who's your favorite country star?

ALLISON PENTTI: Oh, gosh, I don't know. I like the old guys. I like the George Straits, and the Merle Haggards, and those guys. Those are probably more my favorites.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I love it. So favorite snack? You're a health ed teacher.

ALLISON PENTTI: I know.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: But it's OK if it's--

ALLISON PENTTI: That's a big change. But actually, right now, it's from a program that I do called Beachbody. And they're Beachbody bars. And they are so good. The peanut butter chocolate ones are my favorite. So they're still kind of nutritious. And they still fall into that, somewhat healthy, but it looks like a candy bar, and feels like a candy bar. So tricking myself into-- [LAUGHS]

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, yeah. I will be ordering some as soon as we finish this interview. Favorite toy as a kid?

ALLISON PENTTI: Honestly, I was always playing softball. My bat, and my glove, and my ball were probably everywhere with me, even when I was little. My grandparents lived on a big farm. And anytime we'd get together, it was always Sunday softball, out on the big, open, grass field. And so I think that's-- probably the only thing I ever really did much, as a kid, was play a lot of softball.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Do you still play?

ALLISON PENTTI: Not as much as I should. I'm always looking for adults to play on a league with. But most people at school are like, man, I'm not really interested. [SIGHS]

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Man, you need to get them out of the classroom and onto the field.

ALLISON PENTTI: Yeah, yeah.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: So first concert? If you can remember.

ALLISON PENTTI: Oh, my goodness. And know it was at the Assembly Hall-- or, I mean, State Farm Center.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Ugh, Assembly Hall.

ALLISON PENTTI: [LAUGHS] I honestly don't even remember. I know I went with my mom.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: What is one concert that you've been to that you've really enjoyed?

ALLISON PENTTI: Well, recently, the Champaign County Fair. Dustin Lynch was here last summer, and that was a pretty fun concert.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: I'm nodding my head, but I don't know who Dustin Lynch is. Is he a country star?

ALLISON PENTTI: Yeah, he's more of the poppy country star. But yeah, definitely.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: OK, all right. So finally, when you're not motivating the next generation of young adults, what TV show do you look forward to watching?

ALLISON PENTTI: Wednesday nights is our big TV night. My girls and I like to watch Chicago Med and Chicago Fire.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Yes.

ALLISON PENTTI: And so we sit, and we watch it together, which is fun. I don't know, maybe, if that's really appropriate for seven- and eight-year olds. But that's what we sit and watch on Wednesday nights.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: There are probably some conversation starters in those shows.

ALLISON PENTTI: Yeah, and my daughter loves the high-energy scenes where they're rushing in. And she's like, but I don't want to be a firefighter. And I was like, OK, that's good.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: That is good. I've been really enjoying The Rookie lately. I don't know if you've seen that one.

ALLISON PENTTI: Ooh, I haven't seen that one.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Oh, another one-- very high energy, possibly appropriate for your kids. I'd have to maybe think about that for a second.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: Well, thank you, Allison, so much for being a guest on Beyond the Gym Floor.

ALLISON PENTTI: Yeah. It was great. Thanks for having me.

JAMIE O’CONNOR: If you would like to be a guest, or simply have a comment or a question, you can reach me-- JamieOConnoratBe yondtheGymFloor@gmail.com. Encourage your friends to listen and subscribe to the show, either through iTunes, iHeartRadio, or Spotify. Thanks for listening, folks.

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