Before the first Zoom session of his Aikido: Japanese Sword and Staff class, Steven Kaufmann launched a scavenger hunt around his house, scouring for anything that could stand in for a sword: a rolling pin, a tennis racket, a bamboo stick, a cane, the neck of a vacuum cleaner.
Kaufmann, instructor of health, wellness and physical education, eventually assembled 10 different items and showed these to his students, many of whom had already found their own assortment of umbrellas, rakes and guitars.
During his live Zoom sessions, Kaufmann mutes his microphone and asks that his students unmute theirs, allowing the recorded video to flash from student to student as they make a “kiai,” a short shout that accompanies an attacking move.
Class attendance has actually improved since the online transition, Kaufmann said.
“[The students] are all in their homes, and they’re looking forward to seeing other people. They’re all pretty much sequestered in there,” he said. “Ironically, it feels more intimate in a Zoom class than it did in our actual class room at Duke.”
After President Vincent Price announced the suspension of in-person classes March 10, Kaufmann and other instructors in Duke’s physical education department learned on the fly how to teach physical fitness to students cloistered in their homes and dispersed across the world.
Whether showing students how to wield a vacuum cleaner or doing an overhead press with a backpack full of books, they grappled with a perplexing dilemma—how to produce pounding hearts and pumping legs with only thin air and luminescent Zoom screens.
The account of how they’ve addressed this puzzle is one of frustrating moments and lagging computers. But it’s also a story of adaptation, community and the power of physical fitness to bridge the geographic divide.
Instructor Maria Finnegan, who teaches Weight Training for Women, Fusion Fitness for Women, Yoga, Intermediate Yoga and Stand Up Paddleboard Fitness, spent her spring break in her backyard recording 30-minute workouts using a camera and tripod. Although this process was tiring and full of technology hiccups, Finnegan wanted her students to see workouts done by her rather than by an unfamiliar instructor on YouTube.
“Probably the hardest thing has been realizing that as good as the technology is, it’s never going to be the same as in person,” she said. “But I’ve been trying really hard to create experiences that would feel as close to that as possible.”
Recording from home also had its perks. Finnegan’s goldendoodle discovered he likes being on camera. His playful poking in many of her videos has been a “little bright light” to her students, bringing everyone much-needed laughs, she said.
Over spring break, Finnegan also sent out a survey to her students to gauge what equipment they had. She then tailored her workouts to rely on minimal equipment or home objects like a school backpack. In her Stand Up Paddleboard class, for instance, she provides students with fitness workouts and yoga exercises that strengthen the core and other muscles related to paddle boarding motions.
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In a typical week, Finnegan provides a mix between synchronous and asynchronous classes. She begins the live class by checking in with her students, sharing quartratine stories.
“It’s just nice to feel that human connection and see each other since we’re all spread out physically now,” she said.
In the asynchronous session, she requires students to watch one of her pre-recorded workouts. After the students complete the workout on their own, they write brief blog posts on Sakai, addressed to each other or to Finnegan.
“It’s almost like having a record of this time, and I get very attached to these messages. I miss [my students] terribly,” she said. “And so I get to hear their voices coming through their words.”
So far, she has received encouraging feedback from students, with many of them appreciating the accountability and structure her workouts provide.
Senior Kate Rodgers said she’s thankful for the calming effect that Finnegan’s Intermediate Yoga class brings.
“It's something that really grounds me during the school year,” she said. “And with this uncertainty and general anxiety that comes with a global pandemic, I've been extremely grateful to have something that clears my mind.”
Rodgers added that the class has benefited others besides herself and her classmates. Parents and siblings—and pets—often join the live sessions, and she has shared the recorded yoga exercises with her friends.
“I feel like I'm able to help people through Maria,” Rogers said. “She definitely has a large reach.”
Despite the positive responses from students, difficulties have accompanied the online transition, Finnegan said. A couple weeks ago, her slow Internet prevented her from uploading videos. She also said she acutely misses the physical presence and in-person community she once shared with her students.
“They’re my kids,” she said.
Similar to Finnegan, instructor Janis Hampton uses both recorded and live sessions to teach her fitness and sports classes, including Fusion Fitness, Fusion Fitness for Women, Beginning Tennis, Intermediate Tennis and Fitness for First Years.
“The most challenging aspect truly has been trying to think about how to teach a sport class without being able to do the sport,” she said, noting that some of her tennis students had left their rackets in their dorm rooms when leaving for spring break.
In lieu of practicing tennis on a court, Hampton has her tennis students practice body movements for tennis techniques. To practice serving, for instance, students can grip anything that has a handle, like a hammer, broomstick or garden post.
Online tennis matches have also become part of the class curriculum, as well as a “Golden Racket Award” online tournament, a competition designed by Hampton to quiz her students on the tennis rules of play.
As for her synchronous fitness classes, she either leads students personally or has them watch a recorded video while Hampton watches their form and provides feedback.
First-year Sophie Johnson, a student in Hampton’s Fitness for Women class, said the class has helped motivate her to continue exercising.
“I think it would probably be pretty easy, just being at home, to stop working out,” she said. “So knowing that you’re doing it together as a group and that you have that class format has really helped.”
Kauffman similarly adapted his courses to fit the dispersed online format. In addition to AIkido: Japanese Sword and Staff, he teaches Tai Chi and another Aikido class.
Although Aikido is traditionally a partner-based form of martial arts, he said, he has replaced the partner workouts with sword-based exercises and solo routines.
Each of his live classes begin with “checking in” with students. Then, after warming up, the students grab their “weapon” of choice—perhaps an umbrella or a lacrosse stick—and perform an 8-count “kata,” a set of predetermined motions.
One of the most challenging parts of the class is having enough space to wield a weapon without colliding with one’s surroundings. When Kaufmann first demonstrated for the class using a vacuum cleaner, he forgot to remove a component and accidentally damaged one of his windows, said sophomore Darren Xie, a student in the Aikido class.
Xie, who tunes into class from his house in China, emphasized the benefits of having a check-in time at the beginning of each class.
“It’s pretty nice to still have a community where we are very curious about each other’s updates,” he said. “We get to talk about random stuff for a period of time before the actual class starts, so I feel this kind of connection to my classmates, a sense of community.”
Likewise, Kaufmann expressed optimism about the class’s effect on himself and on the students.
“The thing about Aikido that makes it kind of unique is that it’s a pretty joyful art. It’s non-competitive, non-combative and it’s very cooperative,” he said.
During the check-in time, students often share their worries and fears about living in a time of global crisis. But then, as the students brandish their weapons and shout their “kiais,” their discouragement gradually becomes just a little less palpable.
“By the end of the class, I think we’re all feeling pretty bouncy,” Kaufmann said. “A little bit more joyful and ready for the day.”