Gianni retires from LMS, ready for next adventure

Rocco Gianni pleads with kids to stay active while playing dodgeball as part of Langley Middle School’s P.E. end-of-the-year “Olympics.”  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Rocco Gianni pleads with kids to stay active while playing dodgeball as part of Langley Middle School’s P.E. end-of-the-year “Olympics.”
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Rocco Gianni doesn’t like, he loves.

He doesn’t speak, he orates.

He doesn’t teach, he mentors.

And he doesn’t retire. He prepares for the next “Gianni adventure.”

“Once I realized I was replaceable and I got it out of my ego, I was ready,” Gianni said of his retirement.

“Retirement is for people who were tired before.”

Leaving his chosen profession as a physical education teacher since 1972 was a painful process for Gianni. He fought for physical education funding with his colleagues Erik Jokinen and Kathy Gianni, his wife of 32 years, and continued even a month away from retirement. Procuring wetsuits for students to kayak Puget Sound was his latest project.

P.E. at Langley Middle School is a more dynamic experience than playing football, basketball, dodgeball and running lines, though all those things happen. Students take a boxing course, learn to rock climb, work on indo boards, play ultimate Frisbee and until this year, kayaked on lakes around Whidbey Island (bacteria growth in many of the school’s kayak haunts kept them from hitting the water this year). Engaging students through movement and action is the cornerstone of his argument for why P.E. matters in a modern education.

“If schools were a movement-oriented place, these boys would not be in trouble,” Gianni said of a conversation teachers at South Whidbey Elementary School had at a school board meeting regarding the restlessness of some kindergarten and first-grade students.

“We want kids to like movement and make it part of their lives … Being active with the family allows time to talk, to bond,” he said.

One of the final trips for Gianni was the adventure ed five-day course for 20 students. It’s a program that was reduced in scope and duration the past few years, much to Gianni’s dismay. He defends the five-day backpacking trip to the coast as an inter-subject intensive course. Students can do field research on ecosystems as they walk through the woods and hike along the beach. They write a report on the trip and journaling helps them remember their experience. One of the more important lessons, at least in Gianni’s opinion, is the social aspect of kids going out, away from their home and comfort, and being forced to work together. Even as they prepare, social interaction is key when students are timed for tent erection (sub-4 minutes).

“This is what hooks kids,” Gianni said. “They remember this for the rest of their lives.”

When Gianni, a stocky, animated New York Italian who has a bit of a wobble to his walk because of artificial hips and a bad back, came to the South Whidbey School District, it was a bit of serendipity. He fled major P.E. funding cuts in Los Angeles in the 1980s and wound up in Washington with friends. Then he found a position for special education on South Whidbey, met with the principal and was encouraged to apply.

“The only place I got an interview was here in Langley,” he said.

He won the position and remained on the South End since, with a brief leave when he returned to his home state, New York.

“I hurdled the benches out there,” Gianni said, looking out his classroom windows. “I can’t do that now. I’m lucky if I can get on my bike.”

After a period of indoor dodgeball, Gianni reflected on how even one of the more maligned P.E. activities draws students’ interest. Some of the kids hurled the foam balls with all their might. Others played passively, waiting for a softly-thrown ball to catch, bringing in one of their eliminated teammates. Some hung in the back, preferring to watch. And a couple of the Cougars played protector/engager with some special education students during the game.

“It allows kids that aren’t always the stars to shine,” he said.

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