31 January 2012

The Value of All the Things that Aren't "School"

What was your favorite part of school? Homework? Maybe it was going to the same classes over and over every day. Perhaps you loved the high quality government supported lunch. What, none of these got you out of bed every morning during the heat of late summer or the darkness of those long winter months? What was it then? Why were you going to school?

Maybe you were part of a team. If you skipped, you didn't practice or play. Perhaps you were in the band, or a star on the stage. Again, you had to go to school during the day to participate in the afternoon. Perhaps you were in a club. Those meet at school too. Maybe you went for your friends. Where had you made those friends? Sure, some of them were from "Mommy and Me" classes, but I bet some of them were friends you met at an extra curricular activity of some sort.

These have been the long-standing defenses of sports and clubs; that they keep kids coming to school, and that they give students an opportunity to participate in groups that they wouldn't have during the day, and that they showcased student talents. They are great defenses, but they don't always stand up to the modern education reformer, with test results in one hand and the scissors for cutting the budget in the other.

These "reformers" will decry many of these activities. They especially hate two kinds of groups: performing arts groups and sports teams. Critics will point out that schools place a high value on athletics, and spend small (and sometimes immense) fortunes on equipment, coaches and facilities for teams. The gnash their teeth and rend their garments that performance groups will have to travel and worry that the content in the plays they are performing is out of the depth of mere high school students. 

What these critics miss (yes, even the ones who have so many salient points about the cost of sports in an educational world defined by spending cuts) is the vast, nearly unmeasurable impact these programs, especially sports, have on students. Athletes are different students when they are on a team. An adult holds them accountable, and if they can't pass they can't play. That is a strong motivator. Listen, I don't want to say that this is a better motivation that somehow building a love of learning, because it isn't. But some kids aren't ready to love learning yet. If they learn anyway, so that they can play on Friday night, that's a win

Critics of extra curriculars also miss the great socialization good they do. I've spent some time with two pretty massive groups of not normally socialized students. That's right, I yell at marching bands (a vast topic which will get roughly 73 posts someday) (also, yeah, I just sent you to myspace for a minute. Admit it, it's the first time you've been back in a long time, right?) and have sponsored the Dungeons and Dragons club at a high school. I don't want to play into stereotypes, but a lot of those kids weren't getting a ton of face to face interaction in high school. They tend to be good students without a ton of physical prowess. They don't join teams. Generally, they don't volunteer in class, and they don't have a lot of friends. 

However, you put them in a group of people where they know they won't be judged, a group of people who have a lot in common with them, and they blossom. They make new friends. They interact with a teacher without it being about homework. This is valuable stuff that critics of the spending miss. 

It isn't just critics that attack extra curricular activities. There are more and more home schoolers and small charters that are "academic only". They have built themselves on a model of educating academic subjects, and academic subjects only. They feel that schools have become bloated societies, and that you need to cut the fat of these extra activities to save some money. These people miss all of the value which is added to a student's life by offering varied co-curricular activities.     

I don't think it will surprise you to find out that I believe I am a big thinker (not Newt Gingrich big, but big picture nonetheless) I think that extra curricular activities provide us an opportunity to peer more deeply at education in America. In fact, extra-curricular activities get at the root of what I see as the division in education today. On the one hand, you have those who bow at the alter of almighty data. On the other, you have "whole child" educators. 

(It should be noted that your humble author was never really driven when he was preparing to be a teacher because he wanted to educate the whole child. In fact, I would say that I spent most of my free time thinking about history, and how much I was going to fill their heads with. However, within 3 weeks of beginning my student teaching, I had been sucked in. I had a 1st hour Senior Economics class. I'm sure none of them remember me, but when I look back, I think that they irrevocably shaped my career. 

While we were studying small businesses and I was following the book, and trying to get them to apply their knowledge. To see if they had learned anything,  I had them propose small businesses. One of the businesses they proposed was selling Ice Cream Sundaes during lunch. In hindsight, I have no idea how I got it approved and what world I was living in where you could sell something that unhealthy to a high school student in a school. But we did. They sold piles of sundaes, and I figured out that kids wanted to learn in ways that were more "real" than the book. It turns out that they engage by doing (like most of the rest of us). That was a valuable lesson that really shaped how I've been teaching for the last 10 years)

Ok, now that we're back from a two-paragraph jaunt down memory lane that probably deserves to be its own post, we should probably get back to talking about the issue at hand: the mission of schools. I know you thought that the issue at hand was the value of extra-curicular activities. It was, but then I realized that the people who assault these clubs and teams differ on a fundamental level from me about what schools are intended to do. 

You see, those who judge and plan schools based on data are only looking at numbers. I realize that it seems like a logical thing. You can draw so many conclusions from data. Data doesn't lie. (Never mind what Stalin said about statistics, which are an older version of "data") I also realize that you cringe when I talk about "the whole child". It seems like something hippies in a commune would say. But it's more than that. By saying we want to educate the whole child, we say that we believe that schools should exist to do more than just prepare students for testing. 

I think, and believe that many of you agree with me, that schools are intended to not just fill heads with knowledge and facts but rather to create young people who can function in society. Society wants people who can work in groups, who can lead (and be led), finish assignments and overcome difficulty. Society wants graduates to be people who can, in short, function. 

We serve this purpose when we offer students the opportunity to be in a club, to be on a team, to connect with teachers outside of the academic setting. When we take that opportunity away from them, we are reducing school to a place where you learn facts so that you can pass a test. That was not, and should not be, the goal of education. After all, Plato wasn't trying to get the students of the Academy to pass a test. He was trying to get them prepared to be functioning citizens in Athens. Our Athens in the world.  

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