We spent the weekend – all but the driving and sleeping moments of it – at a two-day swim meet with about 250 other families at a YMCA in Lynchburg, VA. If you’ve never been to a swim meet, just trust me when I say they are MUCH longer than the made-for-TV versions you see during the Olympics. They are l-o-o-n-n-n-g-g, with lots of down time. In the gym (where we were waiting between events) kids were playing on their handheld devices, some were drawing, some reading, some playing cards … and the parents were catching up and chatting about whatever.
On Sunday, I was talking with one of the other moms on our team, and she commented that her son was having a terrific meet. She mentioned that he had always taken an “eh” approach to academics. This year he has been able to swim for his school team, and now he feels invested in the school, which has affected his academic interests. He pays a little more attention to his schoolwork. He feels more connected with his school and thus he wants to do well in all aspects. Her question to me was:
Why can’t educators see how that works? If kids have extracurricular choices at school – piano, soccer, swimming, whatever – that helps them feel connected it makes SUCH a difference.
I have been thinking about her question. A. LOT. She was not talking about taking a carrot-and-stick approach, as in “if you don’t get B’s you can’t be on the team.” Her emphasis was on tapping into a student’s interest and building from it. Let “it” be the stone in the pond that creates the ripples.
As luck would have it, I was in my daughter’s second-grade classroom this morning. After the morning greeting, the kids share news. It can be about something you did, a special treasure, etc. Today, three students shared news. One talked about his pinewood derby car and racing it this past weekend. Another student talked about rescuing a stuffed troll from “utter disaster” because her brother was going to give it to the dog. And a third student shared a snowglobe that was a memento from the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Each of these students was beaming as they shared their news, explaining why this was important to them; the other students were excited to hear their stories. Mrs. D reinforced their sense of value by giving them time to share their excitement, without worrying about cutting short word study time!
We often talk about how “outside” activities offer kids great opportunities: they learn teamwork, they learn discipline, they build social skills, they learn time management. All of those things are important for life, first as students then as adults in the “real world.” Yet, in our rush to use these activities as a tool to help them better manage their schoolwork, I think we push right past some of the more personal/individual ways kids look at their participation. Now, because he represents his school, the swimmer wants to be a better student. Not to be a valedictorian, but to do his best. The second graders felt respect and a sense of community when they were given time to share something important to them.
So I wonder, are academics and extra-curricular activities two sides of the same coin (i.e., scheduled, disciplined, rote)? These examples say they aren’t. Yet I also know that there are a lot of variables to this equation, not the least of which is student age. Some kids “do it all,” juggling school and a myriad of outside activities, all of which they say they like and apparently handle well. But in whose opinion? Have we asked them? What if they could do only one thing. Who would pick? The parent, because we know what they excel at, or the kid, who picks what s/he likes the most. And what if their community doesn’t offer what they love, then what?
What do you think?