In November, I was drafted into the service of my congregation’s youth program. In January we discovered that there would be a regional basketball tournament in March. As the only woman among us who had played basketball competitively (I played varsity in high school), I became the coach.
As I was preparing the girls for the tournament, I began to see comparisons between the process of teaching basketball and the process of formal schooling. Like school, the basketball tournament is a tradition that predates any of the girls’ lives, and while not quite compulsory, every girl who attended our congregation’s youth activity nights practiced with the team.
Enthusiasm for basketball, like school, varied wildly among the girls, and every girl gave basketball a try, at least once. There were no tryouts; if you came, you were on the team. We held three practices before our tournament, but in those three practices, I learned a lot about how my girls worked in order to learn and how I needed to work with them. What I learned raised some questions in my mind about our approach to school in this country.
My first discovery involved C–. I noticed in a scrimmage that C– kept getting the ball in a certain area of the court. I took her aside and suggested that she work on one particular shot, from both sides of the court. The next practice, I was amazed to learn that she had done exactly that. I continued to point out certain shots that she’d be likely to get in a game and she continued to work outside of practice. In our tournament, she was one of our most dependable scorers. Would our students be more likely to do their homework if teachers had the time to “coach” them? How can we monitor students so that we can tell them individually exactly which skill they need to work on at a particular time? What difference would it make if we provided them with the context of why it will matter?
My second discovery was S–. S– participated in our first practice reluctantly, and was happy to have excuses not to participate in the second or third practices. I coaxed her to participate in the first practice, invited her in the second practice, and left her alone at the third practice. S– did not like basketball and after three years in our youth program, it wasn’t for the lack of exposure. She preferred to practice hymns on the church piano. School curricula often attempt to teach students a little of everything, understanding that children often don’t know what they need and sometimes don’t know what they like. Adults in general, and teachers in particular, are guilty of trying to make children appreciate things that we know they don’t need and that we know they don’t like. Would students like school better if we didn’t force them to continue to do things that we know they don’t need? How different would school be if fewer subjects were mandatory? What types of electives would students choose?
My third discovery was Y–. Y– was very nervous about playing basketball. She one of the youngest girls on our team and had a long list of reasons why she was “not good at basketball”. I watched her on the court and looked for things to compliment. She began making shots here and there, she held up her hands on defense, and she tried hard to stay in position. She was doing so well . . . and then all of the sudden a ball smacked her in the face and cut open her lip. I ran to her immediately, hugged her, and began administering first aid. Fortunately, no stitches were necessary. I set the other girls to work on drills and listened to Y–‘s long history with sports accidents. I invited her to participate in the drills, but told her it was perfectly OK to sit out for a bit. When her friends and teammates asked her to join them in a dribbling drill and assured her that there was no chance of being hit in the face this time, she looked at me imploringly. I stayed quiet, though I’m sure my face expressed my hope that she’d give it another go. She did. Before the first game she timidly asked me if she could be a sub. I told her that she could and tried to limit her chances of getting hurt with careful substitution. However, at the end of the tournament, I noticed how happy she was to have played with the team with both of her parents watching. Academic failures can be as painful as a basketball to the face and perseverance in the face of such pain is crucial. Would students be more likely to try again after failure if we took time to listen to how much it hurt? How can we provide time for students to sit on the sidelines long enough to find strength to go on? What supports do we need to provide students to help them to recover?
What do you think?