Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

10.11.13Sports, School and Society: Reflections on Amanda Ripley

West Ham United v Everton - Premier LeagueFirst, i just want to say out loud that Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World is the best book I’ve read this year and if I know you personally you probably already know this because I am recommending it to everybody.  Seriously. Everybody. And happily, the book has gotten a lot of the recognition it deserves, though interestingly people have kind of focused on the Sports in School angle rather than a lot of the more nuanced stuff that would make an immense difference in how we educated our kids but that would require brutal self-reflection and systematic change.  It’s a bit easier to blog about the sports angle.  Like I’m doing.

That said, the Sports in School angle is a smart one and one that my colleague Rob Richard sent me a note about the other day in response to my recommending the book. It’s kind of a fascinating reflection.

Rob points out that while it’s true that we over-emphasize sports, there’s a weird contrast between the way we use them as a venue to push ourselves for excellence and strive to find our limits and the way we NEVER do that with school work.  I mean, we all had a version of the coach like the one Rob described below.  We all “get” what he was trying to do and see it as a normal part of social development.  But then we freak out if our kids have more than 30 minutes of homework or if a teacher says, “This is lousy; write it over.”  I mean grade inflation is INSANE in most schools and part of the reason is because we (parents) make it so painful for teachers to give low grades that they (at least in the suburbs) just choose to fight another battle and concede so that everyone does well. My kids even joke about it.  They say: “[Name of our town here]…Everybody wins. [eye roll].  Every time [eye roll].”  They actually WANT to be differentiated from the kids who don’t really work hard and take school seriously.

Final thought before I share Rob’s fascinating note:   I want to come clean:  I really love sports.  And my kids do too. We spend a lot of  time kicking a ball (and playing catch, skiing, swimming, running, and watching Arsenal, etc.) And I LOVE this part of my life with them and i think that they, like Rob, will learn a lot and develop a lot because of their involvement in athletics.  But valuing sports in society is different from valuing sports in school and I am ready to give up school sports to make the school part better. When you think about it, my kids go out and play club soccer and the club soccer is great and the training is probably better than what they get on the school team and in the end it would be easy to to separate it from school. Might even help their athletic development. But for sure we could take all that money and all that time and devote it to math and English and science which I know would REALLY benefit them.

Anyway, here’s Rob’s note, which is much more interesting than the rambling i just subjected you to.

Finished The Smartest Kids in the World over the weekend. Thanks for turning me on to it. Gave me a lot to think about. It led to a conversation with my friend, Dean. He also read the book. We were talking about what the book had to say about the prominence of sports in the US compared to schools in other countries. It occurred to me that, considering the lack of expectations in the classroom, it may be good that some of us learned grit and determination on the athletic field. It may have been the only place we’d get it.

I can remember one particular 11th grade track practice in which I was running intervals. I was doing it around the circular drive surrounding the school parking lot. It was probably 1/8 of a mile or something. My coach pushed me so hard that all the muscles in my legs started to cramp up. The kind of cramps where your foot uncontrollably bends upward toward your shin. I collapsed. My coach came over and bent my feet down, made me stretch, and then told me to start running again. I think I may have even cried. But I kept running. I think I won the 2 mile 5 times that year. That season taught me a lot about pushing through things and working to achieve greatness. I distinctly remember that year as being one of the high points of high school.

Maybe my coach went too far (he got fired about 10 years after I left) but I can only think of one teacher in grade school who pushed me like that. That was my chemistry teacher, Ms. Kinney. Oddly enough, that was also 11th grade. She was relentless. I got an A- in that class, which I didn’t expect. It also had a huge influence on my approach to struggle. But she was the only one, until I got to college, where my academic life really flourished.

I was thinking what it would be like if people expected the same from my school work that they expected from my running. Hard to say what would have happened.

The sad thing is, not every kid plays sports or is good at them. Where do they learn these lessons?

I showed some natural aptitude for running, so the school pushed me to excel. In some of my classes I also showed some aptitude and I excelled there. But other than Ms. Kinney, it seemed like the school only made me a little better at the things I was already good at. It seems like the school should have tried very hard to make me good at things for which I apparently had no skill. I don’t pretend that I would have made that easy.

Somewhat random last aside: I think one of the ramifications of this is how kids identify themselves.  Kids identify themselves by their activities outside the classroom. They say, “I’m David, I’m a musician” Or, “I’m Alexis, I play basketball.”  But they don’t say, “I’m Colin, I’m a good student.” Or “I’m Christa. I’m good at math.”  One reason for this is that those other activities have a culture of demanding-ness and straight-talk.  When you make the basketball team you know it’s because you earned it.  Some people don’t make it (or don’t start at least).  And you know you have pushed yourself really hard to be better and better and not accept good-enough at piano or soccer.  And so it comes to define you in a way that school doesn’t. When we make school too easy, we take something out of it.

4 Responses to “Sports, School and Society: Reflections on Amanda Ripley”

  1. Carrie Kamm
    October 11, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    What about those students and their families who cannot afford club sports? They often rely on their school for participation in school sports (even local park districts have fees associated). I am sure you are not saying that those students should loose the opportunity to learn the valuable life lessons that come from participating in sports, but your post reminds me that those of us who speak from a position of privilege need to be mindful of such.

    • Doug_Lemov
      October 11, 2013 at 5:25 pm

      Respectfully- i think having access to a great education is a right. there for the gov’t should provide at no cost. Having access to sports isn’t. sports are nice. i really love them. but they are a want not a need.
      and i think you can get the benefit at low cost… it doesn’t seem like there’s a dearth of accessible sports programs . even our poorest kids participate.

  2. Janice Smith
    October 16, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    This is fascinating food for thought. Especially this part…

    “My kids even joke about it. They say: “[Name of our town here]…Everybody wins. [eye roll]. Every time [eye roll].” They actually WANT to be differentiated from the kids who don’t really work hard and take school seriously.”

    I couldn’t help but connect this to how we view teachers and teaching. I’m aware this may not be a popular opinion, but as of recently I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the blanket celebration of teachers. Things like “Teacher Appreciation Day”, etc. This celebration does nothing to acknowledge the often drastic differences between teachers, shown most importantly (I believe) by their student results. We offer teacher discounts, national holidays, Hallmark cards and gifts, etc. for ALL teachers. Yet we know there are teachers out there riding out their tenure, teachers who are not hungry to grow, teachers who are perpetuating mediocrity and year after year are happy with 70% of their students leaving their class on grade level.

    Where are the coaches Rob speaks of for these teachers? How can we demand high performance, and the work it takes to produce it, while also celebrating those not yet there, but working relentlessly every day to get there? How do we do this in a way that isn’t seen as attacking teachers, or not appreciating them, but instead in a way that is simply demanding the best of those responsible for teaching our kids?

    There are high performing teachers out there. Lots of them. Smart, goal-driven, competitive, kid-loving teachers who are constantly working to gain new skills, figure out better ways to teach an idea, scripting their lesson plans and meticulously creating airtight questions to expose misconceptions, spending hours every week on the phone answering homework questions and talking with parents- I can only imagine these teachers feel the same way your kids do. How do we differentiate and celebrate them from those who don’t work as hard or take school as seriously?

  3. Doug_Lemov
    October 16, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    I really appreciate your comment, Janice. And i think it’s brave. Because we’re not supposed to say what you said, even though it’s true. Teaching is such hard work. OF COURSE some people are really good at it–better than others–and deserve to be differentiated–in terms of honor, reputation, opportunities, responsibilities, autonomy and, yes, probably compensation. This profession–the hardest and most important work in the world–is full of excellent people whom we rarely acknowledge and differentiate… whom we make it hard to acknowledge and differentiate, who spend their careers undistinguished from their least competent peers. this means that we risk losing those people when we don’t have to.

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