If We Televise Poker, Why Don’t We Televise Writing?

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With a high school son playing baseball, we’ve recently felt compelled to join the booster club. If you are like me, just the mere thought of such a thing sends chills down the spine. A few years ago, I was president of our little league. We worked on fundraisers, fields, coaching clinics, and we worked to create a fun and competitive environment for baseball players.

But, mostly, I refereed political disputes, egos, and tried to put out little fires before they engulfed the league. The first month on the job I had to kick out an umpire who had been accused of child molestation. By his ex-wife. Who I also had to remove from volunteering. And then there was the concession stand volunteer who was a convicted embezzler. Fun times.

I had this vision of the booster club as a kind of little league on steroids driven by football, football, football, and maybe a few other sports. I’m sure that there are booster clubs out there that are, in fact, train wrecks filled with egos and uneven preferential treatment. Fortunately, our’s is, actually, pretty darn fair. While football does get the largest amount (justly so considering it is the sport that generates the most money and interest), our booster club does a pretty equitable job of distributing the funds we raise.

And raise money we do. Always. Constantly. Beef jerky, t-shirts, caps, tamales, bows, ribbons–if you can slap a logo on it, we are by god willing to sell it. (Fortunately, we don’t do that cookie dough thing like the younger grades.) The selling is, strangely enough, relatively easy. When you approach someone with a t-shirt that says football,  baseball, or basketball with the school’s logo, they will buy it. Certainly, school pride and community pride play a role, but I’m convinced people are willing to pony up the money because they can see a direct, tangible result. If you buy these shirts, we can buy these cleats. If you buy these dining cards with coupons (even though they are a huge rip-off–does anyone really use all those?), we can buy a batting cage net/ soccer balls / re-turf the field / add to the weight room. Better equipment equals a better team which equals playoffs. Simple.

 

One wonders, then, why we don’t have the same structure for our academics. Bill James asks the same kind of question when he wonders why we are “so good at developing athletes and so lousy at developing writers.” If you haven’t read James’ article, take the time to do it now. He notes that “The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. ”

James makes the case that we treat athletes and writers differently. No doubt. Writing isn’t a spectator sport. (Nor should it be. Trust me. After years of watching kids write in class, I can’t imagine anything more boring. It would be like watching poker with little camera shots on the cards while we speculate on the next move. Who would ever televise such a thing?) I have a difficult time imagining the roar of the crowd after a well-turned phrase. But I also never imagined I would see the spelling bee on ESPN.

But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reconsider our approach to certain core subjects. We know, via data, intuition, and experience, that successful students read, write, and do math well. People can be successful and not know history, understand chemistry, or play a musical instrument. (I’m not saying they should, but the ability to do those things is dependent on the base understanding of the core skills.) If you can’t read, add, or put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards), things will be tough.

As James notes, we identify athletes early and we work on their strengths. At one point, I was giving hitting lessons to little league players getting paid $25 for 30 minutes. Without advertising, without trying, I had 8-10 kids every week. I was cheap. The going rate out here is between $35 and $50 for 30 minutes. Kids would show up with the right equipment, eager to improve. I invested some of my money in the tools necessary to develop specific skills. When you combine the right tools with desire and energy, good things happen.

We’ve carried that idea into high school sports. The booster club doles out funds for the best equipment and successful schools hire the best coaches. You might argue this is a misuse of funds and that we should be redirecting that money to the classroom to improve learning but I argue those aren’t mutually exclusive things. Fundraising is not a zero sum game. James is right: we need to treat writing (and other subjects) more like sports. Stop paying me to teach your kid to hit or throw if he’s not very good. But, if he can estimate the cost of your groceries before you check out, find a dang math coach.

Imagine, if you will, that we were willing to spend money on private writing coaches for those kids who excelled at putting pen to paper instead of hiring a tutor only for kids who struggle. Imagine if we set up story competitions. Imagine, if you will, if we had a booster club for 5th grade Language Arts and, more importantly, when I bought that tub of cookie dough the student (or someone) could tell me exactly which books, which coach, which tool we were buying and how that would improve success. (Better yet, let’s stop selling the cookie dough and focus on items where the school gets more than 40-50% of the money.)

More important, imagine if we hired (and paid) teachers the way we hire coaches. And, one last trip into the imaginary world: imagine if we gave teachers the same

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freedom to discipline, drill, and require practice that coaches get on a regular basis. Can you picture two dads (or mothers because they are worse) getting into a fight over who is the better writer? Instead of just a sports huddle on the local radio, we also had a reading huddle?

These things can work in conjunction with each other. We don’t have to pay coaches less in order to pay teachers more. We don’t have to spend less on football in order to spend more on math.

But we do need more academics, more administrators, and more parents to treat learning like a contact sport. Learning to swing a bat isn’t an option if you want to play baseball and learning to read isn’t optional if you are going to be educated. Let’s start paying attention to those coaches who are getting the job done, and let’s start treating teachers like coaches so they can do their jobs just as well.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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