I want to start with a quote from Allan Pease:
“We are different because our brain is wired differently.This causes us to perceive the world in different ways and have different values and priorities. Not better or worse - different.”
It took me a while, and a lot of reading to actually accept this. I am the product of an Education system that stresses the academic, and is heavily test-oriented. Unfortunately, that’s still very much the case; and we stress out ourselves (both as educators and parents), and even worse, our students/ children. It’s a competitive rat race into which everyone must be indoctrinated, and the faster the better.
You’re probably like me: your parents said you could play the piano, do ballet, become an artist, ONCE it didn’t affect your grades at school. They let you know from the beginning, don’t try to make a career out of an extracurricular activity. You always need a fall back plan, and that usually involves ‘a 9 to 5 job, and making sure you’re employable- have Maths, English and a Science subject.’ It’s the rat race that will ensure your survival, not the decathlon you’re training for. Bleak future much?
Now don’t get me wrong. I do believe ALL students should leave school with some form of academic certification. Footballers still need to read contracts, athletes still need to make wise investments and singers/ musicians have greater reach when they can ‘crossover’ a language barrier. Yet, they need to be valued for the contribution they make to their chosen field. And that contribution shouldn’t pale in comparison to their academics.
But I’m not naïve either. There is a culture that tends to develop around students who do sports, particularly, football. These students walk around the school like they’re in a special league and rules don’t apply to them. You score the most goals of the season and suddenly you have G.O.A.T status, thinking you’re right up there, with Messi or Ronaldo. You bounce into class late, and want to rock back and catch up on the ZZZ’s you missed, because of training/ matches. I’m not for this behaviour at all, and I often get a bad rep for trying to nip it in the bud. ‘She just like to pressure we boy.’ (and that’s mild, compared to what they really say).
And yes, you do need to nip it in the bud. Once rules and standards have been established in your classroom, (and they should be as soon as the academic year starts), you need to ensure ALL students comply and nobody gets special treatment. There should be no ‘Well Chris had a match yesterday, so he can put his head down today.’ You know what? If he’s tired, he should stay at home, get his parents to write an excuse and get the work missed…like any other absent student should. The last thing you want developing in your class is an ‘Animal Farm’ scenario of, to quote loosely, ‘All are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ This can breed an atmosphere of unfairness and hostility in your classroom, and that’s the last thing you want.
So if giving students the ‘ok’ to slack off in class is NOT the way to support them in achieving their non-academic goals, how can we, as educators, encourage them to ‘keep the ball rolling’ with their studies, while still pursuing their dream?
1. Recognize their extracurricular achievements: It won’t kill you or take much out of your class time to ‘big up’ the students who are excelling outside of the classroom. Big victory the day before or over the weekend? Recognize it in front of your class. “Students, let’s congratulate Aaron! He was named ‘Man of the Match’ and scored a century!” or “Alice placed 1st in her dance recital! Hip hip hooray!” This simple action will make them feel valued, even though their score on your test may not be as high as the bright bulbs in your class. It also shows them that you take an interest in their lives and what’s important to them. Their priorities matter as well, not just yours (refer to Allan Pease quote).
2. Let them show off their skill with targeted learning activities: You have students who could be art prodigies. You’ve seen their idle sketching in class and realize, even though they weren’t on task, hmm! They have a talent for manga! Your next step (after getting them back on task), is to find a way to incorporate their skill in the learning activities you plan. Maybe a game of Pictionary to learn vocabulary? We can cater for the actors as well; Charades can be applied in more than one subject area.
Teaching Math? Have students calculate the angles for shots on goal. Buy a mini basketball hoop and when a student answers correctly, let them ‘shoot a hoop’ to seal the point. You’re combining cognitive and psychomotor skills here and that’s a win-win formula. Catering for multiple interests will increase student engagement. It doesn’t take a genius to see that.
3. Differentiate by product: I can explain this best by giving an example. So daily routine is a topic I teach in French, but it can be a bit boring…if I let it be. Students need to prepare a written /oral presentation about their personal routine - boring. But what if they got to describe their routine in a way they wanted to? Example: they can choose if they want to make a TikTok video by acting out each activity, create a cartoon character’s routine with a storyboard or rap the routine to a beat they compose? That’s differentiation by product, and it allows students to demonstrate learning in a way that’s meaningful to them. Be aware though, that before you give students all the choices in the world, you need to design rubrics and standards for each ‘product’. These rubrics and standards must also be comparable, when it comes to satisfying the learning objective you’re trying to achieve.
4. Post learning activities online: Many schools adopted an LMS platform during the Covid-19 quarantine, and some have continued with the chosen platform even after the return to classes. Still, if your school isn’t one of these, don’t wait for it to become one and get on board with the rest of the world that’s already shifted/ shifting to Blended Learning. You can set up, among other options, a Google classroom and post resources/ notes/ videos/ web links etc. This doesn’t only help the athlete who misses class because he has a track meet, or a cricketer/ footballer who has a match, it helps the child who is absent due to prolonged illness, or for some other reason, not to fall behind in their work.
Most importantly, in the long run, it makes your job easier. You don’t have to be rustling through paper and notes to put together a package for the absent student. You can refer him/ her to the ‘online’ classroom and put the onus back on the student to take responsibility for his own academic progress.
One suggestion though, don’t make your online modules boring. Include games and interactive resources. Choose sites like Edpuzzle, when posting videos, so you can actually track/ ensure students watch and pay attention to the WHOLE video. It should not become a place where you just post notes and homework.
5. Be flexible/ open to discussing assignment deadlines: I know many people may not agree with this, because as teachers, we ourselves, have deadlines to meet and we don’t get much flexibility with those. Some may even say that the validity of the assignment is put into question, because the athlete/ performer/ singer/ footballer/ cricketer sees the test before or after his/ her classmates do. But you have to use your executive thinking as a teacher. Assess the child, assess the situation and determine what’s the best course of action.
For example, I did just that when I agreed to give one of my students his exam the day before the rest. He came and explained he would be out for a championship match (I appreciated the forethought and the fact that he tries to balance his extracurricular with his academics). I also took into account that it was just half-day before the rest of the class got it, and lastly, I considered what TYPE of assessment it was. It was a free-writing piece in French, so even if the other students knew what the piece was about, it didn’t mean that they could write the exact essay he did. The rest of the class would still have to prove their own personal ability to write about that topic in French.
My point is, weigh the factors: timing of the exam, administering of exam, type of exam etc. But I strongly believe that a student who is representing the school in an extracurricular activity should not be penalized for doing so. Facilitate him/her as much as is possible, and extend the courtesy where/ when you can. Especially if the student makes it his/ her business to tell you in advance that he/she will be absent and is interested in taking the test/ doing the assignment. That shows a willingness to strike a balance between the academics and extra curricular, so don’t discourage the student by being rigid and unbending.
To sign off, remember that ‘your priorities’ may not be your ‘students’ priorities’ and the fact is, they don’t have to be. We are different, not better nor worse, just different. Our brains work differently, a Gen X is not going to rationalize like a Millenial, a Gen Z or a Generation Alpha. And that’s OK. The world belongs to us all and guess what? We don’t need a world with just academic scholars. Tradesmen and women, sportsmen and women, singers, actors, performers ... .you name it, everyone has a contribution to make and as an educator, you don’t get to dictate what that contribution is. All you get to do is help shape it.