North Coast Journal bannerCOVER STORY


by Herb Childress


WE DEFINE SCHOOL AS A PLACE OF LEARNING. BUT AS I attended all of the classes in the high school in which I was an observer for a year, what I saw mostly and what the students told me about most frequently was not learning at all but boredom. I saw kids talking in class, not listening to the lectures, having conversations instead of working on their study guides, putting their heads on their desks and tuning out. Teachers talked about what a struggle it was to get their kids to turn their homework in at all, much less on time. Students picked up enough information to pass the test, did their work well enough to get the grade, and then forgot forever whatever it can be said that they had learned.

We adults could look at this and call it yet another moral problem. We could call kids lazy, and tell each other that they won't put any effort into their work.We could call for more testing to tell us that sure enough test scores are still declining. We could call for more penalties when kids don't do well in class, more ways to coerce them into doing their work. We could talk about going "back to basics," which is to say making school an even less appealing and more restrictive place than it is now.

But as an ethnographer, I had the advantage of hanging around with over a hundred of this school's students outside the classroom, and I got to watch them do other things. For example, I spent a Thursday through Saturday during February with Bill, a junior who had good grades during his first two years of high school but who had lost interest in school during the third year. I watched him not bother to study at all for a French test, and fail it. I watched him skip a class, and watched him play a computer game instead of writing his article for the school newspaper. I watched him get busted in a couple of classes for tardies and talking. But that same guy on that same weekend spent two hours running full out in a soccer practice, and spent more hours than I can count playing hacky-sack (and he taught me how to play acceptably well, no small achievement in itself). He cooked a wonderful dinner at home one night, and worked five fast-paced hours at his restaurant kitchen job the next night. He spent most of his home time playing games invented by his little brother and sister, who loved him. He spent two hours surfing on Friday and three more hours preparing for another surfing trip on Sunday.

When I was with him in school, he was an archetypal slacker but when I was with him outside the school, he was a person with a lot of interests, things that he was dedicated to and good at doing. And that pattern carried over to so many of the kids that I followed. I watched other people operate computers and wash horses. I saw them playing video games that had dozens of rules and literally hundreds of decisions to make every minute, and I watched them play card games that I couldn't begin to understand. I watched them drive four-wheel-drive trucks at insane speeds on dirt roads, and watched them working on those trucks as well. I watched them acting, opening their hearts in front of hundreds of people. I watched them wrestling and playing the piano. I was privileged to see them doing the things that they loved to do. The things that they put themselves into without reserve. The things that they were damn good at. The students I knew were a skilled bunch of people. So why didn't those skills and capabilities and love show up more often in the classroom?

In the school that I lived within, I saw striking and strikingly consistent differences between the desultory classrooms and lively extracurricular activities. The same kids who were emotionally absent in their classes came alive after school. We say, "If only she'd spend as much time doing her algebra as she does on cheerleading..." with the implication that kids blow off Algebra because they're immature. We don't usually think to turn the question around and ask what it is about the things they love that are worthy of their best effort. We don't usually ask what it is about school that usually makes it unworthy of that kind of devotion. But if we're interested in looking at places of joy, places where kids lose track of how hard they're working because they're so involved in the work, places where teenagers voluntarily learn a difficult skill, football can give us some clues about how and why to do it in other areas of school.

Let me give you 17 reasons why football is better for learning than high school. I use football as my specific example not because I love football; I use it because I hate football. It's been said that football combines the two worst elements of American society: violence and committee meetings. You can substitute "music" or "theater" or "soccer" for "football" and everything I say will stay the same; so when I say that football is better than school, what I really mean is that even football is better than school.

  1. In football, teenagers are considered important contributors rather than passive recipients.
    This is extraordinarily rare in teenage life, but central to both learning and to self-esteem. A football team is framed around the abilities and preferences of the players; if there's nobody who can throw the ball, but three big fast running backs and a strong offensive line, the team isn't going to have an offense that dwells much on passing. But the geometry class and every student in the geometry class has to keep pace with the same state-ordained curriculum as every other school, regardless of the skills and interests and abilities of the students. Football players know that they, and nobody else, will get the job done. Students know that they are considered empty minds, to be filled at a pace and with a material to be determined by others.
  2. In football, teenagers are encouraged to excel.
    By this, I don't mean performing up to someone's standards (which may already be limited), but to go beyond anything they've
    ever been asked to do before, to constantly improve. There is no such thing as "good enough." We congratulate players on their improvements, but we don't give them much time to be complacent we ask them to do even more. In the classroom, we give them a test on polynomials, and the best result they can get is to score high enough to never have to deal with polynomials again.
  3. In football, teenagers are honored.
    Football players get extraordinary amounts of approval: award banquets, letter jackets, banners around the campus, school festivals, team photos, whole sections of the yearbook, newspaper coverage, trophies, regional and even state recognition for the best. The whole community comes out to see them. We put them on floats and have parades. That doesn't happen for the consumer math class.
  4. In football, a player can let the team down.
    Personal effort is linked to more than personal achievement: it means the difference between making the team better or making it weaker, the difference between making a player's teammates and coaches grateful for his presence or irritated with his apathy. A single player can make his peers better than they would have been without him. That's a huge incentive that we take away from the classroom with our constant emphasis on individual outcomes.

  5. In football, repetition is honorable.
    In the curriculum, we continually move forward, with not much opportunity to do things a second time and get better. Students have to do new things every time they get to class. In football, students do the same drills over and over all season long, and in fact get better at them. The skills get easier, and players start to use those skills to do things that are more complex.
  6. In football, the unexpected happens all the time.
    Every player will line up across from the same opposing player dozens of times during a game, but he knows that each time, his opponent could do something different and he'll have to react to it right in the moment. There's no opportunity to coast, to glaze out, to sit back and watch others work. Every player is required to be involved and absorbed in his work, and a talented player who holds back is typically regarded more poorly than his less talented but more engaged teammates. Contrast that with a normal class period, scripted out by a teacher with the idea that a successful class is the one that goes as planned with the fewest disruptions, and it's clear why apathy can be a problem in the classroom.
  7. In football, practices generally run a lot longer than 50 minutes.
    And when they end, there's a reason to stop: everyone works until they get it right, or until they're too tired to move anymore. There's no specific reason that a school class should run for 50 minutes instead of 35 or 85, and there's no reason why class should run the same length of time every day. The classroom schedule responds to pressures that come from outside the classroom state laws, other classes, even bus schedules. Football practice schedule is more internal they quit when they're done.
  8. In football, the homework is of a different type than what's done at practice.
    In the classroom, kids do worksheets in class and then very often take the same kind of worksheet home to finish it. Football requires a lot of homework that comes in the form of running and weight training, things not done at practice. Players work at home to find and build their strengths, and then bring those strengths to practice to work together on specific skills. The work done at home and the work done in common are two different jobs, and each is incomplete without the other.
  9. In football, emotions and human contact are expected parts of the work.
    When players do well, they get to be happy. When they do poorly, they get to be angry. Players are supposed to talk with each other while things are going on. But we have no tools to make use of happiness or frustration in most classrooms, and we generally prohibit communication except for the most rote exchanges. When we bring 30 kids together and ask them not to communicate, not to use each another as resources and exhort each other to go farther, then we make it clear to them that their gathering is simply a cost-effectiveness measure.
  10. In football, players get to choose their own roles.
    Not only do they choose their sport, they also choose their favored position within that sport. In the classroom, we don't allow people to follow their hearts very often. We give them a list of classes they have to take, and then we give them assignments within those classes that they have to do, and we don't offer many alternatives. We've set the whole school thing up as a set of requirements, but sports are a set of opportunities, a set of pleasures from which anyone gets to choose. Each one of those pleasures carries with it a set of requirements and responsibilities and difficult learning assignments, but kids still do them voluntarily, following their own self- defined mission of seeking their place in the world.
  11. In football, the better players teach the less-skilled players.
    Sometimes this is on purpose, but mostly this teaching is by example. Every player is constantly surrounded by other players who can do things well, and who love doing what they do. The really good players are allowed to show off in fact, it's demanded that they show off, that they work to their highest capacity. The people who aren't as good see that. Not only do they simply see skills they can learn, they often get swept up in it emotionally. They get to see another person not just the teacher but a friend who knows what they're doing and who loves to do it. In the classroom, the best students aren't often given a chance to publicly go beyond what everyone else is doing. They're smothered, held back, kept in pace.
  12. In football, there is a lot of individual instruction and encouragement from adults.
    A coach who has only the nine defensive linemen to deal with for an hour is going to get a pretty good sense of who these kids are, what drives them, what they can and can't do. And those players are going to see the coach in a less formal and more human frame; they get to ask questions when questions arise without feeling as though they're on stage in front of 30 other bored students.
    Let's admit a basic truth: bigger class size makes personal contact more difficult. The school I was in had an average class size of about 27 students. That was considered pretty good, since the statewide average was about 31. But as I looked around the halls at the sports team photos in their glass trophy cases, the highest player-to-coach ratio I saw was 13 to 1; sometimes it was better than 10 to 1. There was one photo of the varsity football team with Coach Phillips and his three assistants surrounded by his 35 players; erase the three assistants from the picture, and you could have had a photo of any one of his history classes.
    On the first day of freshman basketball practice, 23 kids tried out, and by the end of the first week, there were still 17. On the next Monday morning the coach said to me, "I sure hope some more of these kids quit. You can't do anything with 17 kids." True enough why do we make him do it five periods a day with 25, 30, or 34 kids?
  13. In football, the adults who participate are genuinely interested.
    The adults involved in football are more than willing to tell you that they love to play, that they love to coach. And they don't say it in words so much as they say it in their actions, in the way that they hold themselves and dive in to correct problems and give praise. But the teachers I watched (and the teachers I had from grade school to grad school) were, for the most part, embarrassed to death to say that they loved whatever it is that they did. It takes a lot of guts to stand up in front of 25 kids who didn't volunteer to be there and say, "You know, dissecting this pig is going to be the most fun I'm going to have all day." We're candidates for the Geek-of-the-Month Club if we let people know that we really love poetry, or trigonometry, or theater, or invertebrate biology. And so we often hide behind a curriculum plan, a textbook and a set of handouts, and we say, "You and I have to do this together because it's what the book says we have to do." We armor ourselves in the appearance of not caring, so that we won't be hurt when they don't care either. But only in those few classrooms where the teachers said, both in word and in action, that they absolutely loved what they were doing those were the classrooms where the kids were engaged, where they learned.
    I talked with a lot of kids and their teachers and their parents about what they loved to do, whether that was photography or surfing or hunting or reading, things that are real skills. And when I asked how they got involved in those activities, both the kids and the adults always answered that it was someone that got them interested, and not anything intrinsic in the event itself. They followed someone they respected into an activity that that person loved, and they discovered it from there.
  14. In football, volunteers from the community are sought after.
    No sports program in a high school could ever operate without assistant coaches, trainers, and other local people who aren't paid to help out. These guys give hours and hours to the school in exchange for a handshake, a vinyl jacket and a dinner at the end of the season. Volunteers become a natural part of human activity. There are almost never volunteers in the classroom, no adult who seems to believe that math or chemistry is so interesting that she or he would do it for free on a regular basis. There's no sense that anyone other than "the expert" can contribute to a discussion of ideas.
  15. In football, ability isn't age-linked.
    Freshmen who excel can play for the varsity. In the ninth-grade English classroom, an extraordinary student can't go beyond what the other ninth-grade students are doing, even if he or she could profit from what's being assigned to the seniors. When a student tries out for football, he gets a good looking over by several coaches, and if he's really good, they're going to move him up fast. In the classroom, if that same student is really good if he's inspired one person sees it and gives him an A. Big deal it's the same A that someone else gets for just doing the requirements without that inspiration. The pace of advancement in football isn't linked to equal advancement in another irrelevant area. If a kid is an adequate JV basketball player but an extraordinary football player, the football coach isn't going to say that he has to stay with the JV football team so that he's consistent with his grade level. No way the coach is going to tell that player, "come on up here, we need you." Have you ever heard an English teacher recruit a young student by saying, "we need you in this classroom?" Have you ever heard a science teacher say that "Your presence is crucial to how this course operates. We're not at our full potential without you?"
  16. In football, there's a whole job to do at the end.
    Players practice specific moves over and over in isolation, but they know that their job at the end is going to mean doing it all together in a way that's more than the sum of the parts. In school, we keep the parts separate. We don't show our students how a creative writer might use a knowledge of science; we don't show them how a historian might want to know about the building trades; we don't show them how a mechanic can take joy in knowing about American history. We don't let our students see the way that all of these different interests might come together into a worthwhile and fascinating life. We pretend they're all separate.
  17. In football, a public performance is expected. <