Sunday, June 28, 2015

Extracurriculars Matter: What They Did for Me as a Student

I'm going to take just a little break from blogging about classroom stuff because I feel really driven right now to talk about something that I believe is very important in school: extracurricular activities. In particular, I really want to focus on the importance of these activities in the lives of both students and teachers. 

Wikipedia (which is not to be trusted for 100% credibility in research writing but works well enough for everyday research to end marital and social disputes) defines "extracurricular activities" as 
"those that fall outside the realm of the normal curriculum of school or university education, performed by students. Extracurricular activities exist for all students... Such activities are generally voluntary (as opposed to mandatory), non-paying, social, philanthropic (as opposed to scholastic), and often involve others of the same age. Students often organize and direct these activities under faculty sponsorship, although student-led initiatives, such as independent newspapers, are common." (Source)
Some of the things that stand out to me about this definition:
  • "fall outside the realm of the normal curriculum" - meaning that an extracurricular activity is still part of the educational process, though it isn't part of the regular school day plan. You're still supposed to learn stuff.
  • "performed by students" and "students often organize and direct these activities under faculty sponsorship" - the students should be doing the majority of the work in a successful extracurricular activity. Our job is to sponsor the program and to guide student success, not to do everything to make it happen.
  • "extracurricular activities exist for all students" - and if they don't exist for all students, it is our duty (and the duty of the students who want the new activity) to make it happen!

Extracurriculars matter. They matter a great deal to the students who participate in them, and they should matter to you, the teacher.

Okay, I know. They take up time. Depending on the activity you sponsor, they can take up a lot of time. There are points that I spend considerably more of my personal time working on my activity than I do working on my classroom. There already aren't enough hours in the day for a teacher, I get that. But if you're a teacher who is just getting started, or if you are a veteran who has never really bothered with the extracurricular activities scene, then I hope you'll hear me out.

Before I climb up on my soapbox about this, I think it is only fair for you to know where I'm coming from. Sometimes we get so far into "the dark side" (a.k.a. teaching) that we forget what it was like to be a student. I'm going to start off with some student perspective.

This is going to be a long one, kids, so you might go get a cup of coffee or some tea or vodka or something. Get a snack while you're at it. And go pee.

My love of theatre began in seventh grade. I attended a very small private elementary school that was heavily focused on academics and had little focus on extracurricular activities for the students (most likely due to funding problems). They started building basketball and cheer programs as I moved through the building, but those weren’t for me. Despite several years of playing soccer and basketball, I’m just no good at any version of sportsball. I was in cheer at my tiny school for a year or two, which was fun, but I honestly really hated all of the travel for games. I gave band a try my sixth grade year, but I was required to leave my school with a couple other band kids, travel to the local public school for band class where I knew no one (and I’m really, really terrible at making friends, even to this day, because I’m really, really bad at social interaction), get berated by the director (who I thought was an asshat at the time, though I later learned he was just a really tough old asshat with a heart of gold and a passion for marching band), and then go back. Ultimately it felt more like a punishment than anything else. So what I’m trying to get at here is that there really wasn’t a place for a kid like me in my little school except for the mandatory music classes (which were not exactly of the highest quality, although I did get to do some really cool state choir stuff, but I’m rambling here).

They hired a new teacher – a male teacher – the year I went into 7th grade. Mr. B was pretty much the coolest teacher I had met up to that point (perhaps with the exception of Sister Joyce, who was a nun with a penchant for balls-to-the-wall kickball tournaments). I didn’t know teachers like Mr. B existed until that point. He was inspiring in the classroom. We had a pet scorpion and sometimes we got to watch as Mr. B fed Diablo a live mouse. He was the new basketball coach and he was seriously one of the only two math teachers I’ve ever liked because he made math make sense. #thatssomeharrypottershitrightthere I think he really threw our building for a loop, actually.

So Mr. B decided to start a little theatre program for our school, which was something totally foreign to us. He started really small with a little one-act murder mystery that fall. (I honestly can’t recall the name. Must find out.) I don’t think we had to audition for this play... I’m pretty sure we just signed up and he gave us roles. I was a maid. #typicalfirstrole I really don’t remember much about this play at all, except that we had to perform it in the public middle school’s gym/auditorium and **SPOILER ALERT** the butler did it. #seriously

What I do remember, so very clearly, was the spring play, because Mr. B got brave. It was The Diary of Anne Frank. This time, we had to audition. I knew nothing about the play, so I went home and read the book before auditions and by God, I was absolutely determined to get to play Anne. There was this little supply closet that also housed a hot water heater in the back of the classroom, which is where auditions were held. I can so clearly remember reading from that script for the first time with Mr. B and him saying, “Wow. That was really impressive.”

There are so many little details of that production that I will never forget. I will never forget the way the blood pounded in my ears when I saw my name next to “Anne Frank” on that cast list. How could I possibly forget the really horribly awkward first time I had to start taking off layers of clothes during a dress rehearsal practice? (Some context for those of you that are freaking out: when the Franks went to the secret annex, they had to walk in the streets and couldn’t carry suitcases or people would know they were on the run, so they had to wear layers and layers of clothes. Anne is this really brash, unashamed person at the beginning of the play and she just starts stripping down to her first layer of clothes when the Franks meet the Van Daans for the first time. Her mother finally gets after her when she starts taking off multiple pairs of underwear.) I got my first kiss from a boy in that play (although it was just on the cheek… y’know… 7th grade private school). I clearly remember good old Mr. B being so seriously pissed off at the cast for not knowing their lines by deadline that he told everyone to go home and write all of their lines by hand… and I already knew my lines… and I had a ton of lines… but I did it anyway… and I was the only one who did it… and when I turned in this stack of notebook paper to him the next morning with every word of my lines, I will never forget the look on his face. It was the combination of “I didn’t really mean that, I was just pissed” and “you’re fucking crazy for doing this” and “you’re a good kid” and “I’m proud of you.” I will never forget Mr. B coming up to me after opening night and telling me that when I was on Broadway starring in West Side Story one day that I had to send him tickets. (I never made it to Broadway. Never even attempted it. A little regret there, honestly.)

There is one thing that stands out in my mind most of all about that play, and it’s the whole reason I’m telling you this story. This was the first show I performed on a real stage. The local high school agreed to let us use their auditorium, with the folding stadium seats and glossy wooden stage and catwalk full of bright stage lights and the sound system that made my voice fill the room. I will never forget the bright flash of lights on my face as I walked onto that stage and became a completely different person for two hours. I had never felt so free in my entire life as I did that moment. Because for two hours each night, I didn’t have to be me – this chunky, horribly non-athletic, awkward-as-hell, book wormish girl who was really bad at making friends. I got to be someone else, someone brave and beautiful and gregarious and obnoxious and teasing and playful and so, so alive.

Since being Anne Frank, I’ve been thirteen other someones, including a hillbilly, a crotchety Irish mother, a vampire bride, a prep, a Jersey girl, a dancing villager, a woman whose son died, and a fat villainous opera singer. My love of theatre has grown and evolved for many years now, taking me from my little elementary school plays to high school and community theatre productions, from taking theatre classes in college to coaching students in acting. The strange thing about getting to be someone else for a little while is that it teaches you how to be yourself. I truly believe that all of my years in theatre have helped me to be me. Theatre teaches teamwork, introspection, critical thinking, public speaking, leadership, and so many other skills, but I think the greatest thing I learned from theatre is empathy. Stepping into someone else’s shoes, even for just a little while, even on a stage and with a script, is an eye-opening experience. It broadens horizons and builds compassion for other people and their battles.

My 7th grade theatre experience met Wikipedia's definition of "extracurricular activity." I learned so many things that I would have never learned in the classroom that year. Mr. B was a true coach... he pushed the students to do the work. While the shows wouldn't have been possible without his leadership, he wasn't doing everything. We had to work to make that show happen. The part of the Wikipedia definition that makes me shudder a little, though, is the third bullet I pointed out. Extracurricular activities exist for all students. My activity that brought me to life almost didn't exist at all in that school! If it wasn't for Mr. B taking the time out of his life to do this thing, I would have never known about this great love I was secretly harboring for theatre. Teachers have the power to influence their students outside of the classroom too. If it wasn’t for Mr. B, I don’t know that I would have ever found my "activity." I likely wouldn’t have tried it in high school because I was too chicken shit to try new things in high school. I would’ve never had the opportunity to work with another highly influential teacher on the stage. I would have never taken on the responsibilities of this highly-demanding extracurricular activity now, as a teacher. Hell, I may have never even become a teacher if it wasn’t for those two inspiring teachers.

Students need these activities - be it drama or baseball or art guild or choir or track or marching band or anime club or any other activity - to help them find themselves, and they need teachers like you to give them a voice in the school building. Never forget the influence you have on your students. Make sure your impact is positive, and make sure you tell them you’re proud of them, and make sure they know their worth. It might seem like a drop in the bucket, but you don’t know where that ripple could take them.

I'll be back later with Extracurriculars Matter: What They Can Do for You as a Teacher.

Happy Church Picnic Season!