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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Goodbye dumb jocks, hello scholar athletes


There are no dumb jocks at my school. That stereotype has died and been laid to rest. Requiem in pace.

Welcome, instead, the reality of the scholar athlete, a leader and a learner on and off the field.

The York Cougars finished their football season recently, but you wouldn't know it if you visited their daily practice sessions. If you walked into our field house and opened the door to the weight room, you would see the football team doing what they did all season long -- diligently ... reading. Throughout the football season the team started their practice sessions with 10 minutes of silent recreational reading. Some students read magazines or newspapers, but quite a few chose novels and biographies.

When their official season ended, they started reading the same young adult novel together and talking about it with their coaches. The senior players started visiting the elementary schools to read to young children.

Their other teachers noticed.

I noticed the bookbags first -- how even the ultracool athletic stars who never carried one before now do, how the athletes pull books out of their bookbags to read while they are waiting for the class to start, how kids in uniform are making two and three trips to the library each week to return books they have finished and to check out new ones.

The football players aren't the only ones embracing the idea of being scholar athletes. Before the school year began, the girls basketball team met in June for the kick-off of a reading challenge for players in the junior high and high school. The girls checked out books from the school and the public libraries and kept logs of the number of pages and minutes they read. At the end of the summer they met again for a hot dog supper and an awards program where our superintendent, Dr. Russell Booker, presented book store gift certificates to the students who had read the most.

Payoff in the classroom

The reading initiative for winter sports teams, including the girls and boys basketball teams and the wrestling team, started in earnest in October, this time sponsored by the local Optimist Club. Those athletes who logged the most out-of-school reading time were recognized this week at the winter sports banquet.The recognition has been informal, as well. Throughout the school are large posters of our senior athletes reading books. In the hallways, around corners, in the library are photographs of football players, cheerleaders, golfers, tennis players, volleyball players and cross-country runners with books in their hands. The message is steady and clear: Strength is both mental and physical.

The payoff is showing up in the classroom. John Barrett, the head football coach, carefully tracked his players' academic progress and announced to the faculty that of his 64 varsity and junior varsity players, six made all A's on their report cards, 20 made all A's and B's, and another four were short a single point of making the honor roll. Only one student made an F in a class.

If you are tempted to jump to the conclusion that this means my faculty is participating in some sort of grade inflation or an easy ride for athletes, don't. Our grade distribution each quarter shows that as a faculty we tend to be strict graders, with top marks hard won.

Our coaches deserve the credit for inspiring our athletes to work for those top marks. Not only do most of our coaches teach all day and attend all of the practices and games of their teams, they serve as role models and surrogate parents. In many ways they know our students better than the classroom teachers ever will -- and when they put a book in a kid's hand, it is freighted with more importance than when a mere English teacher says, "Read this."

Idea spreads to driver's ed

Even our students who don't participate in sports are benefiting. A few days ago I noticed one of my students filling out a reading log for his driver's ed class. His teacher -- a coach -- had collaborated with our librarian to design a reading program for his driver's ed students. When they aren't driving, they are reading for elective credit.

This year my school has made a commitment to promoting literacy skills, and while some content area teachers are skeptical, this innovative coach has proven that reading and writing fit everywhere. We've managed to bury the idea that athletes don't read -- let's also put to rest the notion that only English teachers are qualified to teach students how to read and write. When the faculty teams up to teach literacy, the students are the winners.



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