Wednesday, March 7, 2018

the classroom as a basketball team...

You're a basketball coach. You got into the field because you wanted the chance to work with kids, to give back by helping kids develop into the people you know they are capable of being (because let's face it--coaches do so much more than shape players. They shape teenagers into the young men and young women they will become.). You know the superstars will be few and far between, but that's okay. You're happy to spend most of your time helping your players develop the basic skills they'll need to be effective on the court. You know that they can't move forward to accomplish big things unless they grasp the fundamentals.

Over time, though, something changes. Instead of having players who understand responsibility and the importance of self-discipline, your players start getting lazy. They stop coming to open gym and shooting around to practice on their own simply because that takes extra effort that they really don't feel like putting in. Basketball just isn't a priority to them any more. At first, that's okay. When someone stops trying, you can cut them from the team. But then, someone decides that every kid should have the chance to play and they do away with cuts. No big deal--you can just bench those players who refuse to work. If they don't put forth the effort, they don't get to play--it's as simple as that. You give everyone the workout and you teach them all the fundamentals, but if they choose not to work, that's not on you. The players are responsible for their own effort, because that's not something you can control.

Then one day, you're told that your focus has to change. You are told that there are too many players who aren't getting playing time. You explain why those players are on the bench, how they are skipping practices and barely working when they show up. You talk about the kid who doesn't even try when the team is shooting free throws in practice; instead, he stands at the line and plays around, tossing the ball up in the air but not actually shooting. Obviously, that explanation should be enough. You can't control whether or not a kid actually tries in practice, especially since the school has done away with cuts. And then they make another change--since basketball is something everyone should have some knowledge of, they are going to push every kid to play. Now, you will have a full team from 9th grade through 12th grade because 4 years of basketball are required for graduation.

And oh yeah--you are supposed to get 80% of those kids to master the game. That means they should be hitting 70% of their shots from everywhere on the court. It doesn't matter that some kids have the ability to shoot 3s and other kids struggle just to make a shot from right under the basket. You, as a coach, should find a way to reach each and every kid who comes through your gym. You should be able to find a way to motivate each one and encourage them enough to make up for any differences in ability levels, right? It's not just shooting, though. Your players should master everything about the game of basketball, including everything from dribbling around defenders to stealing the ball to running plays, and everything should be done with 70% accuracy.

By the way, you should really start using the internet to teach them these skills. Technology is a wonderful tool, and we should include it in every aspect of practice. Your kids should be able to learn just as well that way. After all, the school sunk a lot of money into programs that claim to increase accuracy and even make learning the fundamentals not seem like work. And we all know how much people (especially kids) value things they don't have to work for, right?

You know this isn't going to be what's best for the kids, but you're told you don't have a choice. You either do what's required, or you find a new job. So you do your best. You take those kids who have never been able to dribble, and you start working with them. Not only do you have to get them dribbling, though, you have to get them shooting 3s. So while you're trying to get them caught up on the basics, you're also trying to get them to understand the nuances of a good shot, an effective screen, and that 2-1-2 defense. You should also get them to develop an incredible court awareness. It's not enough for them to be able to do the skills when you tell them to; a good basketball player should be able to see the game as it unfolds and figure out which skills are needed and when: zone vs. man-to-man, or driving to the basket vs. setting up a 3.

It doesn't matter that you have a bunch of kids who have no interest in basketball. Even if they are an accomplished musician bound for Julliard, they still need to master advanced skills in basketball. That math genius who is doing Calculus at 14? Doesn't matter--basketball is required for her. Or the kid who is a computer aficionado and hacked into the Hubble telescope? Yeah, he needs basketball, too. That's part of a well-rounded education, and we need to show that all of our kids (not just the ones who want basketball to be part of their futures) are better at basketball than every other set of kids in the world.

It doesn't take long before your whole team starts to suffer. Since every player is supposed to get the same amount of playing time, your former stars are riding the bench more than they're on the court. In practice, you're stuck having them help the kids who are struggling with the basics, because you have to figure out some way to teach everybody separately, at the same time. The higher-ups have a solution, of course--simply have those more talented players move on and practice on their own. They should obviously be able to teach themselves the more advanced skills, right? Why should they need an actual coach when they have all these other resources at their disposal? Just give them some videos, diagrams, and a court, and they'll go on to develop their talents on their own.

It sounds insane, right?

Sadly, that's what is happening every day in classrooms across the nation. I'm a math and physics nerd, and I love the puzzles and beauty of those subjects. I think it would be wonderful if everyone loved what I love, but I know that's not the case. In fact, some people actually hate both of those subjects. And you know what? That's okay. Part of the beauty of people is that we were all created with different interests, strengths, and weaknesses. That's what makes things so amazing. If you are interested in something, that becomes your focus and your passion. If you don't like something, you leave it to others. You don't have to become 70% proficient in every topic. You try some things and fail spectacularly; you try other things and become an expert.

In our schools, though, somehow the people making the decisions don't see things that way. Teachers are expected to find a way to take a lack of ability and take all the apathy that gets thrown at them from kids who don't care and turn all of that into mastery of the huge list of topics that gets thrown at us.

We need to focus on individualized education, but not in the way that is being pushed right now. If a kid is interested in trade school, why can't that start in 9th grade? If we have a kid who is gifted with welding, or wiring, or engines, or a whole host of other things that I can't wrap my brain around, why do they need to sit in a classroom learning Algebra II or American Literature or (as much as it hurts me to say it) Physics? And if we have a student who is planning on medical school, shouldn't that student be given the chance to be in advanced math and science courses without having to be that kid who pulls everyone else along?  What about our writers? Singers? Artists? Farmers? Architects?

I completely agree that there are basics that every student should get. It's a throw back to the "3 Rs" of "Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic" that we used to see when compulsory school went to 8th grade. But when did we decide every student needed to be an expert in every subject?

And when are we going to realize that those making the decisions about education are pushing a system that isn't in the best interest of our kids, and start pushing back?

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