Tales from the Classroom: The Life Altering Power of Extracurricular Activities

It’s the semifinal round of the county debate tournament.  The prize, a ticket to the county debate championship and a trip to Washington DC for nationals.  Our varsity debate team went 4-0 in the preliminaries and smoked the competition in the quarter and semifinal rounds.  I’m judging another debate so I don’t get to see them, but I’ll never forget the moment when I exit the room to the broad smiling face of one of our coaches, thumbs up, telling me “You’re going to DC!”

It’s hard to capture the joy and excitement of the moment in one word, but I can think of few things that will be as meaningful to these student’s lives.  Teachers, think back to what you remember the most about your high school career.  I’m betting that your strongest memory isn’t geometry, English or history. More than likely it’s the club or sport in which you participated.

School should be about more than learning academic content.  It should also be about applying that knowledge to practical life skills.  This is what clubs and sports, or extracurriculars, are built to accomplish and why we should consider them an essential component of scholastic education rather than a supplement.

Extracurriculars are vital because they impart a wide variety of other concepts and knowledge that we don’t always get to communicate in the classroom.  They teach students that hard work can pay off over time.  They expose students to different ideas and concepts about the way the world works.  Most importantly they bring out skills and talents that many of our kids did not know they possessed.   As a teacher there’s nothing more powerful than to see a student blossom during the course of a year in your club or sport.

These activities also give us the added benefit of showing us our students in an entirely new light.  Take for example Emma (not her real name), one of my geometry students.  Emma is the type of student who you can easily forget about.  On the surface she’s quiet, shy and unassuming.  But when she started attending debate practice I got to see an entirely new side of her.  I’ve discovered that she possesses a powerful and eloquent voice, a sharp mind and an outrageous sense of humor!  During one debate, to make her point about our impending deaths all too real she started fake sobbing the phrase “and I don’t want to die!”  This experience has entirely changed the way that I interact with her in my classroom and I hope changed the way she views school and my class as well!

There are many ways to get involved with extracurriculars.  Often times the easiest way is by joining an activity as a co-coach or a co-sponsor.  This can be a great way to test the waters and see what extracurricular fits you the best if you’re not sure where you fit in or aren’t certain of your time availability.  Take my experience. Over the past three years I co-coached basketball and student council before finally finding my niche in debate.

If a club doesn’t exist, you might need to start it.  This can be quite a bit of extra work on your part, but you get the added bonus of exposing your students to something completely new and original. I’ve seen this happen at our school with our Rugby team this year.  Memphis just started an urban rugby league and two of our teachers created a team from scratch to compete.  They’ve had to create everything on their own but it’s amazing to watch so many students become so engaged around a sport that they never before even knew existed, all thanks to these two teachers.

Unfortunately, we happen to teach at a time where school districts continue to cut funding for extracurriculars each and every year.  This means that those of us that lead an after school activity need to be active and speak up for the importance of what we do.  Elected officials adopt a mentality that says “if it’s between math and debate, I’ll take math.”  In my opinion their mistake is putting these two activities on different levels.  Extracurriculars are just as important to education our students as the core curriculum because they provide students opportunities to forge vital connections between their work in the classroom and the real world.  If you coach a sport or sponsor a club, it’s vital that you speak out around budget time and testify to the essential power of these activities to change young people’s lives.

Debate has changed my life and the lives of my kids.  It’s shown me new ways of interacting with them and demonstrated incontrovertibly that extracurriculars should be seen as an essential component of a strong public education rather than a supplement. It’s time we awaken to this fact and give extracurriculars their just deserts as vital components of our education system.

By Jon Alfuth

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5 comments for “Tales from the Classroom: The Life Altering Power of Extracurricular Activities

  1. March 10, 2014 at 9:27 am

    I think you’re cutting some of the power of extracurriculars off by saying that they are important primarily because they allow application of learned skills.

    They do do that, but they are important primarily because of something almost spiritual, especially if they involve writing, visual art, or music. Connecting with the fine arts in an individual way outside of the classroom teaches students who they are as human beings. It allows them to begin to find their place in the world.

    • March 10, 2014 at 9:34 am

      True, but I feel like, when budget time rolls around, the applied learning angle is more likely to get more funding than the spirituality angle.

  2. March 10, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Which is a very, very sad state of affairs. Parents and teachers need to put their feet down and stand their ground before it is too late.

    • March 10, 2014 at 9:59 am

      Stand our ground how?

      • March 10, 2014 at 10:08 am

        Organize and attend protests calling for the fine arts and extracurriculars in schools. Just for one example. Refuse to concede the point that school is, in part, about something spiritual and something deeply human, and it is not just about getting ready for the workforce. Keep repeating it over and over until the legislators hear us.

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