Keep extracurriculars in school

Published 9:29 am Monday, September 5, 2011

In school boards’ laudable efforts to cut expenses, they make a serious mistake when they begin, as they often do, with extracurricular activities. They seem to presume these are frills, unnecessary expenses because they are not actually educational. I judge this thinking as short-sighted and a failure to understand desired educational outcomes.

Well-conceived and well-run extracurricular school activities are as much a part of the education task as academic classroom instruction, and people are not educated without them. Primary among the values of extracurricular opportunities are the interactive personal relationships it fosters between students and teachers and that the experience of learning can produce actual results.

This reality is why the term “co-curricular” rather than being a euphemistic ploy can be an accurate and valid description.

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I consider the most important aspect of extracurricular activities to be the individual engagement of teachers and students and the personal relationships that develop from them. Students often think “Mr.” or “Miss” are first names, teachers not being real people. But when we put classroom teachers and their students into the relationship of extracurricular activities, the calculus becomes transformed. The teacher becomes a coach and the students become athletes. Or, the teacher becomes an orchestra conductor and the students become musicians. If the teacher is the director, students are actors.

There is almost no end to the activities that can be considered extracurricular and accomplish these relationships. When I taught fourth grade, this came when I accepted playground duty—and I did it for extra pay, without knowing what would be accomplished. It gave me the opportunity to let children show me such things as how high they can swing or the castle they constructed in the sandbox. I was of much less threat to them than I was in the classroom and more like a parent or a friendly adult, a real person. I came closer to them on the playground than I could in the classroom.

When I taught high school, I knew better those in the Bible club of which I was a faculty sponsor than I did those in my English classes. While teaching college, I learned (and I did need to learn) to visit dorm lounges after class hours, dressed casually, and chat with whoever happened to be there. One woman thanked me and commented, “You seem like a real person now.”

Extracurricular activities require less structure and offer greater flexibility, which allows teachers to adjust to individual needs, interests, and abilities. There are more opportunities for individual attention.

Students and teachers relate in an immediately productive enterprise. The students get to use immediately what the teacher is teaching, and both experience the results. By the end of the activity, they are approaching collegiality.

The most serious limitation of classroom instruction is precisely that it seems to students frustratingly academic, unrealistically abstract from the demands of daily life, and of no apparent practical value. It often seemed this way to me as a student on some levels, I sensed the futile feeling in students I taught, and I fully understand and empathize with students. Some of this is actually inescapable, because some factors of academic instruction are exactly this. But one does not learn to speak a foreign language without first learning inflictions and conjugations. We need to compensate by providing immediately practical results of learning.

Far more than in classroom instruction, extracurricular activities allow students to see and even experience the practical results of what they have learned. In writing class, they produce an essay someone could read—but no one does. When they write news articles for the student newspaper, however, what they write is actually read throughout the school.

In business classes, they learn to write business plans that could be used to operate a business—but aren’t. When they participate in the distributive education club projects, however, they actually operate a small business from the plan they wrote. In vocal music class, they learn to perform in such a way the public would enjoy the music—but the public doesn’t hear it. When their choir performs, they hear the actual applause of a real audience.

Not only must extra-curricular activities be respected, they should be given the fullest possible use. I encourage all students to participate in at least one such activity, and it almost doesn’t matter which. I am almost willing to suggest such should be required for graduation, because I seriously wonder if a well rounded education can be accomplished by classroom instruction alone.

Extracurricular activities need to be preserved and even enhanced so students can be educated and trained more than merely schooled.

Wallace Alcorn’s opinion column appears each Monday in the Austin Daily Herald