Extra Mombservations on Extracurriculars

As the “mombservations” about karate in my July post demonstrate, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kids do outside and beyond the curriculum—how extracurricular activities compare and contrast with what typically happens during the school day. And I want to underscore the need to ask: What can school educators learn from the pedagogies in non-school settings? How might we take some of the content and qualities of the “extras” and bring these in closer to the center of how we fundamentally define what teaching and learning should look like?

I remember turning this idea around in my mind about 7 years ago when my first kid was in a performing arts day camp. When she would come home and teach me fascinating facts about the ukulele and new phrases in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi from her Hawaiian class or as I watched her confidently take the stage with freestyle ‘80s moves learned in her Michael Jackson class, I was struck by the intellectual, physical, social, and emotional engagement I was witnessing. The curiosity that was both sparked and satisfied by the camp experience was very cool. She was learning so much! On so many levels! And she was enjoying it so much…

Extra: a prefix meaning “outside” or “beyond”

All of my kids’ extracurricular activities, some short-lived and others long-standing, have given them opportunities to grow in important ways, from nurturing strategic thinking to nurturing self-esteem, from developing physical skills to developing interpersonal skills, from exploring multiple literacies to exploring their own personalities. These outcomes are surely what any of us hopes for in our kids’ education, and yet we tend to think of these activities that cultivate them so beautifully, as “extras” because they occur outside the walls of a traditional classroom. The learning done in these times and spaces is somewhat marginalized—a reflection of the strong biases we seem to hold about which skills and understandings should be prioritized at the core of education. One that I think is really hurting us is our bias against fun.

We tend to think of fun and challenging as mutually exclusive; that serious learning cannot occur when the process is joyful. We think of fun as babyish, yet ironically we are even starting to limit it for the youngest in our care—as you might hear from our early childhood educators, many of whom are finding themselves in the bizarre position of having to rationalize and defend play-based curricula for preschool and kindergarten! The anti-fun attitude is not only putting all kids at risk of an aversion to schooling, but it is most dangerous and inequitable for kids who are often most vulnerable to the pitfalls of our school systems.

Think of a child who for whatever reason is determined to need “remediation” or more time to “master the basics.” Then picture what curriculum for “remediation” or “reviewing the basics” typically looks like. Now imagine that this same child’s family does not have the means to provide “extras”—cannot afford summer camp or Little League or dance classes, or lives in a neighborhood where they cannot safely send their child to play with other children and freely enjoy the outdoors. This is a child who is not getting much “enrichment” as part of their daily school life nor outside of it. Now consider—how many children in our schools fit this description?

Kids who are struggling academically need to be invited to explore stimulating ideas in engaging, innovative ways, not forced to prove they can absorb information in traditional modes before they are allowed to do the fun stuff. In particular, students who are wrestling with content in English while still in the process of learning the language need experiential learning, arts, interaction, etc. to provide context for concepts and to ground their language acquisition. We need to stop asking them to hang tough through the basics so they can get to the enrichment activities. We need to stop thinking of enrichment and remediation as binary opposites. Perhaps enrichment is the “remedy” to what we perceive as academic struggle.

In contrast to an insidious assumption that equates rigor with drudgery and an attitude that undervalues the teaching potential of “non-academic” activities, I would posit that many of my children’s most powerful and rigorous learning happened through engaging experiences outside of the context of school. So how do we shift this mentality and acknowledge the powerful and engaging learning that happens in these “extra” after-school and summertime spaces, and recognize that rigorous learning does not have to feel like drudgery. It might feel like summer camp.

Extra! A couple of quick notes about extracurriculars and language learning…

Language: a system of communication used by a particular community

  • We should appreciate how the social component and the experiential nature of extracurriculars can expand English language learning. Interacting with different peers around shared interests offers lots of opportunity to develop new social language and slang (which may seem trivial but is quite rich with figurative expression and an important kind of communication to master). Giving kids new and different experiences means there is new language to attach to them (e.g. even the earliest lessons in rock climbing will yield tons of new terms such as “belay” and “karabiner” as well as different definitions of words you thought you already knew e.g. “send.”)

  • The learning curve for developing discipline-specific jargon and cultural literacy needed to navigate certain activities can be steep! I got a first-hand dose of this when I became a Little League mom. I’m a fairly intelligent person but I recently became intensely aware that I might not sound like the smartest cookie when talking baseball. I was with my own kiddo—watching, understanding, and enjoying his game but when my husband texted to say he was on his way and to see how it was going, I struggled for the phrases, second guessed myself on my use of terms, and could barely text back a basic update. I just hadn’t yet acquired the “baseball language” to articulate what was happening.

  • Extracurriculars, particularly because of their highly engaging, social, and experiential aspects have great potential to cultivate appreciation for world languages and provide a venue for language learning – whether helping to maintain a heritage language or exposing kids to a new language, and whether implicit (my kid’s tango teacher only spoke with her in Spanish) or explicit (my kids’ are directly taught and have to master certain terms in Japanese to achieve their next color belts in karate).

  • We in the U.S. tend to view being bilingual as “extra” but hopefully a critical mass of us will soon realize the disadvantages of our monolingual ways and our schools will start serving up multilingualism as part of the main course of curriculum instead of treating it as elective gravy. Until then, language learning outside of school may be a simple supplement if a school cannot yet provide robust bilingual education or world language options. And one of the first steps toward a multilingual future might be to recognize that partnerships with language-focused extracurricular activities could maximize the ability of both schools and outside agencies to give kids a chance at multilingualism and increased cultural literacy. Imagine, for example, the positive message about multilingualism, the opportunity for intercultural exchange, and the potential for contextualized, coherent, and thematic language learning if school teachers and “Saturday school” teachers were communicating, coordinating, and collaborating on curriculum, field trips, etc. This could be a key “cobblestone" in building roads to biliteracy for more of our children in more of our communities.

So, what are your thoughts? What can school educators learn from the pedagogies in non-school settings? What content and qualities of extracurriculars should be integrated into our definition of what teaching and learning should look like? Share your ideas and examples @Paridad_US #extracurrNOTextra

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