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School of Education

Advanced placement English? No thanks. Calculus? Maybe in college.

When I as in high school, I avoided the hardest courses so I could devote more time to my favorite extracurricular activities. I wasn’t just having fun in the late afternoon. I learned how to speak (in debate), write (newspaper columnist), negotiate (student council) and compete (golf).

The skills I gained from my extracurriculars endured long after I forgot “Beowulf,” quadratic equations and Latin verbs. And I had fun.

Current educational policy debates rarely say a word about extracurricular activities. The press for academic achievement is in classrooms, and it’s during the school day. Imagine a candidate for governor running on a platform that endorsed more sports and clubs!

I wondered how my University of Delaware undergraduates – most of them aspiring teachers – felt about their high school extracurriculars. Did they still matter? Perhaps the policy silence reflected student indifference. Maybe part-time jobs at the mall mattered most, or perhaps the crunch from advanced-placement courses (where enrollments have soared) buried them under too much homework to join anything? So I asked them.

Everyone of my 75 students recalled a favorite extracurricular activity. So much for the mall and homework theories. Two thirds of them praised sports; one third mentioned non-athletic pursuits.

As I read what they wrote, I was amazed by how much they liked the sports and the clubs. No one did them grudgingly or cunningly to pad their college applications. No one said high school stunk and they wouldn’t be caught dead on campus after the last bell. What came through instead was pride and joy.

I soon saw what they prized: sports and clubs required collaboration with friends. How they described their comrades marked them as special – they were dependable friends, friends I still have. The powerful metaphor of family recurred. They had made more than one close friend, thus the brotherhood several invoked.

The comments about their teammates, by the way, far outnumbered the occasional praise of a memorable coach or teacher.

I was surprised by how often my student mentioned another benefit of sports: relief from stress. Soccer “helped keep me sane.” Volleyball games “let out frustration.” The cross country team “took my mind off anything bad going on,” and field hockey “cleared my mind.”

I had imagined that at least a few students would find competitive sports stressful, but it was just the opposite.

Another surprise: for the 25 students who preferred clubs, there was no clear favorite. The wide range of preferences included band, singing, art, student council, theater, science tutor, journalism, sign language and Future Educators of America. The particulars of the most frequently mentioned pursuit, community service, differed from school to school.

I was sad to see only one reference to journalism and none whatsoever to debate (“forensics” in some schools). That’s where 1 had learned to think, argue, write and reason in the 1960s.

Apparently the academic press exerted by state tests, No Child Left Behind and competitive college admissions bypassed those extracurriculars.

Do students get sick of using their minds by 3 p.m.? Have educators failed to convey the pleasure of language, exerting so much stress during the day that escape to the playing fields is far more attractive than editing a literary journal or writing for the student newspaper?

A final eye-opener came when I read their answers to my question “What aspects of sports and clubs could be incorporated into the school day?” Several took my question literally: ”We could stretch more” and “It would be nice to get out of our desks occasionally.” For the others, competition was a popular idea: teams for quizzes to review for a test, for instance. Projects with friends also appealed; so was the possibility of picking and choosing among assignments.

Unfortunately, almost no one said that those practices had characterized their academic courses.

I know some teachers who can evoke the energy and commitment high school students devote to recreation and leisure. I wish all teachers would do so.

Maybe a future governor should run on a platform that features sports and clubs. Every voter would know that he understands and respects what our students cherish.

Written by Robert Hampel

Dr. Hampel is the former director of the School of Education at the University of Delaware. This commentary originally appeared in The News Journal on March 15, 2013.