Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sports-Themed Children’s Book Literacy Pilot Program 

The Idea
If you were to come visit a typical day at Project Coach, one of the first things you notice will be the unique relationship that players develop with their high school coaches.  We believe deeply in the idea that the unique relationship that is forged between the players and their coaches allows the coaches to really make an impact on the lives of their players, both within that gym and outside the gym walls.  And while our program is focused primarily on sports and building a stronger community through sports and positive mentoring, we have often discussed about capitalizing on this unique relationship to help another aspect of the players’ lives- their literacy development.

Roberto Clemente by Jonah Winter: Book CoverThere are many horrifying statistics about the achievement gap that exists in American schools and we thought that we may have a setting at Project Coach that enables us to make a small (but important) dent in that gap.  After much deliberation and a step in the right direction during this past fall semester, we decided that launching a small pilot program focusing on developing stronger literacy skills through sports-themed children’s book would be a worthy project to undertake.  This is an overview of our journey thus far.

In the weeks leading up to the start of our spring season at Project Coach, Sam, Andy, and I sat down to hash out some of the ideas and goals of our Literacy Pilot Program.  We decided that our first order of business was to find appropriate books for the program.  Thanks to Will Bangs’ endless Pioneer Valley connections, we got put in touch with “Reader to Reader”, a unique organization that supplies needy children, schools, and clubs with age-appropriate reading material. ( This sounded like the perfect fit.  Will and I made the trek over to Amherst to see what the organization had in store for our program’s idea.  As you will see from the video below, though, our hopes fell a bit short. (This was in no part due to the failure of the “Reader to Reader” organization.  In fact, “Reader to Reader” is too successful.  The minute they get most children or sports books, they fly off their shelves.)

We had to come up with a back-up plan.  At first, we searched on book sites for some possible books to purchase. Recognizing that a more frugal method was surely available, we eventually signed off the Internet and decided to peruse the Smith College Campus School’s library.  It was there that we hit the proverbial gold mine.  We found multiple books on sports heroes of the past, and while we had hoped to find some more current stars in the mix, we could not argue with our final collection (or its price).  (Which reminds me… I don’t think we ever properly checked those books out of the library.  So if Nancy Brady is reading this blog, I apologize for the five to six books that may be missing from your non-fiction sports section.)

At the end of a one-hour brainstorming session, we had come up with an ambitious program that sought to tear through six books in six weeks with all six teams in our third and fourth grade groups at Gerena Gym.  

First Day
The plan was rather straightforward.  For each day of the two-day program in the first week I would meet with all six teams for 10-minute classes.  During those sessions, the coaches would observe and help me run the lesson.  The second week would see the bulk of the responsibility turned over to the coaches with my help, and by the third week, solely the coaches would run the lesson.  It was an ambitious plan, but one to which we were quite committed as we set off on our first day.

The topic for the first day was a no-brainer.  Of the five or six books that we illegally jacked from the SCCS Library, one of them told the amazing and tragic story of Roberto Clemente.  Beyond the obvious connection of Clemente’s Hispanic roots to many of our players, there was an even more immediate connection- the field that Project Coach runs its Fall Session on is named “Roberto Clemente Park”.  We had a sneaky suspicion that many of our players were oblivious to the story of Roberto Clemente, and if their community felt as though a park in their backyard should be named after the man, then we felt they should most definitely know the story.

Our ambitious plan was set into motion on March 16th, and almost right away, we recognized that we might need to pull in the reigns a bit.  For one, there was no way that we were going to be able to see all six teams in a one-hour block.  We either had to cut our lesson short or we had to revamp the logistics of the situation.  We didn’t want to water down a curriculum that we thought was so important, so we decided to tinker with the logistics.  We went back to the drawing board.

There were definitely a few obstacles that we needed to overcome from.  For one, this is a sports program, and when the kids come here, they are expecting to play sports, not read books.  I needed to find fun and engaging ways to keep them interested and invested.  Secondly, some of the teams would be coming right from a gym filled with movement to a small space where they were going to be expected to sit and listen to someone read for a few minutes at a time.  Not an easy transition, even for the most mature of the lot.  And finally, the population of students with which we were working varied greatly in reading and comprehension skills.  Because most of our teams are not separated by grade/school, there is a wide spectrum of reading ability.  While the fact that I read the book to them no doubt helps to clear some of that obstacle, there is still a certain difficulty in developing engaging lessons with this present in the room.

Even with all of those logistical and pedagogical problems, the first unit was completed on time (all six teams met with me twice in just over two weeks) and was a great success for a first-time program.  We went into this unit with the baseline that if every kid could leave the unit simply knowing who Roberto Clemente was then we would have succeeded.  But at the conclusion of the unit, there seemed to be a greater takeaway.  For one, students on certain teams discussed not only Roberto Clemente, but also other historical figures and their importance like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King.  And more importantly, they discussed and analyzed why our communities thought it was a good idea to name buildings that are visible to the public after such people. 

The ideal culmination of this first unit is captured best by a conversation between Coach Francesca and two of her players.  In devising this unit, I would have been hard pressed to wish for a better ending.  It went something like this:
    The players on Coach Francesca’s team are a bit wound up and are giggling a lot as they transition from reading the book to the next quick activity.  She grabs their attention with a strong clap and a great coaching voice.  Then she begins…
    Coach Francesca: So let’s try and answer the question that Coach Greg asked us.  Why would the people in our neighborhood think it’s a good idea to name this park after Roberto Clemente?
    William: Well, he was a really good person who helped a lot of people out.
    Coach Francesca: So do all nice people get parks named after them?
    William: I don’t think so.  (He pauses for a second.) Well, Roberto Clemente was also really famous… because he played baseball and everything.  And baseball players are usually really famous.  So he helped a lot of people and he was famous.  It’s sort of like Martin Luther King.
    Coach Francesca: I agree with that.  (Coach Francesca turns to another player on her team, Mildred.) But do you think that’s it, Mildred? Just a good person and a good baseball player?
    Mildred: I don’t know.  Those are two good things.
    Coach Francesca: You’re right they are.  But why Roberto Clemente?  Aren’t there other famous baseball players that were nice and helped people too?
    Mildred:  Probably…
    William: Yeah but he was flying all over the world.  He was going to Puerto Rico and South America. 
    Mildred: Yeah.  I don’t think everyone does that.
    Coach Francesca: Ok.  So he was going to Puerto Rico because that’s where he was from.  He was Puerto Rican.  Remember the soup cans he used to hit?  Do you know anyone in Springfield from Puerto Rico?
    Mildred: Yeah!  My mom is and so are tons of my friends.
    William: Almost everyone in Springfield is.
    Coach Francesca: Well, not everyone.
    William: Yeah, I know.  But a lot.
    Coach Francesca: So do you think that might have something to do with why they chose Roberto Clemente?
    Mildred: Yeah that’s probably the main reason. 
    William: Yeah I think so, too.  (tilts his head back) Puerto Ricoooo baby!
Below, you can see some of the work that the students produced from this lesson. 
Stay tuned for updates on the status of our next unit, which will have our players discussing gender roles in sports and society through the story of the famous Jackie Mitchell.

By Greg Rosnick, 2009-10 Project Coach Graduate Fellow

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