Baseball and the Passive Classroom

Recently, I read two intriguing posts that both indirectly influenced my decision to open up the laptop now, although I shut it down hours ago and my teeth are brushed as I’m winding down for sleep after watching a somewhat dicey Mets win.

The first post of note comes from Nick Provenzano, aka The Nerdy Teacher, who found parallels between the movie “Can’t Hardly Wait” and the current state of education reform. I was struck by his ability to find inspiration where there was seemingly none. In effect, his creativity made his own inspiration.

The other post was an old one that I just found today, Josh Stumpenhorst’s “I Resign From Teaching” over at his blog, Stump the Teacher. I won’t attempt to sum up his points more eloquently than he did. I encourage you to go read it for yourself, but basically in his tongue-in-cheek post, Josh laid out the differences in his classroom practice since deciding to step into more of a guide on the side role, allowing his students to go their own way, so to speak. It was particularly timely that I came across it today because I have had Pernille Ripp’s mentality on my mind lately – let the students speak.

Well, I’m going to attempt to make my own inspiration, a la Nick, as I struggle to figure out ways I can – or whether I even am prepared or willing to – move in the direction of Josh and Pernille by relating the classroom to fans at a baseball game. (Let me know later how I did!)

I was watching the Mets game this evening. I’ve been a fan since I was about 9, attend plenty of games, know the history. I’m a pretty fervent fan, even if I’ve mellowed in my older years. As a kid, I enjoyed  being at games and responding on cue to the demands of the sound effects and videos at Shea Stadium. If the anchor from “Network” got on the screen and implored me to “Get up now, go to your window, open it, stick your head out and yell, ‘LET’S GO METS! LET’S GO METS!'” I did it. If they said, “Everybody clap your hands!” I totally did. Each time they asked. If they wanted to switch up from our familiar 3 syllable, “Let’s Go Mets!” chant and go with the rarer, more complex four syllables followed by five claps – “Mike Pi-az-za (Clap Clap Clap-Clap-Clap)” I did it.

I was always into the games, studying the men on base, asking questions of my father, putting forth my own theories about what strategic maneuver should come next, predicting a batter’s success against a certain pitcher or the outcome of a game based on the feeling in the air and my gut. Attending a baseball game was always a very active experience for me, and as a youngster, answering the cues provided over the P.A. system like a Pavlovian seamhead was all part of my investment. I got something out of it. It made me feel like I was more in tune with the game. Now, I’m much more subdued in my fandom, and much less likely to clap my palms raw or walk out of the stadium with no voice. I enjoy and appreciate the experience of watching the game on my terms, not on those established by someone arbitrarily pushing a button.

The end of the game tonight was particularly tense. The Mets were winning 4-2 going to the bottom of the ninth, but soon enough, the Reds had the bases loaded and a hit would have tied it. It was exciting for me watching on TV. But apparently it wasn’t too thrilling for those watching in person in Cincinnati. After each pitch in that inning, the public address system played a sound effect to get people “excited”. But watching their faces as they blandly and blindly raised their hands in rhythmic clapping or screamed louder just because they were told to, only to become absolutely silent when the imploring stopped, it was clear that this was an unnatural investment. It was an artificial show of support. They were doing it because they were told to.

“A ha!” I said. Isn’t that what Josh and Pernille were writing about? Isn’t this a parallel for classrooms as we most often currently know them? The first thing that came to mind as I watched was there are so many teachers – me at times, too – who use the five claps (Clap Clap Clap-Clap-Clap) and any derivation of clapping to get students’ attention. Well, that’s okay, I thought. Cues like that help regain order when necessary. But my thinking led me a step further. The teacher, as the public address system, announces, “It’s time for reading, take out your books.” Students do it without thought or positive emotion. “Let’s all come to the meeting area.” They walk like zombies, not children. They are doing things because they are told. Do they see a purpose to it? Probably not. Do they derive pleasure from it? I think the answer to that is obvious. So many people at baseball games are the same way. They’re just doing what they’re told and taking very little away from it.

So how do I move from being the public address system to being the popcorn guy? It’s always been my style to lead the class where I felt it needed to go, even if that means I occasionally switch up the routine to make the game seem more interesting. But it might be nice to play the role of popcorn vendor, happily passing along educational treats of guidance – like those salty kernels we devour at games – to make the experience of learning more pleasant.

I just don’t know how to do it. So now, I’m calling on you to give me your best practices for relinquishing control and allowing your students to become the captains of their own educational ships. How does one even begin to enable such things? How can one rationalize it to superiors and colleagues?

I’d like to go back to the old days of baseball, when fans dictated their own emotions because they felt them genuinely. You know, on a somewhat related side note, I once was at a wrestling event with my family, and Hulk Hogan was down on the mat, maybe in a sleeper hold. I didn’t need a ring announcer or a public address system to tell me what I had to do. I knew what I had to do. I had to start the rhythmic clapping, so the Hulkster could feel the energy of his Hulkamaniacs and ultimately rise up, throw his opponent into the ropes, deliver the big boot and drop the leg across his chest for the victory. I started it, and before you could say, “Whatcha gonna do?” the whole arena was clapping in time, Hulk was stomping his big yellow boot in time, and he was rising up with the crest of our collective wave of strength. It was natural, it was passionate, it was fun, and I remember it now nearly 20 years later because my cousin couldn’t contain his joy as he elbowed me excitedly saying, “YOU STARTED THAT! YOU STARTED THAT!”

I want my students to have that same experience in school, to be part of a group that guides itself in the direction it knows it has to go, that takes responsibility for its learning and pride in its efforts because they believe in them. Then, I feel, they can go for the pin – and the win.

7 responses to “Baseball and the Passive Classroom

  1. What a great blog with thought provoking analogies. Getting kids to take responsibility for their own learning is a tough thing to do, but you’ve started it already by letting them explore
    and figure things out on their own. It’s a process that needs guidance and support, practice and time. It doesn’t happen over night, it evolves. Kids are used to being spoon fed and having the decisions made for them. You have to teach them to think on their own, take risks, make mistakes,make choices and become independent. Easy? no way!!! Doable? of course!!!. Start explaining your expectations on the first day of school and keep rexplaining. They will eventually get the messages you are giving them.You can do it and so can the kids, just keep remembering to look at the progress , yours and theirs, in baby steps and don’t get frustrated. I’m looking forward to hearing more throughout the school year.

  2. Good post and I understand the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty of giving up control in a classroom. Rather than rewrite a great deal of stuff I have already written I would direct you to this post on my blog. It is a preview for a session I am sharing this weekend at the Reform Symposium. The topic is Student Driven Learning and I will be sharing my experiences on that very question you ask. Good luck!


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  5. The fact that you’re asking this question is the best news of all for your students.

    Unfortunately there are no answers that will work in every classroom. Do you have a morning meeting time in your classroom? That’s a great time to let the kids choose greetings, interpersonal games, etc., to help build investment and their choice. You can also introduce cheers and other ways they can show support for each other, and model spontaneously doing them. They can execute a cheer with permission at first, the same way they would ask for a trip to the bathroom or water fountain. But as the year goes on, I would assume that more and more they can do those things without getting permission. The same goes for cheering each other on.

    I guess my lesson is that like anything else in the classroom, a good and consistent routine will allow for creativity and student ownership if you can release responsibility in a way that they can handle.

    • It’s interesting, we don’t have a set morning meeting in my grade, but it’s something I wanted to try to implement anyway. There is so much value in it. That’s also a less threatening way for students to experience making choices before the more rigorous challenge of academics, so thank you for your suggestion. The cheer idea sounds fun, too. I think once I cracked their shyness, they’d be all about it. Thanks again.

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