Using Sports to Inspire Learning

By Brad Herzog, author of the Count on Me: Sports series

With March Madness about to descend on America’s cultural consciousness and baseball’s Opening Day just around the corner, many young students are going to have sports on the brain. BradHerzog FSP AuthorYou might catch them excitedly rehashing the previous night’s game, or filling out NCAA Tournament brackets, or wearing their favorite team jersey. And you might wonder: Can I bottle that enthusiasm? Can I utilize it?

The answer: Absolutely.

Newspaper sports sections were long derided as the print equivalent of the Toy Department, a mindless diversion from the significant. Fun and games. But it is that very aspect that can make sports a powerful educational tool—particularly among reluctant students who happen to be rabid fans. That sense of fun and those silly games can offer seriously profound and impactful lessons about life, character, and social history. Those box scores can serve as math lessons. Those sports reports can improve reading and writing skills. Those on-the-field idols can serve as role models beyond the playing fields.

So here is one call to embrace sports as a platform for instruction and enlightenment. And here are some ways to turn athletic obsessions into academic opportunities:

Make Writing Inviting
I dedicated one of my books to my fourth-grade teacher—not because he taught me the technical aspects of writing, but because he instilled the passion. To this day, when I’m enthused about an assignment, I write better.NCAA BASKETBALL 2011 - FEB 13 - Miami Hurricanes at Duke Blue Devils Everyone does. And many kids are wildly enthusiastic about sports. So why not tap into that by temporarily turning students into sportswriters?

Have them pretend they’re beat writers and cover a local sporting event. Show them the difference between just-the-facts reporting, in-depth feature writing, and sports columns that are actually persuasive essays. Sports writing is not a lesser form of literature. In fact, it has long drawn literary luminaries. Ernest Hemingway and James Michener started their careers as sportswriters. John Grisham and Stephen King have each written a few books about sports—long after reaching the point where they could write about anything they want. William Faulkner wrote for Sports Illustrated. So did Robert Frost and John Steinbeck. A kid who once got the writing bug by writing about Shaquille O’Neal may someday grow up to be the next Eugene O’Neill.

Teach Social Studies Through Sports
Legendary sports columnist Red Smith once opined, “Any sportswriter who thinks the world is no bigger than the outfield fence is not only a bad citizen, but also a lousy sportswriter.” Sports are often dismissed as being an escape from the world, but at their best they are a means of better understanding it. Jackie_Robinson_No5_comic_book_cover public domainA biography of Jackie Robinson is really a social history of the integration process in America. Billie Jean King’s journey can be a means of exploring the women’s movement. The upheaval of the Sixties is embodied by the story of Muhammad Ali. Most teachers understand that history can come alive through fascinating figures, whether it’s Meriwether Lewis or Rosa Parks. But sports figures have often served as agents of change and cultural lightning rods, too, theirs stories being both dramatic and transformative.

Put the Fun in Fundamentals
Homework or class work can be made to seem like play, yet still teach specific academic concepts. An English teacher wants to explore the notion of the narrative? Ask students to listen to a baseball game on the radio. The announcers turn each at-bat into a story, each inning into a chapter, each pause in the action into an opportunity to insert commentary and back-story. A math class is studying decimals or percentages? Frame it as a conversation about baseball batting averages or basketball shooting percentages. For many athletically inclined students, an occasional foray into sports can serve as a springboard to insight.

Offer a Compelling Setting for Character Education
While kids may enjoy reading true tales about sports, many of those stories aren’t necessarily about sports at all. They just happen to be set at Wimbledon or the World Series or the Winter Olympics. CountOnMeSports_Sportsmanship1But that setting can be a particularly compelling way to present role models displaying remarkable character—whether it’s the courage of Jackie Robinson, the generosity of tennis champion Arthur Ashe, the perseverance of figure skater Scott Hamilton, or the sportsmanship shown by a high school runner who helps an injured opponent across the finish line. Indeed, such riveting examples of people doing the right thing are all the more powerful when they occur during the crucible of competition.

The goal, of course, is to teach. But there is no reason why there can’t be an assist from the wide world of sports, which can offer education disguised as entertainment. As one book reviewer once said, “Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.”

In what ways have you embraced sports as a teaching tool?

CountOnMeSportsLogo_RGBBrad Herzog is the author of more than 30 books for children, including more than two dozen sports books. For his freelance magazine writing (including for Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids), Brad has won three gold medals from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Brad travels all over the United States visiting schools as a guest author. He lives on California’s Monterey Peninsula with his wife and two sons.

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