Monday, June 13, 2011

Summer Camp: Westminster College Style

While school's just getting out for the kids in the classroom, I'm halfway through the summer semester, working on getting a little learning on these next few months and a little closer to earning my master's degree. And one of the summer endeavors - Intro to Teaching Writing - well, it might as well be an extension of the ITA spring days. The class has some reading and theory about the various modes of teaching writing. And you know there's some real lively class debates about the merits of social constructionism versus current-traditionalism as the ideal primary mode of teaching writing. But the real coup de grace of the class comes in our actual teaching. For three days, select students from three inner-city junior high school in Salt Lake City will be getting the real college experience - from dorms to dining hall to classroom instruction. Except, instead of having tenured professors giving the lecturers, it will be me and my classmates. Here's my first little piece I wrote for the class on how I hoped to use my In The Arena experience to effectively connect and teach junior highers who were previously labeled academically unable. Read on, if interested.

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Skiers and Dreamers, to acquire excellence, must start young. There is, from my experience, no other way. What does this have to do with schooling and writing and teaching, you say? Read on, and in my rambling writing might become less grey.

For two summers of my youth, I did the Westminster MPC summer school gig. Then, I left Zion and headed back West. During this time, I kept the day job. Instead of summer school, though, I picked up a little something on the side – coaching junior high cross-country and track.

Before I jumped into coaching, I read up. I felt a duty to be an asset, not a thorn in these youngster’s development. I remembered my own early days of athletics, running into teammates overcome with fear of failing in competition, hiding out under the bathroom bleachers. I felt with my inexperience in coaching, reaching these kids, making them see competition as something in the words of the late great Steve Prefontaine – the opportunity “to make something beautiful when we run” instead of being near paralyzed by the fear of failure. I knew before I ever set foot on the track as a coach this was my greatest challenge, this would be my Moby Dick. Instead of reading books on training physiology, it was more psychology centered.

In coaching the seventh and eighth graders I wanted to build self-efficacy. I wanted to build within them the belief that they will be able to better handle whatever the future throws at them. My reasons for doing this were selfish. If I could connect with thirteen and fourteen year olds and get them to change their perception of their ability I would be reconstructing within myself these same beliefs.

The coach Jumbo Elliott liked to tell his troops at Villanova to “keep running until you can smell the roses.” That is, to get to a point of conditioning and callusing that strenuous physical exercise becomes more than sidestiches, soreness and six a.m. morning runs. When I read Hemingway write about writing, the man had to keep writing until he found his muse. He had a devotion to his craft. He had to head to the caf├ęs and write, and write daily. Somedays he’d write 2,500 words, all for naught. But he still had to write them. The daily experience would finally awaken an explosion of interest and the writer would capture this with pen hitting paper. These are lines we’ve read then carry with us always. For me, one of these passages came from Norman McLean’s last lines of A River Runs Through It.

Eventually all things merge together and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops, under the rocks are words and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by these waters.

I felt the most important responsibility a coach has is building the team and environment the team inhabits. From here the athlete can chase peak experiences in the competition arena or come out for sport to be part of a social club that happens to exercise. A coach, in my opinion, cannot build another’s desire or toughness or resolve. But the coach can aid the athlete in cultivating these skills and help the channel it. When Bill Bowerman said, “Tigers are tigers” I believe he was expressing a similar sentiment.

So how do I help build the Cascade exercise-as-a-way-of-life movement? By tweaking what I see as the prevailing, and antiquated, American definition of success and failure in sports. Most people interpret winning as a standard for success. Instead, imagine if success - and its ancillary doppelganger, failure – became a psychological state, not an objective one. Success and failure no longer need express themselves merely in win-loss outcomes. Rather, performance becomes a series of process goals leading to personal accomplishment. No longer is anything less than winning a threat, a threat that increases a young athlete’s fear of failure.

“An avoidance of failure is a self- perpetuating process that serves to exacerbate the tendency to avoid failure, leading to more mistakes and failures,” is how a peer-reviewed article titled “Why Young Athletes Fear Failure: Consequences of Failure” puts it. To me, this says those who fear failure the most are also the most likely to experience it the most. And that’s not ideal. I feel writing is the same way, only instead of expressing oneself kinetically, it’s through words.

The normal reaction to threats, real or imagined, is fear. I wanted the young Cascade Mountain Lions to be part of a team burdened by simplistic definitions of success or of failure. I told myself, then the team, we will hold ourselves to a higher, more enlightened standard. The budding athletes will not toe the line in an emotional state defined by words like apprehensive or scared. With writing, it’s the same way. We all need the latitude to express ourselves and build up within us the capacity to not be confronted with a stimulus and see it endangering our values and goals. Instead, to help the three schools we have the opportunity to meet with and work with later this month, and help them get just that little bit closer to bask in the expressive beauty of writing.

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