Extracurricular activities aren’t so extra, after all

Published 10:04 am Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tim Engstrom, Pothole Prairie

I know the difference between the tuba and a sousaphone. Usually, what you see in a marching band and call a tuba is actually a sousaphone.

I know the difference between arc welding and oxyacetylene welding. I know the differences between an in pattern, an out pattern, a post pattern and a fly pattern, among other patterns, in football. I can tell a Charolais cow from a Jersey from a Holstein from various other breeds. I can describe the roles of the 1 man, 2 man, 3 man, 4 man and 5 man in basketball coaching lingo. I understand the mental demands long-distance running demands. I know what it is like to test the blending of many colors in watercolor painting just to get the right shade. I’ve made an entire gymnasium full of people laugh.

Tim Engstrom

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This is because when I went to high school there were few limitations on extracurricular activities.

At Pomeroy High School in Pomeroy, Iowa, I was active in concert band, jazz band, marching band, pep band, football, basketball, track and field, golf, FFA, speech and theater. No activities had fees. My folks did pay for my physical exam and my shoes.

I also took art, vocational agriculture, wood shop and metals shop, but these were curricular teachings, not extracurricular. Still, I could take these trade classes and still take the advanced classes for math, science and English, which I did.

What I received from Pomeroy High School in 1989 was more than a diploma. I received a well-rounded education.

Part of that education is why I know that students today do not need to receive the same education I received. Things change.

However, to this day, I find it unsettling that students have to pay a fee to go out for sports. I find it quite disturbing that schools have cut back on art, sports and music. I am glad to hear more schools are realizing the value of vocational education, rather than trying to shove everyone toward a four-year college. Though, I know many schools still are lagging in this area.

Core classes matter, but they won’t produce well-rounded students. It strikes me as odd when a studious-seeming high school graduate doesn’t know what a French horn looks like. It strikes me as odd when a studious-seeming high school graduate has never heard of the term “Dutch masters.”

It seems wrong to me to hear that students these days must choose between instrumental music and vocal music. When I was in high school, I could have been in both. I opted out of vocal only because I wanted a study hall, which I usually used to do my math homework because I was lax to do it the night before.

In sports, I did have to choose when it came to golf or track. I went out for track only my senior year after the coach asked me to, but after enjoying it and lettering in it, I wished I had gone out all four years of high school.

And no education is perfect. Mine had faults, too, such as a teacher who used writing as a punishment and junior high and junior varsity coaches who played only the top players, rather than focusing on developing all the players.

By the way, our physical education classes sometimes were worth it, but too often they were just a bunch of guys playing what we called Russian basketball, which had the rule of “no blood, no foul.” In other words, we were left unsupervised. I know what officials mean when they say they have a hard time getting rid of bad teachers.

But as politicians and educators grouse for solutions to the woes in the American education system and as our country falls behind other countries in scores, I’d say one reason for our failure is our system forces students, and their parents, to choose a single track too soon in many of the extras.

We aren’t producing well-rounded graduates.

For instance, to play sports, students’ parents have to pay fees. This becomes costly, so students limit their sports. Sure, there is a waiver for students from poorer families, but many families who do not qualify for the waiver still have to make ends meet and so their kids cannot go out for as many sports.

To be sure, the students today who have to make choices seem to have more options than I did. They taught typing in high school when I was young. Now keyboarding is taught in grade school, as it should be. High-schoolers, instead, are learning videography, robotics, learning how to repel with ropes and other well-rounded material.

To be sure, the core classes are becoming more well-rounded themselves. They will have science projects that bring in history, algebra, English and computing.

However, I feel as America continues to lag behind, it will discover that extracurriculars weren’t so extra after all. Perhaps our country will discover that forcing kids and parents to choose this or that earlier and earlier is detrimental. They will find students need this and that. And I would bet money that no matter how advanced “A” students are at college-prep classes, some vocational education is good for their overall smarts (and social skills).

If our country focused on these goals, rather than on state- and federal-mandated testing, we would find that our test scores would go up nevertheless.

In fact, I am so against the mandated tests, I might have my child opt out of them when the time comes, unless anyone can explain what good they do for the child. Sure, I am fine with the tests that come with each class. There are tests during the course and at the end of the semester. That’s what happens in college, too. But I see no benefit for the children in taking the MCA-II tests.

Parents Catherine Ross Hamel and Fred L. Hamel of Tacoma, Wash., who pull their children out of those sort of tests, made the point well in Education Week in March 2003:

“Schools have important work to do in the area of reform: to better challenge and engage all children. But when it comes to testing mandates, we exercise our rights as parents to protect our children from activities not in their interests. In our view, such tests diminish the work of teaching and ask children to carry the burden of building public confidence in schools.”

I wouldn’t mind children taking fill-in-the-oval tests if there were no ramifications behind them, if they were for the sake of knowing the child’s progress. I also favor a required test for graduation, but it should be district-mandated, not state- or federal-mandated. Local control works.

As for how to get rid of bad teachers, I’ll save it for another column. But it shouldn’t be tied to some fill-in-the-oval test. Adults need to decide on a teacher’s job, not the children.

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every other Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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