The last week of May is always a big time for sixth graders over at Salem Middle School because many of the fall season sport coaches hold interest meetings for sixth graders who want to learn more about playing on school teams.
And my kids are always completely jazzed! One of the hardest parts of being a sixth grader is that you can’t play school sports for the entire year. Becoming a seventh grader means getting the shot to try out…to earn a jersey….to be a part of a group…to do something that you love every day after school.
For middle schoolers, it doesn’t get any better than that!
Last year, I was surprised when two of my nonathletic boys stopped by after class to pick my brains about tryouts. Both were super students with incredible charisma and I know that they’re going to be remarkably successful in our world, but neither played on teams outside of school and neither had the kind of physical size or coordination that characterizes the best athletes in our building.
While I was pretty sure that neither would earn a spot on one of our teams, I had no intention of discouraging them from pursuing their dream of playing for our school. Having coached for 16 years, I knew that tryouts would be a good experience for both—-taking risks, trying new things, and dealing with failure is a characteristic of the top-achievers in any field.
Then they told me they wanted to try out for our school’s football team.
Football is probably the one sport in middle school that small, nonathletic boys trying to make their first team should completely avoid!
Practices are tough, as coaches mentally prepare boys in full pads to take a hit. Working in 90 degree heat, tackling drills happen dozens of times each week pairing hulking eighth graders who’ve played for three or four years against peers that haven’t hit their growth spurt yet! Grueling conditioning runs—essential for ensuring that players can physically protect themselves late in a game when they are exhausted—close every practice.
During my time as an assistant coach on a middle school football team, I’d seen dozens of kids who regretted their decision to try out. They’d hide under their helmets in the practice line with tears in their eyes, afraid of being hit, but even more afraid of being embarrassed in front of 80 peers. Over time, they’d surrender and turn in their gear—but the damage was always done.
So I immediately tried to counsel my students to safety. “Are you sure you want to try out for football? It’s a pretty tough sport, you know. Why not wait for the basketball, baseball or soccer season?”
Their reply blew me away: “We’re going to be great at football, Mr. Ferriter. We completely dominate in Madden 2008 on our PlayStations. No one can beat us!”
These two boys who had never played an organized sport in their life—-let alone an organized sport where physicality is essential for success and where brutal hits are commonplace—-had convinced themselves that football was the right sport for them because of their video game prowess. In their minds, mastering skills with digital players on an electronic field in their living rooms translated somehow into an belief that they would excel on a real field wearing real pads trying to tackle 200-pound kids without breaking their necks!
But not uncommon at all for today’s kids. I’ve had students tell me how good they are at playing the guitar, only to find out that they’re referring to the plastic video game versions that come with Guitar Hero. Others have told me how much they want to be a soldier because “war seems fun” on Call of Duty or that they’re “new favorite sport is tennis,” even though the only racket they’ve ever held is a Wii remote.
Somewhere along the line, I started blaming these kinds of mistaken beliefs on the “false transparency” that video games breed. Becoming more “realistic” by the year, new digital toys seem to provide the “complete experience” for users who walk away believing that they “know” just what it means to be a rock star, battlefield general, or super-jock.
I was first introduced to the idea of false transparency in the writing of researcher Dan Lortie, who writes about the damage done in education by parents and policymakers laying claim to a sophisticated level of understanding about the work of teachers based on the 12 years they’ve spent sitting behind desks as public school students. Everyone thinks that they know what it means to be a teacher (see here and here), but their perceptions are flawed–based on nothing more than superficial observations made as students or as parents.
But now I’m starting to wonder whether a similar false transparency is hurting our kids? There are so many opportunities to “experience” the world through digital media—-virtual field trips, online dissections, electronic simulations—that you could literally make it through life without leaving your living room.
Now, anyone who reads the Radical regularly knows that I’m a huge believer in digital learning experiences—especially in times when budgets are tight and the potential for real-life, hands-on learning grows less and less likely every day.
I’m just starting to wonder whether one of the unintended consequences of easy access to electronic experience is that we’re raising a generation of children who have a flawed sense of their personal strengths and weaknesses? Are middle schoolers—-who love fantasy and imagination to begin with—confused, failing to find the line between fiction and reality when determining what they “know” and “can do?”
Interesting questions, huh?