Thursday, November 19, 2015

Michael Phelps and High School Students Today....

It's becoming increasingly harder for teachers to get students to read. I'm sure the challenge of which I speak has beleaguered every Literature teacher since the dawn of the printing press. But today's technology has yielded more distractions, shortened attention spans and instant gratification as a norm. My students are more passive in thought. And why wouldn't they be--they can watch a YouTube video clip synopsis of just about anything.

The fact that you are reading what I have written right now isn't something I take for granted. Thank you.

But every challenge must be met with a response. And rather than wade in the faculty room cesspool of complaints, I have to fight this good fight. I know I'm supposed to; that's what educators, parents, coaches and mentors are meant to do.
This past weekend, I read the cover story on the November 16, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated: The Rehabilitation of Michael Phelps. I'm not a huge fan of swimming or even of the Olympics in the way that some sports fan are, but I looked at the infographic that says: "A New Man: A year ago the best swimmer in Olympic history was lost. Now after coming to terms with himself, the best of MICHAEL PHELPS might lie ahead." I then looked to the image of Phelps, fit, tall and strong but serious. He is not smiling. He has a goatee that doesn't really look that good. It's a very honest picture. I saw that the 8-page piece was written by Tim Layden—an author I admire greatly. I decided to read it.

And? It was excellent...yet I wasn't sure why. I think that's why I brought it to school. 

Reading is never a solitary venture. A good book, article or blog posting will prompt the reader to share it with others. It's a wonderful feeling to encounter a person who feels the same way you do about something you have read. Conversely, it can feel like a personal attack when someone feels differently. Only now do I realize what I was seeking.  

I left the issue on a desk in my classroom and a student picked it up. Another one said "he looks so different." I quickly realized that every student in the room knows who Michael Phelps is. 
I held up the magazine and told my class: the emphasis of the story is what brought Phelps to rehabilitation and what he hopes will come of it. I added, "if anyone wants it, it's yours for the taking and the reading." I passed it around and many, not all, of my students stopped to read a significant portion of it.

I decided that challenge had met opportunity. Everyday, I could bring a magazine or article of interest for my students to read. You better believe there will be future postings that speak to this quest.

But reading also yields one other gift worth mentioning. When we read, we see the world much differently. We make connections more readily. Later that day, my sophomores were studying the story of Jacob from the Book of Genesis. Jacob wrestles with an angel, which our textbook refers to as a "spiritual or psychological adversary." In "The Man Who Wrestled with God," John Sanford writes: 
Everyone who wrestles with his spiritual and psychological experiences, and, no matter how dark or frightening it is, refuses to let it go until he discovers its meaning, is having something of a Jacob experience. Such a person can come through his dark struggle to the other side reborn, but one who retreats or runs from his encounter with spiritual reality cannot be transformed.
They understood the significance of the "Jacob experience" but were unable to name what might be a psychological adversary. I was hoping they could.  And then I realized, that's what exactly what Phelps was battling. I drew from the words of Tim Layden. He writes:
For me, not having a father always there was hard,” says Michael. “I had Bob and I had Peter [Carlisle], these guys who acted as father figures. But deep down, inside, it was really hard. That was something that was a struggle for me to talk about for a long time, even with friends or my mother. Getting that off my chest in therapy was this huge weight off my shoulders.”
With that example, every sophomore understood the struggle of Jacob, of Phelps and the one that I have been facing. 

If we want kids to read, a good start is to bring them to it and allow for the words to give life in new ways each and every day. That's why we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word. That's why we have poetry slams. That's why we write, blog and tweet. We have ideas to share and truths to be understood. The Word and the word must be kept alive....and read. 

And that's why this weekend's homework is for students to read the excerpt entitled "I Hate Tennis" from Andre Agassi's autobiography, "Open." I told them "read as much as you want. But if you read the latter part, I guarantee you will say "Ms Stricherz he did ...??!!!"

Photo Credits
Phelps Cover Story
Phelps wins

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