As a Latin teacher, I struggle with creating authentic learning experiences. Most authentic Roman cultural experiences would get me reprimanded or fired. Authentic Latin literature? I teach beginning Latin to middle school students. Yesterday a student put verb endings on a noun.
I am, however, an authentic teacher. If I am to be truly authentic with you, I must admit that advisory period was the highlight of my week. Advisory groups, formed by grade and interest, were assigned to every teacher – except me. My advisory group was… nothing. Somehow I had escaped the notice of my administration. Then the unthinkable happened.
“Andrea, I need you to help with the basketball advisory,” the AP informed me.
First, NO! I accomplish so much during that block.
“I don’t think you thought this through,” I countered, “I hate sportsball.”
“No,” said Fritz. “You are great at connecting with kids. You got this.”
No, I don’t got this. Yes, I make great connections with kids, but I make great connections with kids, because I’m authentic. My authentic self involves being way too excited when I, unasked, explain a word’s etymology. (FYI – authentic derives from the Greek word ‘autos’, meaning self. So ‘your authentic self’ is your self self.)
Thirty basketball-loving middle school boys don’t want to hear that ‘basket’ is derived from the Latin bascauda, a finely woven wicker mat. I imagined how my new advisees would see me, and I found myself wanting.
I’d like to say that the facilitation of intergroup context came to mind. Most of the boys had at least one marginalized identity – race or socioeconomic background – and many struggled academically. I’d like to say that I thought about leading critical conversations to help them emotionally and academically maneuver through the power and privilege imbalances of society. I could support and empower these boys to embrace their racial identities.
I’d like to say that my training in social-emotional learning kicked in. I’d like to say that I approached the advisory group wanting to help the boys learn to understand and manage their emotions. I’d like to say that I thought about how I could use basketball to help the boys set goals and to show empathy. I’d like to say that I was concerned about them building positive relationships with one another.
But those boys didn’t want to talk about race or emotions. Right now they just wanted to talk about basketball. They didn’t want or need yet another white female teacher talking at them. It was basketball time.
I needed a game plan, but I hated sportsball. All sportsball. My authentic self thought about the words of the Roman author Seneca – gladiator in arena consilium capit. Seneca warned that a gladiator who makes his plan in the arena is too late. I needed that game plan now.
My (then) boyfriend was a sportsball fan: the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees, the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers… the Sixers! My game plan launched on a full court press.
“Guess my favorite team,” I challenged the boys. Wizards? No. Warriors? Lakers? No. At that moment the lie was spun. “It’s the Sixers!”
Eyes narrowed. The Sixers? Are you from Philly?
“Nah. I’m old school. Dr. J. AI. Moses Malone. I even had Dr. J sneakers.” Did Dr. J even make sneakers for girls? The boys, mouths open, stared. I couldn’t blame them. I was staring at myself. Dr. J? Did I just claim to be a Sixers fan from my childhood?
Who’s your favorite player? I remembered one name: “Ben.” Swish. Nothing but net. They bought it. I was a Ben Simmons fan and, even better, a baller.
I had fooled them today, but tomorrow? I had exhausted my knowledge. That evening, I went to the starting point of every middle school research project: Wikipedia. Ben is one year younger than my daughter. He’s Australian (Fact to nonchalantly work into conversation: twenty-five percent of NBA players are international)! At 6”10, he doesn’t fit in a king-sized bed, and he’s seventeen inches taller than I am.
Ben is a point guard. According to my source, point guard is the basketball equivalent of the quarterback – a comparison lost on me. I have noticed, however, that Ben is the one who dribbles the ball down the court. (FYI – never say bounced (even though bounce derives from the Dutch word bonken)).
I didn’t watch the games, but I checked the scores and read game summaries. I leveraged my knowledge: I used to yell (in vain) for students to get to class when they clumped in the locker bay. Not anymore. When the Sixers lose (horrors!), now I’ll shout, “My team lost. Don’t mess with me today!”. The students laugh, call the Sixers trash, and (miracle of miracles!) move to class. When the Sixers win, I’ll wade into throng and ask the clumps if they were talking about the Sixers game. For some reason, the crowd immediately dissipate.
Slowly, my lie ensnared me and became my truth. On Sports Jersey Day during Spirit Week, I wear my #25 Simmons jersey. I don’t just follow the games – I’ve now been to four games. It turns out that my authentic self is a liar.
My AP was right – I do connect with kids. That connection is the key to my authenticity. I don’t teach because I love Latin or derivatives. I teach because I love children, and Latin is merely a vehicle to let me be part of a child’s life. I may not have thought about social-emotional learning, but my instinctual game plan didn’t need theories or evidence. My game plan wasn’t to become a fan of the Sixers. My game plan, though I couldn’t articulate it, was to connect with 30 boys who liked basketball.
Basketball was not my comfort zone. In fact I still don’t understand zone defense (FYI – zone comes from the Greek word for girdle.). But authenticity isn’t about what I like – it is about what I’m willing to be for my students. Students don’t always need a hero. Sometimes they just need someone to talk basketball.
Those boys are out of middle school, but I still think about them whenever I don my Sixers jersey. They have moved on, but I still have the Sixers – and Ben.
Andrea Weiskopf teaches Latin and Communications for River Bend Middle School and Willard Middle School. She avoids grading by reading or following the 76ers. She may be reached at email@example.com
I love the fact that you expanded your horizon to learn about something so that you would be able to relate to your students. Especially for the fact that you became a life long fan, I think that is awesome and something they will always remember!
I think your story about how you stepped out of comfort zone into something you were unfamiliar with to connect with your students is the perfect model for what teachers need to do. Even though Latin literature is up your thing you invested and put the time in to show your students an authentic experience of you being a Sixers “fan”. I think its very similar to “fake it till you make it”, which you did in eventually becoming a Sixers fan and attending games which is great!
This was an awesome story about connecting to students. Finding common ground and topics of interests so that you are able to engage them in an area of their life shows that you care about them, and what they like as well. I also will copy the example you set when your assistant principal asked you to do something for students. Even through you were fearful due to lack of experience, you showed up and cared for kids and that is what teaching is all about!
Wow! This is quite the story! I love how you share your honesty about your comfort zones, but this is just another example of how beneficial it can be to step outside of them! The way you were able to build rapport with students solely with basketball, shows the endless possibilities for us to find common ground with them. What I love most is that the uncomfortable setting turned out to be a fun opportunity for you to explore something on your own, and even enjoy it! Thank you for sharing this encouraging post!
Honestly, while I’m very happy that this situation worked out for you, I could never do this myself. To start, I’m a terrible liar, so those kids would’ve sniffed me out immediately, and when they did, I don’t think that trust could be regained. In this situation, I probably would’ve been honest with them and tell them I knew nothing about basketball, but also make the effort to learn with them, and in turn, hope they’re willing to work with me on their studies.