Throwing a Curve at Teaching Literacy

Write on Sports summer camps blend sports and literacy with authentic, individualized learning

One of the many reasons teaching is a unique profession is that there is a finite beginning and end to each year. After bidding farewell to outgoing students, we have a summer vacation that provides us with time to reflect and recharge and get ready for our next group of students in the fall. Some look for a break from working with students and discussing curriculum and pedagogy; however, that is not my story.

This will be the twelfth summer I have taught middle school students in a program called Write on Sports. Each year I am reminded of how enjoyable teaching can be when divorced from high-stakes standardized assessments, district mandates, student report cards, and an inauthentic teacher evaluation system. Instead the focus is on individualized student learning through a collaborative teaching model.

Write on Sports is a non-profit academic program that helps middle school students improve their literacy skills by tapping into their interest in sports. We define sports broadly to include sports students play or watch as well as the intersection of sports with politics, fashion, and music. In our two-week summer camps, 30 students work with six teachers and interns (who are often college-aged former students of the program) to interview professional journalists and standout athletes, write a feature-length article and blog stories, and film and edit a video.

At Write on Sports, we are simultaneously building on the literacy skills our students are taught in school while also having them engage in the work of professional journalists like asking probing questions, finding reliable information, developing interesting angles, using evidence to support their ideas, choosing the right words and organization structure to effectively express themselves, and improving their work through revision.

These are widely applicable skills that they take back to school with an increased confidence and excitement that stems from writing about a topic of interest and receiving ongoing feedback from a teacher that is detached from an evaluative grade.

At the end of each 7-hour day, the teachers and interns participate in a reflective discussion about the students and curriculum. We see the curriculum as constantly evolving and necessarily flexible based on the needs and interests of our students. We use this time to share concerns about students and identify those who need more support. In this space, we collaboratively develop strategies for differentiating the curricular projects by interest and ability to meet our goal of helping all students grow as writers.

Write on Sports holds camps in urban and suburban settings across several states with a focus on serving low-income communities. Each camp has a range of students from those who earn top grades in school to those who struggle academically. We serve students who are English Language Learners as well as those who receive special education services. Through our individualized and collaborative instructional approach, we are able to help the motivated, strong writer see a career in journalism in her future and at the same time help the disenchanted, struggling writer develop a story that she is proud to share with others.

It’s easier to engage in this type of teaching when it’s set outside of a school and the student-teacher ratio is low. However, there are several ways the Write on Sports model can be instructive for classroom teachers.

First, we should embrace a pedagogy rooted in project-based learning, student choice, and differentiated instruction. Projects provide students with an opportunity to explore a curricular topic in more depth and can be structured in a way to offer students choices related to content and design. Projects can also be scaffolded to support struggling students while still challenging high achieving students.

Second, we should recognize the importance of providing students with authentic learning experiences that extend education beyond the classroom walls. Students will remember experiences like meeting a guest speaker or going on a field trip more than the day-to-day routine of our classroom instruction.

Finally, we should appreciate the benefits of teacher collaboration. Teaching can be isolating as we focus so much on our individual students, lessons, and other responsibilities. However, when collaboration is teacher-driven it can create a more inclusive and dynamic learning environment for students. Collaborative discussions among teachers can also lead to a wider range of instructional ideas and intervention strategies.

When I return to my classroom each fall, these are the lessons I take with me after another summer with Write on Sports.