I’ve always been a big sports fan.
When I was a teenager, I remember watching a post-game interview with New York Yankees pitcher Jimmy Key, who had just tossed a complete game shutout against the Texas Rangers. The sports reporter was asking him about crucial 9th inning an at-bat against Texas slugger Jose Canseco that had eventually resulted in a strikeout for Key.
He said something like this: “I got one strike on him. So with the second pitch, I put it two inches off the outside edge of the plate to see if he would swing at it. He chased after it and missed, so with the next pitch I put it four inches outside. He swung and missed, and we won the game.”
I remember thinking, two inches. Two inches is really small! A pitcher stands 60-feet-6-inches away from home plate. The notion that he was able to place the ball in the catcher’s mitt with such precision, with such a microscopic a margin of error, was simply incredible to me.
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My favorite writer about writing is John Gardner, whose legendary text The Art of Fiction had a major impact on me. I was trying to communicate to students in my writing class about the importance of a notion Gardner calls “the fictional dream.” Fine writing, Gardner argues, should never be so clumsy as to wake students from the fictional dream. He writes,
“Readers sensitive to the virtues of good fiction can be distracted from the fictional dream by subtler kinds of mistakes. One of these is faulty rhythm. Many writers, including some famous ones, write with no consciousness of the poetic effects available through prose rhythm.”
I created a lesson plan that dealt with the poetic effects available through prose rhythm. I was really excited. Students and I were writing and then deconstructing sentences, and analyzing the syllables of each word.
With about 10 minutes left in class, I stopped to look at the class, and they were all just sort of staring at me. They were 15 years old, and I was trying to deliver a graduate level English lesson.
I paused my lesson and told the students the story of Jimmy Key. I said, “I get the feeling that I’m trying to teach you how the place the ball precisely two inches off the outside edge of the plate, and all you really want to do is play catch.” They all nodded.
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One of the problems with required academics is that kids end up in classes with teachers who are pushing them to attain a level of mastery that’s meaningless to them. Kids who are 15 or 16 years old simply haven’t been alive long enough to have use for organic chemistry, calculus, knowledge of the Spanish-American War, and the poetic effects available through prose rhythm. In order to please the adults in their lives—including the admissions officers at prestigious universities—they plow through all this material. But in my 10 years as a classroom teacher, it was never clear to me that students were actually learning as much as they were working.
Middle and high school should be about “playing catch”—PSCS founder Andy Smallman calls it “dipping their toe in the water to see if it feels warm”—so students can see if they’re drawn to a particular area of study. If they like it, we can them provide them with opportunities to pursue it in greater depth.