In late September, my students were packing up for the day when I noticed a group of boys with their heads bowed, all concentrating on what appeared to be open magazines on their desks. They carefully lifted each page with a mixture of awe and deep concentration.
”¿Tengo Andres Guardado?” “Sí… ¿Tengo Mbappe?” The boys burst out laughing.
I stepped closer, trying not to disturb the scene unfolding in front of me. Her joy was palpable. On each side was a row of partially completed football teams. They swapped stickers of coveted players as they prepared for the 2022 World Cup, which was at least two full months away at the time.
Admittedly, I have absolutely no idea when it comes to sports. I do my best to fit in—nod ceremoniously when colleagues bemoan a critical loss for a hometown favorite, or congratulate a student when their athleticism is celebrated at the morning announcements. Still, overall, I’m an extreme disappointment to my student-athletes and sports fans alike.
But this year, with the arrival of the World Cup, I was prepared and my students knew it when they saw our sports journalism unit integrated into the curriculum on day one. “Are these days closed for the World Cup?!” they shouted. “¿Estamos mirando fútbol? ¿En class?!”
I learned my lesson four years ago when I was teaching at the last World Cup Summer School. Students sat in novels on their phones or flipped between multiple tabs in their browsers. On the day of a crucial match between South Korea and Germany, I decided to project the game onto the TV in class while they pretended to write essays, knowing I had already lost their attention for the day. My eyes kept darting to the classroom door; At the same time, I worried that a principal would keep our class from working while at the same time basking in the exciting atmosphere. At the end of the game, our classroom exploded in ecstatic cheers as South Korea defeated Germany and allowed Mexico to advance to the knockout rounds.
In the few weeks of the 2018 World Cup, the games were inevitable, as they will be this November and December. For other current events, I’m quick to catch up on the latest news and curate articles for my students to discuss in class. Why should it be any different at one of the biggest sporting events in the world?
Sports and culturally relevant classes
My school is only six miles from the border with Mexico, and many of my students cross that border daily to attend school in the United States. While my school’s geographic location may be unique, its student demographics are not. Latinx students will soon make up 30% of US school children. If the above events are any indication, it seems impossible to overestimate the significant role football plays in many of their lives.
For many of our students and their families, the World Cup is not just a series of games. It is a way for binational and bicultural students to connect with families and cultures and for students to celebrate and affirm their national identity. By incorporating their passion into our curriculum, I hope to validate students for what they value and pursue outside of the classroom.
During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, teachers’ accounts were full of reading lists and calls to implement culturally-responsive and culture-preserving pedagogies. All too often, the books for this reading focused on the traumatization and exclusion of the protagonists. They (rightly) paid attention to trauma and exclusion, but missed the joy, creativity and production of BIPOC culture.
What were those conversations and sessions like when the educators returned to teach in the fall? I’m fortunate to have taught at four different schools during my career and have raced back and forth across the country. One of the many lessons I took away from these experiences is how drastically any group of students reacts to current events. When I see views on Twitter declaring, “If teachers aren’t having conversations about X with their students…” I always cringe. When teachers respond to calls on social media to include more stories from historically marginalized groups, and these lessons focus on the same literacy practices that only customize who the texts are written by and for, we are not adopting culturally-responsive teaching practices. We simply replace one text with another without questioning our students’ entry points as they engage with the content.
How do we know that the students in these hypothetical classrooms crave these conversations just as much as their teachers do? How do we know if their learning community provided a framework for critical analysis of these events?
Our students’ radars are often tuned to a different frequency than ours. If they are uninterested or unprepared for conversations about historical oppression, these lessons can do more harm than good. While our students of color experience exclusion, they may not focus their academic and extracurricular activities on it.
Our students have a rich, cultural life and a dynamic insight into their passions. Part of cultural sustainability means giving students vibrant ways to see the world and things that matter to them in the classroom.
Inviting into students’ literacy practices and values
Instead of recapitulating texts that don’t interest our students, what if we asked ourselves about our students’ literacy levels? One of my most humbling moments as a teacher didn’t happen in front of a classroom; it happened on a soccer field when I was teaching in Las Vegas over fifteen years ago. Students organized a teacher versus student game and I enthusiastically signed up. How hard could it be? We chase a ball and prevent others from chasing a ball. I laced my shoes and dreamed of showing off to my eighth graders the next day.
As it turned out, my students were scholars of the sport. I embarrassed myself early enough in the game to realize I had to do what I used to do in elementary school gym class: take a backseat until no one noticed I was on the bench. Meanwhile, my students read the subject with a complexity I can never adequately grasp. They observed their opponents’ patterns, worked together, anticipated each other’s decisions, and applied all that knowledge to make their next moves.
If they do this when playing a game, imagine the level of analysis required when watching a game. They not only apply the intricate rules of a complex sport, but also observe nuances in player personalities, team dynamics, and reflections of national and collective values to understand how players work within (and bend) a complex set of rules.
Their level of analysis is a testament to their competence in football and like school competence they can read the basics of what is happening and also analyze and appreciate symbolic, deeper meanings of what is happening on the pitch.
Despite my own insecurities about the game, this November I’m inviting my students to bring this level of sports literacy to their writing in a sports journalism unit. Rather than teaching from the bench, which I feel much more comfortable with in the sport given my insecurity, I ask guiding questions and create research opportunities that students can apply to their already high level of analysis of the sport. Having just finished reading “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, this is the perfect opportunity to apply our knowledge of the enduring legacy of colonization to our analysis of a global sporting event.
What might it mean for your writing to examine how current competitors are now on par with their former colonizers? To what extent are these power imbalances still present in commentators’ match analysis? And how might individual players’ personal stories contribute to their sporting strategy and performance? We can discuss all of these questions when the students report on the games they have seen at home and in the school canteen.
Embracing my discomfort for the benefit of my students
Sure, I hope this sports journalism unit expands my students’ use of football lingo in formal writing. But I also hope that the level of analysis they need to apply to everything related to the sport — playtime, commentary, social media discourse — will all work together to enhance their analytical skills and, consequently, their enjoyment of their favorite game . I hope they turn up the volume on seemingly boring sections of the game as they hear commentators describe some teams from African countries as ‘physical’ and those from Europe as ‘intellectual’. I hope these observations lead to meaningful discussions and provide opportunities to explore the depths of sport, such as the often-ignored interface between sport and racing.
In doing so, they embrace what the students love, thereby honoring their deep commitment to football is literacy they master can act as an entry point into the very conversations that culturally-responsive teaching is designed to facilitate.
I can’t pretend to love my students if I don’t care about what they are passionate about and appreciate their literacy skills, which they have and appreciate. My students haven’t just been swapping stickers lately. They made something they love tangible and communicated this with their colleagues.
I know I’m not alone in my dislike of sports. Despite my discomfort and disinterest, I’m excited to see what my students have to teach me. I may not yet understand how excited my students will be when Mexico finally achieves this fifth partidobut I hope to celebrate with them – and this time the door to my classroom is wide open.