By Claudia Felske – Something inhumane and downright repulsive is happening in school districts across the country. Frogs are slowly being boiled to death, en masse. And once more, no one seems to be noticing, least of all the frogs.
You may have heard the story that if you put a frog into a boiling pot of water, it will leap out to escape certain death. But if you put a frog into a kettle at room temperature, and gradually heat the water to boiling, the frog will stay for the duration, facing death without so much as a splash.
This is what’s happening in education today: the slow and systematic boiling of frogs.
Case in point: my school district.
This past spring, I heard a devastating piece of news—forensics, an extracurricular speech and performance program—was on the chopping block. I expected (or at least hoped) for some vocal opposition, but there was nothing, no letters to the editor, no outraged parents, students, or coaches at school board meetings. Not a croak of a frog or a chirp of a cricket to be heard. And so, the forensics program quietly disappeared.
Since I’m not longer a forensics coach, (I resigned when I realized that teaching, coaching, and parenting would render me inept at all three) I can’t make a plea for the reinstatement of my forensics program, but I do want to go on record about what forensics and extracurriculars in general mean to students.
My dozen plus years in forensics as a coach, judge, and participant were defining moments in my life, taking me from a quivery-voiced freshman to a confident orator when I was in high school, and allowing me a deep connection with my students as I coached them through similar experiences.
When we weren’t dispelling the misconceptions about forensics (no, it does not involve dissecting cadavers) we were reciting, orating, storytelling, demonstrating, impromptu speaking, broadcasting, and acting. (Fun fact: “Forensics” is a tradition rooted in ancient Greek speaking competitions, a skill they deemed central to democracy.)
In forensics, aside from collecting state medals and power round trophies, students gain confidence as speakers, and develop their voices, ideas, and identities in authentic ways, no longer needing to rely on the “imagine your audience in their underwear” mantra in order to survive and thrive in public speaking situations.
And, as is the case in so many extracurriculars, far more important than the tangible take aways are the incidental ones. I suspect many on my forensics team will remember the following phenomena as much if not more than their trophy-winning performances:
- The lengthy “thank you” speeches by every team member on the bus ride home
- The “Golden Pizza Award” given for the most slices consumed at the Pizza Hut buffet
- Kevin reciting all the US Presidents and their birthdays by memory at each meet
- The Least-Need-for-Caffine Award (Gwen!)
- Videographer Andrea’s sordid interviews and season highlights
- Emily floating down the halls at meets, flapping her “wings” like a butterfly
- Kopp’s meets (“no cheeseburgers!”)
- Fel and Scott dancing the tango across the awards stage
- The improbably coupling of Henry and Leah
- Jason’s infamous “Capitalism, Sweet Capitalism” speech
- Jesse, Ian & Brett as the typing monkeys
- Our Austin Powers themed home meet
And so many more…
Together, we were supportive, hilarious, melodramatic, ridiculous, inappropriate, serious, proud, accomplished, protective, defeated, victorious, nervous, ecstatic, goofy. Priceless stuff in the life of a teenager.
And such moments, while specific to our team, will feel familiar to anyone who has been involved in an extra-curricular activity. While teams provide a constructive use of time and a structured opportunity to improve skills, perhaps more importantly, they provide a sense of belonging and confidence and happiness that many students don’t necessarily find elsewhere.
Studies confirm that extracurriculars increase student self-esteem, collaboration, positive relationships, and positive feelings about school; they decrease unexcused absences, academic failure, and bullying behaviors. Research shows that 68% of students who participate in extracurriculars are likely to earn a Bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 48% of those who don’t.
What we also know is that our student body is diverse. Not everyone is interested in football or soccer or FBLA, or science club, or forensics, or band, but the hope is that the more diverse our offerings are, the more likely it is that each student can find one activity which interests him/her, one way to connect with peers, build confidence, and develop a sense of belonging at school. And if they do, the relatively small cost of extracurriculars more than pays for itself in the long-term social-emotional well being of that student and in the civic and socioeconomic well being of our larger society.
My fear is that we are so accustomed to cuts and losses in education these days that, like the frog in the kettle, we have become desensitized to the imminent danger that lies ahead. Cutting one more program is akin to cranking the temperature up five more degrees on the stove, all too easy to slip by unnoticed while the frog slowly dies on our watch.
I think about what I would have missed out on without having forensics. I think of Stacey, Tiffany, the Gwens, Scott, Karen, Alan, Andrea, Sarah, Jason, Jenny, Anna, Ian, Laura, Jesse, Brett, Kristin, Brian, Joe, Jackie, Stephanie, Josie, Henry, Alicia, Jillian, Tara, Margaret, Sheri, Molly, Jenni, Vicki, Leah, Alicia, Kevin, Kate, and so many others.
If we don’t speak up, we’re all complicit in the death of this frog.
Save our Frogs.
Save our Kids.