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Class Notes
Well-rounded students need extracurricular activities
(Published May 6, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

H. D. Woodson students were treated recently to a free concert by a band called Rage Against Destruction. Performing for high schools free of charge, RAD combines hip-hop music with a message of anti-violence. They captivated students’ attention on April 26 with deafening get-up-and-dance music and free giveaways (including 2 DVD players), but also called attention to the responsibility each of us has to decrease violence in our society. After seeing projections of crime statistics on a video screen and hearing a short motivational speech from the emcee, half a dozen students were selected to answer questions related to violence.

The last student to speak, "Charlie," was not in any of my classes, but I knew him because he was one of the first to join the soccer team I coached in the fall. Since practice conflicted with band rehearsal, he had to drop the team, but I have seen him frequently in the halls or at performances when he would play his saxophone or sing with the choir. The question posed to him was, "What do you think we can do to help decrease violence in our schools and communities?"

Charlie’s answer was simple but persuasive: "I think the best way to prevent violence is to become involved in an activity. I’m so busy that I don’t have time to do things that might get me into trouble." I was still thinking about the importance of what Charlie had said as I left the concert. Someone who is dedicated to a particular hobby, sport or other interest does not have time to do dangerous things that might harm oneself or others. Adolescents who commit to fun and healthy activities such as athletics, drama, band, debate, speech or choir are less likely to be tempted by illegal diversions.

Extracurricular involvement has two other positive effects. First, it challenges students to achieve at their maximum potential, which is crucial for building self-esteem. When a track runner tries to shave a second off her 400-meter time, when a trumpet player practices a solo for the concert or when an actor tries out for the lead in the school musical, they see that gains in performance result from determination and discipline. A student who does not earn straight A’s might find that he is an exceptional drummer, and his musical success may build confidence with academics. Second, extracurricular involvement provides a sense of belonging, filling an innate need to feel acceptance from others. For teenagers who may not feel safe at home with their families, a stable group such as a choir, a dance squad or a debate team may be an especially valuable source of support.

The importance of extracurricular involvement is conventional wisdom that many American parents take for granted. They may coach a Little League team in the spring, carpool with the neighbors to play practice and hire a private music instructor to help their child excel in the school orchestra. Sometimes children and parents go overboard, committing to such a long list of activities that the child is left with not a minute of free time for pleasure. In such an environment, it is easy to forget that there are many places in this country where children do not have the same access to a smorgasbord of after-school activities.

At H.D. Woodson, in Northeast Washington, the breadth and depth of extracurricular organizations cannot match the array of options at some other private and well-funded public schools. Our lone choir director runs rehearsals with an untuned piano; next door, the new band director is scrambling to find enough instruments of acceptable quality for his student musicians. There is no drama program, despite the fact that many students love to perform (sometimes in the middle of a chemistry lecture. Neither is there a school newspaper — an activity that could help my students improve their writing skills. Many typical high school sports – including swimming, wrestling, women’s soccer, tennis and field hockey – are not offered due to lack of coaching staff. The Multicultural Club, our school’s most popular organization, raises funds for events such as the annual Kwaanza celebration and a Teacher Thank-You Brunch, but receives not a cent from the school district.

Successful extracurricular activities require initiative from the administration, competent faculty leaders and financial support from taxpayers. Once these three factors are in place, student interest will follow. They will rise to embrace the challenges available to them, but we as educators are responsible for providing the opportunity in the first place.

Anti-crime legislation often puts more cops on the street or increases the severity of criminal sentencing — addressing the crime after it has already been committed. Why do we worry so much about punishing and think so little about preventing?

I wonder what would happen if we started providing all our children with meaningful, rewarding activities that teach them responsibility and discipline. After they’re busy with sports and drama and music and academics, then maybe — just maybe — they won’t have so much time to sit around and get into trouble.

Let’s give adolescents a chance to show that they really do want to be good, and they just need an opportunity to prove it. I suspect we won’t be disappointed.

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Send stories, advice, or questions to H. Wells Wulsin at wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator