Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Importance of Co-Curricular Involvement at School

I believe that co-curricular involvement at school is just as important as the formal curriculum itself.  For the record, I am talking about all forms of co-curricular involvement, not just sports.  If anything, I would hope this type of article encourages the reader to realize that non-sports activities need to be more of a priority at schools and with parents.

Personally, I consider myself an enthusiastic evangelist for co-curricular activity for students and support for these activities by faculty and staff.  I believe in it and I live it.

Back in the day, it was known as extra-curricular.  As time passed a new term was introduced "co-curricular" to imply that it was more tied to the curriculum and extra-curricular was more of a school facilitated activity, but not tied to academic learning (ie sports). The term co-curricular has evolved to encompass all school facilitated activities.

During my youth, my entire family was involved in extra-curricular activities at school, via sports, student government and other activities.  A little older now (just a little) I am happy that my children and nephews were very involved in elementary and high school outside the classroom and not just with sports.  Some of my cousins coach in their respective high schools in both Canada and the USA and that makes me very proud.

Why is co-curricular important to so many people and why do schools invest taxpayer funded resources in such activities? Notice I wrote invest and not spend.

In my opinion, school must be a place where people WANT to go everyday and feel like a true part of the learning community. 

Co-curricular activities engage students in activities that are outside the formal learning environments.  At the elementary and high school levels, students are able to meet schoolmates who might not be in their classes and get to know teachers in a different setting.  Teachers can also see their students in a different light and see what drives them.

I believe that the school itself is its own entity that facilitates teaching and learning and co-curricular involvement deepens the relationship with the school itself and others in the school.  All of this, I submit, strengthens the commitment to education and lowers barriers to some challenges a student may face.

At the post-secondary level, I feel co-curricular is just as important, if not more.  Traditionally, college and universities are much bigger than high schools and possibly have the impression of a more faceless environment.  Being a member of a college faculty and having attended college and university, I reject that assumption and know there is a personal experience waiting for everybody, but you have to step forward.

I teach Technology at Niagara College, coach the men's varsity soccer team and am taking over the HAM radio club this year.  The retiring professor was passionate about finding somebody to keep these groups moving forward and he actually inspired me to write this article.  This man was very involved in sports as were his children and he devoted his time to this club.  In addition to varsity sports, Niagara College has many clubs and events for students as do many colleges and universities.  If sports are your thing, but not at the varsity level, every college and university has intramural leagues.

Getting involved at school doesn't always have to be a formal organized event with staff and rules.   You can go to the school's fitness centre, open gym time etc.  You (and maybe some classmates) can volunteer your time in the community towards something that you feel passionate about.   At Niagara College there are a group of students who are into gaming who congregate in one area of the student centre. No staff, no rules, no constitution or bylaws... just student having fun and socializing outside of class.

One advantage of formalized activities is that they sometimes have academic standards tied to their involvement, hopefully motivating an apathetic student who is passionate about the activity. At the OCAA and OUA level, academic eligibility must be maintained to stay eligible to play.  In most high school sports, if you skip a class the day of a game or activity you cannot participate that day.

If your child is not involved in anything at school, you may want to encourage participation and help them research what they might enjoy.  When my sons were in university I was always asking about what they were doing outside of the class.  They know why and I was never disappointed with the answer.

One of my main points that I want to stress again is that it does not need to be a sport.  Regardless of what people say, sports are not as important to many school age students and I feel like they are becoming less important every day.  Camera club, cooking, social justice, LGBTQ, environment, school band, student government, politics, gaming clubs, drama, robotics, peer tutoring, computers, horticulture, etc.

If you think a student wants to be involved but none of your offerings appeal to them, ask them what does appeal to them and figure something out.  Give them a place to shine and stand back.

Some of my pet peeves with organized co-curricular activities:
  • Lack of faculty/staff support in terms of academic flexibility to allow involvement if it involves representing your school off campus.  If a student is up-to-date with submissions and attendance, there is no reason to block participation, unless your class is writing the entrance exam for Harvard Medical School 😏
  • Lack of recognition for non-sport activities, both publicly and during times of budget planning.
  • Absence of links that tie participation in any formal activities to attendance and behaviour in class. 
  • Occasional lack of parental support for non-sport activities.  If your child is in a non-sport activity, you get your buns over there like you would a football or basketball championship.
  • Non-sport activities being bumped or ignored to support sports based activities.
  • Disproportionate resources assigned to sports over non-sport activities.
  • Lack of proper promotion for non-sports activities.
  • High schools' lack of formally recognizing a teacher's involvement in leading co-curriculuar activities.  In some areas of the United States, a teacher's pay is affected by their co-curricular involvement.   
  • Not all teachers/faculty/staff are suited, comfortable or interested in facilitating a co-curricular activity and should have their wishes respected.  They can still be supportive of those who do and that's still a good thing. 
  • The mountain of rules that impede outside individuals from helping to enhance a school's program offering is ridiculous.
  • External facilitators of activities who believe their program is better than the school's and discourage school involvement.  (For the record... I believe professional/national/provincial programs have that right to do so, for injury and load management reasons.)
Some of my perceived benefits of co-curricular involvement:
  • Cultural integration into new school setting
  • Social skills
  • Possibly help with homesickness for students
  • Build your resume or portfolio
  • Time management skills
  • Gain new skills
  • Leads for future employment
  • Familiar faces make the hallway less intimidating for some
  • Keep kids busy (for those that believe that idle hands do the devil's work)
One of my favourite co-curricular story over the past 12 months: Jenna Wilson, our Recreation Coordinator at Niagara College, organized a Star Wars based activity at the college last year.  The theme was how to properly handle a light sabre.  Under the guidance of Mark Kawabe of the Niagara Kendo Club, students were shown how to handle their "weapon" and the body movements involved.  It was a smash hit with the students involved and generated a lot of onlookers from outside the gym.   
I also want to recognize Aesthetics teacher Dee Laalo at Notre Dame College School in Welland who started a drumline corps at school that has been a smash hit.

My goal before retirement is to start a club for students who want to be able to run an organized 5km run for the first time, a couch-to-5k kinda club.  Not a race or competition, but to get themselves to the point where they can run 5km.  It would involve medical supervision, support for lifestyle changes and other supports.

Let me leave you with this: I believe students who are involved outside the classroom are now part of the school community in a bigger way and develop a deeper sense of ownership of the school community and their own student experience and academic achievement.

Additional Reading: Chicago Tribune - Participation in student activities linked to academic success

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