It’s The End of Extracurriculars as We Know It (and I feel fine)

16 Feb

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, 
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires.”
Wallace Stevens

They are immutable laws. Nothing stays forever and nothing is empty. Things end and we grieve, wring our hands and wonder how we’ll ever get along. But over time, we adapt and something new grows into the void. Whenever it happens we’re surprised. Things constantly change, what matters is our response. Do we cling to the past or cultivate the new growth.

The city of Rotterdam decided to close nineteen of twenty-five local libraries. Some citizens didn’t like this. Local libraries were important to a wide coalition of people (retired people, young families, low-income families, etc.).

Rather than protesting citizens chose a different tactic. They took control and reinvented local libraries. They found un-used spaces and brainstormed about what libraries should be. Then they created something new, that they controlled, better met their needs and no one could take away. It’s a wonderful story of community engagement and ownership.

This week I attended my son’s high school sketch comedy show. I did so as more than just a supportive parent. Extra-curriculars have been cancelled by teachers at his school in response to the imposition of contracts by the provincial government. This is happening all across the province and has caused much hand wringing.

We’ve had student protests, national newspaper stories about the critical value of extra-curriculars to learning and careers, legal action and lots and lots of upset parents. New premier Kathleen Wynne has made the resumption of extra-curriculars a top priority of her new government and is investing much time and effort in resolving the impasse.

This is insulting. Fundamental human rights have been trampled by the government and large sums of money were taken from private citizens without recourse. But all anyone seems to care about is whether there will be a prom.

I wondered how this sketch comedy show could be going ahead. Was there a rogue teacher? Administrators stepping into the breach? The truth was much, much better.

The sketch comedy team contains several grade 12 students who’ve invested years developing their improv comedy skills. This year’s show was to be a culmination of this. When they heard that the annual show wasn’t going ahead, instead of responding with anger and frustration they got creative and organized their own show. They rented the school auditorium from the school board and put on the show themselves. They did everything, along with assembling a coalition of volunteers (students and parents) to make it happen.

The result was terrific. The show went well and what it lacked in organization it more than made up for in authenticity. Students completely controlled the content and explored whatever they chose in whatever way they chose. And they probably did a couple of things they wouldn’t have been allowed to do if a teacher had been in charge.

The best part of the whole show was seeing the students after. They were exultant. They’d done what they didn’t know they could and they completely, 100% owned it.  It was an authentic experience, not a ‘school show’ that people attended to support them but a real show. They weren’t students, they were performers. Discussions for the next show have begun and they may never go back. Why would they give up control when they clearly don’t need it?

This should be the future of extra-curriculars. Student controlled activities with community support. Not ‘opportunities to develop leadership skills’ but actual leadership with real feedback and the real chance of failure. Not a ‘parent engagement initiative’ but parents working with students to make real things happen.

Why not student controlled proms every year? Why not student controlled sports? If extra-curriculars are really that important they won’t die, they’ll adapt and grow in a different direction. That’s what I saw in the high school auditorium this week. And if they don’t, then they probably aren’t worth saving anyway.

20 Responses to “It’s The End of Extracurriculars as We Know It (and I feel fine)”

  1. Jean MacLeod February 16, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Andrew, I agree with all you said, in theory. But the kids who are hit hardest by extracurricular cuts are the kids without the type of parental / community support that make sports teams or theater events or orchestras or art projects a student-organized, regularly scheduled reality…

    • Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99) February 16, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

      I understand, I work at such a school. Perhaps a better answer is improved community support for those kids? Allow them to retain control. Or facilitate them working with other kids who can take charge?

  2. Fiona McQuarrie February 16, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    Andrew, this is very interesting, given the similar events in BC last year. I agree with you about student-run extracurriculars being a potentially great opportunity for the students themselves.

  3. Angie Harrison February 16, 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    Back in the day when I was in high school our gymnastic coach of four years moved on to a head’s position at another school. I couldn’t imagine a year without gymnastics so myself and a dear friend organized coached and ran the club. We were lucky to have staff support us in various ways such as being in the gym while we coached and guiding us when needed. It was one of the defining moments of my life, it helped me determine my leadership path. I think we can learn a lot from these situations.

    The same year another group of students took on prom. No staff were present, another learning opportunity for all.

    I happen to believe teachers can play an important guiding and coaching role to those ready to take on events. Lets remember that these relationships can’t be forced. They need to be genuine and that’s why they are considered voluntary and beyond the actual teaching day.

    • ballacheybears February 16, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

      Thanks for the comment. Perhaps this period will help us reset extracurriculars and restore greater ownership for them back to students. As you indicate this doesn’t mean teachers can’t be part of that, but neither should they be solely responsible, as they appear to be now.

  4. Dean Shareski (@shareski) February 16, 2013 at 6:53 pm #

    Interesting perspective and some important ideas here. While student ownership is powerful I think it comes as a result of many previous experiences and opportunities. Many great extra-curr programs come as a result of a teacher’s passion be it something like chess, photography or otherwise. Often students test out these and learn to become passionate and interested too. While many extra curr programs foster an student interest and like your son, empower them, others are designed to introduce them to areas they may have never considered. A true liberal arts education features experiences of a wide range and while student choice and ownership is the ultimate goal, there needs to be many chances and opportunities that are sometimes teacher/adult initiated.

    • Sue February 17, 2013 at 8:53 am #

      Thank you, Andrew, for a thought provoking post. And thank you, Dean, for saying exactly what I wanted to say! Student choice, leadership and collaboration need to be bigger part of all aspects of school life. One of our goals is to for students to be independent. Often caring adults help them get there.

  5. davidfifevp February 17, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    Andrew, your post provides some interests ideas and perspectives. Student leadership is certainly an important aspect of high school life as you witnessed first hand with your son school. What I wonder however, is that example sustainable across all schools and all extra curricular activities? What I believe will be the biggest loss will be the relationships with students that teacher/coaches develop. These relationships often are the ones that keep students engaged in the most important part of education, the instructional day. Thanks for putting your opinion “out there”!

    • Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99) February 17, 2013 at 9:56 am #

      The feedback, here and on twitter falls into two main areas:

      1) Not all students are capable of running their own extracurriculars. I’ll admit that these students’ ability to run their won show is the result of lots of previous experiences where they were able to take on leadership and a school culture that encourages independence. It makes me wonder why more (all?) schools aren’t doing this. Further, in situations where students can’t take control the answer doesn’t have to be educator control. There are many other options such as supportive parents, community members, even the use of peers from other schools to help support that growth. We are often looking for ways to increase parent engagement and community involvement, here it is.

      2) Educators will lose an important way to develop supportive relationships with students. Perhaps, but as always committed educators will find other ways to connect. There are education systems where there are no extracurriculars. I’m told this is true in Australia. Do these students not have any positive personal relationships with teachers? What I hope would happen is that this relationship building will still happen but be more connected to the curriculum and be available to more students. Maybe a shift from extracurricular to co-curricular ends up being healthier for schools and a positive influence on more students.

      • Vicki Steer March 1, 2013 at 11:12 pm #

        Just a correction on the Australian experience, there are very many schools with extra-curricular programs. The type and range will depend on the school, the sector (government, independent).

      • ballacheybears March 1, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

        Thanks for the comment. Interesting. I have two good friends who grew up in Victoria (outside Melbourne) and now have children in Canadian schools. I spoke to them while preparing to write this and they told me that extracurriculars were not a part of their school experience nor for their families back in Australia. They said that children involved in sports, music etc. did that exclusively in the community and not through the schools. Since I was writing about Ontario public schools the appropriate comparison would be government schools not independent. Canadian independent schools have more extensive extracurricular programs but then also have more resources to devote to that. It is part of the staff’s job rather than a voluntary duty.

  6. Lisa Noble February 17, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Great blog and great discussion. I’m incredibly proud this year of my Grade 8 bandies, “rogues”, as i like to call them. Several of them, faced with the double-whammy of staffing not allowing me to teach instrumental music this year, and no extra-currics meaning no band, decided that it was important enough to them to play that they set up their own practice schedule, contacted a previous member of the band (now in Grade 9) to conduct, sent out a note to their parents asking for practice space that would rotate house to house, and made it work. They knew they wanted to apply to an integrated arts program for Grade 9, and taking a year off wasn’t an option.

    I think this is trickier in the elementary context, but do-able. It takes a lot of buy-in from the parent community, which is easier for part of my student population than others. I have found, at least at elementary, that many of my students who would benefit immensely from extracurriculars (especially sports) are the kids who can’t stay after school, or come in early, because of caring for other siblings, and they really need activities offered during the day, which makes it difficult for parents to jump into the breach.

    • ballacheybears February 17, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

      Great story abt your “rogues”. That experience will serve them well.

      I’ve facilitated student run activities supervised by co-op students. Maybe that’s a possibility.

  7. jbrasch (@jennbrasch) February 18, 2013 at 10:49 pm #

    As a parent of 4 kids in elementary school, I must disagree with the idea that schools without teacher-led extracurriculars are fine. My impression is that the comedy improv show was a success due to 3 factors:
    1. motivated students who took initiative
    2. an activity that did not depend on an adult’s skills/knowledge/coaching for success
    3. a supportive school

    1. it is unrealistic to expect that elementary students will have the initiative and skills to form groups of interest to them. They benefit from exposure to new interests and activities in extracurricular groups that they previously had little awareness of. And few elementary students would have the skills/time/interest to organize a sports tournament, glee club or other group. It is unrealistic to expect parents to get involved in organizing events like city-wide track meets or band festivals. If these are not run by the school system, they won’t happen.
    2. many extracurriculars benefit from the expertise provided by the teacher leading the activity–musical activities and sports teams being prime examples. Sure, students could get together to play basketball, but they will not learn and benefit as they would with a skilled coach.
    3. At this stage, not all schools are supportive of extracurriculars NOT run by teachers. My son is in middle school, and could easily organize chess club or a music ensemble. But students are locked out of school during lunch recess and must exit the building as soon as the final bell rings–there is no way students can create extra-curricular activities. At my daughters’ school, a parent stepped forwards to lead the school band. The school administration said, “great!” and then added, “but you need insurance.” Do you know how much insurance is for this parent to hold band practice from 7:30-8:30am once a week for 6 months? $800. That’s right. Eight hundred dollars. There won’t be any parent-led extracurriculars in Hamilton unless the policy of requiring high-cost insurance changes.

    So, I am not fine with no extra-curriculars. My daughters are in grade 5, and without band, sports teams, bake sales, school trips, and so forth, it is a dull year. I”ve written to my MP, who didn’t reply. I’ve written to the president of the local group for the EFTO union. Twice. She hasn’t replied. I contacted the Hamilton Spectator. They didn’t feel the on-going state of limbo was worth reporting. so I’m not fine. I’m angry. And I’m powerless.

    • ballacheybears February 19, 2013 at 8:12 am #

      I understand your frustration, as a parent I share it. My larger point here is that a system where an essential activity like extra-curriculars is left to volunteers is clearly broken. Here’s one potential new model. If it doesn’t fit all situations there are other possibilities. The alternative isn’t necessarily to return to the old system ASAP but to find a new and creative ways of providing extracurriculars. As the people in Rotterdam did, instead of investing energy in protest invest it in alternatives.

  8. bsherry February 20, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    Funny – the improv kids have kept going on here at my local high school as well. My sons have come back from Uni to lend a hand for the practicing – they are both devoted improvers. Something about the arts and sports that transcends the curriculum doesn’t it? Maybe it’s about the community building?

    • Andrew Campbell (@acampbell99) February 20, 2013 at 7:27 am #

      I think there’s also something in the culture and the rules of improv that helps. You’re trained to take something and work with it and to see mistakes as opportunities for creativity and humour. That’s why it’s such a good thing for all students.

  9. Dennis Xu February 21, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    What about sports, who need teacher supervision? What about athletic scholarships? What about the kids with no money who don’t have the resources to operate their own activities? What about field trips that students miss out on? What about every activity that REQUIRES teacher supervision? What about the communities in which parents don’t have the luxuries of time to devote to these activities, What about inequities that will arise in between wealthy and poorer communities?

  10. Dennis Xu February 21, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    What about the teachers who actually want to do extracurriculars? Why is my English teacher upset about the fact that extracurriculars still haven’t returned and her involvement disallowed even though the union has supposedly stated that it’s up to themselves whether or not they want to do these activities? Why is it that the majority of teachers, who don’t do extracurricular activities, have complete control over the few who are passionate about providing enrichment opportunities for their students? Was your battle over democratic rights from Day 1, or was it and always has been a monetary issue? Is it about money or your rights? What extracurricular activities did you offer? Do you care about your students’ success, or just your own paycheck? Why did you become a teacher?


  1. What’s The Future Of Extracurriculars In Ontario Schools? | Looking Up - April 14, 2013

    […] My son’s improv comedy club was one such group. Even now that extracurriculars have been reinstated the club is choosing to remain independent. Last Friday they held an independent, off-school show, that they planned, organized and presented without any direct educator support. What an amazing learning experience! In other schools community groups and private enterprise have stepped in to fill the void. […]

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