Recently, during a two-day period in our small school cafeteria waiting area, there were more than 120 elementary and junior high students and their coaches, parents, grandparents, and even a few baby brothers and sisters. Admission could have been charged because the entertainment of Kindergarten Storytelling or First-Grade Oral Reading ranks right up there with high school Original Oratory. For many first-time participants and their families, this was their baptism. They were now well on their way to being lifetime fans of the performing arts.
In our dreams.
Come spring, the number of students who choose to step on the stage or open the black binder will have dwindled significantly. Something happens “on the way to the forum,” as we lose many of those enthusiastic little ones, and it is anything but funny.
A host of reasons exist for what takes place between grade school and high school to cause such an unfortunate drop-off in performing arts participation compared to involvement in high school sports. After many years of observation and talking with other small-school coaches, three common sense suggestions on how to help lower the exit numbers may help us blend our athletic and speech programs.
First, it would be unrealistic to think that all of those children in that cafeteria were going to go home to supportive environments where children are allowed to explore all options when it comes to their extracurricular choices. Parents and educators must work together to communicate the notion that a child can do both. They do not necessarily have to choose one over the other.
Rather than allow the dialogue to go to gender or societal norm talking points, bring the conversation about a student’s participation back to how athletics and performing arts mirror each other: both have crowd appeal, both provide an opportunity to shine or to be a part of a group, both challenge the mind and the body, and both employ the brotherhood and sisterhood of teamwork. Just as a quarterback clearly knows his performance often hinges on the offensive line’s commitment to protecting the passer, the lead actor or actress recognizes that the lighting and sound crews accentuate the work on stage.
Another preventative measure that can help sustain interest in the performing arts for our younger students is to be the adults in the room. Communication among athletic coaches, performing arts coaches and students is fundamental but often ignored. The dreaded ultimatum of forcing a student to choose between one of the two programs is detrimental and really should be avoided if possible. When that happens, the tug and pull on students can take its toll, and the end result may be that the student drops both programs simply because they are tired of being caught in the middle. Especially in small schools where there are no athletic tryouts and the programs are open enrollment, every child has the option to play almost any sport he or she chooses. This should be celebrated by parents and coaches!
In the same way, participation in small-school performing arts is an open invitation. If the stage is not the goal, students can be made aware that there are vital non-speaking roles when doing a production. As with so many life moments, when coaches from all programs sit down and focus on common ground, all parties benefit – first and foremost the students.
When parents and educators and coaches step back and assess the reality of a student’s background and then communicate with each other, the other link that may keep our young performing artists involved as they grow older is the ability to be flexible with scheduling. What great life lessons the adults can model for students when they witness collaboration and adjustments to scheduling when situations demand.
For example, in many rural school districts, basketball begins in November with weekend tournaments as well. If the football team makes the playoffs, Fridays and Saturdays are going to be reserved for those games. The speech coach can negotiate for tournament time on Saturdays in September and October to accommodate the athletic programs’ schedules.
When we are motivated by what is best for students, coaches seldom err. Accepting the fact that life happens and students’ interests change – common sense. Finding common ground and setting school goals together – common sense. And finally, adapting to and respecting the schedules of each other’s programs – common sense.
Students have a role in this as well. Their high school career is four short years, and they have more options than they will at any point in their lives. They should sing in the choir. They can march on Friday night in the final performance before marching contest – after they take off their football jersey at halftime. Then they can return to the field and catch a pass. They can learn their lines for “The Importance of Being Earnest.” They can take the bus to the baseball game and then be driven back to their regional Prose Interpretation contest an hour away.
Students can swing a racket, swing a club, dive into a pool and then into their future. A student’s athletic and performing arts coaches may not always see the big picture, but that doesn’t have to stop the student from competing in both worlds. Being busy and tired is far better than living with the regret that a student missed out on some opportunities to shine on the field or on the stage or in a debate.
Educators and administrators should guide wisely so that athletic programs and performing arts programs blend the talents of this country’s best natural resource: our children.
Sue Jane Sullivan is in her 40th year as a classroom English and social studies teacher in the Borden County Independent School District in Texas. Sullivan has championed small-school involvement in extracurricular academic and speech and debate competitions.