Friday, January 16, 2015

Back-Bridging Over The Achievement Gap: Why Wrestling is the Solution Educators Have Been Searching For

By Justin McLennan

The Achievement Gap

It is a widely held belief that schools are failing our children. This belief is backed with scores of statistics showing the grim situations that face the public school system and its inability to prepare our kids for the world. Nowhere are these statistics more appalling than in the lower socioeconomic bracket. So serious is the disparity between rich and poor that there has been a term coined to describe it: the achievement gap
I work for a high-achieving charter school in NYC serving low-income students. It is a place where we pride ourselves in bridging this achievement gap -- year after year we surpass the stats of even the richest public schools. The school has beautiful classrooms with teachers who are deeply committed to excellence and to getting their kids to and through 4-year universities. Most teachers put in 12-hour days every day to make sure they are giving every ounce of their being to this cause.
But, I'm sad to say, it is far from enough. Last year our high school sent 100% of its students to 4-year colleges or universities. That is a BIG DEAL and everyone was extremely proud. But what happened to them? How did they fair in their freshman year?
Not so well. Many have dropped out, and many are struggling academically. This is after 13 years of working their butts off morning and night with some of the hardest working teachers and parents on the planet. From K-12 they may have outperformed their middle-class peers, but the middle-class is making it through college at a much higher rate.  Why? What is missing from their educational or life experience that did not prepare them to succeed in higher education?

Today I want to focus on one thing that struggling schools are missing that could fundamentally change these statistics: WRESTLING. But before we get into the solution, let’s talk a little more about the problem.
The Purpose of Education

There are two main and seemingly opposite purposes of school. The first is to create productive citizens of our society. These kids will grow to have jobs and be part of the dynamic economy of the 21st century. This is the overarching purpose of U.S. public schools, and if you look at the structure of the classroom, with many students (workers) and one teacher (the boss) you see how we train our youngsters to fit into this economic system quite nicely. Certain behaviors are trained, certain knowledge is inserted, and voila!... you have a diverse population of ready, willing, and specialized automatons. 
The second, and less popular, purpose of schooling is to allow students to discover and develop their passions. This is a much more student-centered purpose of school, where the students are challenged to find that which they love to do and to develop it deeply, so when they graduate they know what drives them and can follow their passions into economic success. My favorite quote of education comes from a genius pedagogue named A.S. Neill, who said that kids “learn what they want to learn in order to have the tools that their originality and genius demand.” In essence, children would learn what they need to on their own if they are doing that which they loved and wanted to do. Think of how much harder this person would work than an automaton because they ACTUALLY CARED about what they did. The boss wouldn't even need to tell them what to do because their hearts are already telling them.

As humans we are innately concerned with self-preservation and self-interest. When you have a school system that is not allowing kids to develop their own self-interested areas of study but instead forcing them through a state-dictated curriculum and test-preparation gauntlet, how can you expect success in life?
Success in college and in life are about much more than a curriculum can teach. But too much of that is left up to the luck of the draw of being born into a good family, or having a good teacher or a decent school that inspires you to do great things in life and to be successful.
Finding a Quasi-Solution in Sports

The sad truth about education is that the uninspiring, corporate manufacturing of our children’s minds through state-run schools is here to stay. In fact, the restrictive and dictatorial manner of schools only seems to be worsening, evidenced by a variety of YouTube videos by teachers and students alike. It's crazy that somehow only the teachers and students know that its not ever going to work.
The hope that I have hung onto is in the power of sports. The laundry list of the benefits of sports is extensive, and many successful athletes and professionals (myself included) attribute many of their successes in life to their sports background. 
The additional benefit of sport for our purposes of closing the achievement gap is that sports can be used to motivate the students. When teachers ask, “Why don’t they listen?” I always respond: “Why WOULD they listen?” Sports give uninterested students a reason to listen and to self-motivate in order to stay eligible for their team. That is in addition to all the positive culture and character that they get from the team and coach. 

Now here is where wrestling comes in. Aside from its incredible ability to develop toughness, determination and personal relationships, wrestling has the added benefit that it is perfect for society’s most struggling demographic: BOYS.
Boys Need to Wrestle
In all of my years as a teacher, boys have always been the most challenging. Ask any teacher and they will agree. Impulsive, aggressive, angry, silly, unfocused, the list goes on and on. The statistics about boys in education are SHOCKING. In fact, the disparity between boys and girls is actually GREATER than the achievement gap that we are talking about. 
Let me re-state that. Being a boy predicts failure in school more than being poor. 

Don’t get me wrong. I am in full support of girls and women’s wrestling. I truly hope my daughter Juliana will some day wear a headgear and singlet. But Julie doesn’t NEED it like the boys on my team need it. Julie can relate to other people without physical engagement. Julie can sit still and learn about anything she sets her mind to. Julie follows directions and doesn’t hit in school. 
In the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, the authors argue that much of society’s adult problems stem from this boy problem. Boys don’t fit into the female-run elementary schools largely because it’s not set up for boys to succeed. They internalize their failures and take these all the way to their graves, an attitude that informs much of life.
Sports offer the boy an outlet for these boyish things, a place where boys can be boys and still be successful. Wrestling specifically utilizes the natural tendencies of boys to compete and engage physically. Working with my youngest group of 7 and 8 years olds, it is the most fascinating thing to see them first being allowed to grapple with each other. You sit them in a circle and explain “OK, now when I say go, your job is to try to get your partner on the ground and hold him there.” They look at you and laugh. 
And even as you are getting them ready for the whistle, they don’t believe you. And when the whistle blows pure boyish joy erupts as if, for the first time, they were given a space to be themselves. There they are, our future men, the warriors, the fighters, the soldiers from time immemorial, learning to be just that, but on a wrestling mat. 
When I look at my students and I ponder for their future, much of it comes to worry about their success, their prospects. But when I look at my wrestlers, I think of all the great things they will do some day. I just wish all of my students could also be wrestlers!  Some day it may be so.

Justin McLennan is a teacher and wrestling coach originally from Easton, PA, who lives in New York City. He is currently contributing to the immense growth in the wrestling community in Brooklyn. If you are interested in coaching wrestling and teaching in Brooklyn, please e-mail him at .