by Steve Reifman, Guest Columnist
Nearly fifteen years ago I decided to schedule a class baseball game during the final week of the school year. I organized the event on a whim, thinking it might be a way to have some fun and finish the year on a festive note. Since that time our class game has become an important annual tradition. Of course, the kids and I have a terrific time on the field, but there is another subtle yet powerful benefit that this activity offers. Organizing a class baseball game enables me to reinforce many of the foundational ideas I promote in the classroom throughout the school year. These ideas include: fairness, cooperation, respect, sportsmanship, teamwork, continuous improvement, individual recognition, safety, and the joy of physical activity.
End the School Year with Good Sportsmanship
I can build quite a few of these ideas into the structure of the game by establishing some ground rules. First and foremost, we don’t keep score as we play. It’s not about winning and losing, I tell everyone; it’s about having fun and doing the best we can. In the classroom my approach emphasizes cooperation and de-emphasizes competition because, by definition, competition creates winners and losers, and I never want my students to feel like losers. In our game I want everyone to feel like a winner, and not keeping score facilitates that outcome. This principle takes on greater meaning when I consider that for many children, this game will represent their first opportunity to play in an organized baseball game, and I want to calm any anxiety they might be feeling about having to perform well to help their team win.
I ensure that safety is an integral part of the game in several ways. First, we use tennis balls instead of baseballs or softballs so that anyone getting accidentally hit by a ball is unlikely to sustain injury. Also, I pitch to both teams underhanded. That way, everyone is likely to make contact consistently, and it’s impossible for anyone to get hurt if they are hit by a pitch, especially with my weak throwing arm. (That’s why I played first base in Little League.) In addition, two other critical rules contribute to a safely played game. The hitting team sits a good distance away from home plate while a player is up at bat. If the hitter accidentally throws the bat, it won’t reach that area. On defense I instruct the fielders not to throw the ball to anyone who is not looking at them. If a grounder is hit to second base, for example, the person fielding the ball needs to make eye contact with the first baseman before making the throw.
Besides being the full-time pitcher, I serve as the umpire. I tell everyone to accept all my calls without complaint, even if I may be wrong about whether a runner is safe or out or a batted ball is fair or foul. I expect this level of respect in the classroom, and I ask for it on the field as well. Cooperation and respect are also important to remember when interacting with teammates. If one player makes a poor throw or swings and misses, we continue offering support and encouragement. Never do we turn on a teammate or blame someone for an error.
One of my favorite parts of the game involves the one-on-one interaction I get to have with the players as they step to the plate for their turn to hit. During this time I can offer encouragement and provide instruction, especially for those children making their baseball debut. The inherent fairness of baseball (everyone receives the same number of at-bats) and its slower pace allows this interaction. End-of-year basketball or soccer games may be a ton of fun, but they don’t allow this same level of individual attention. With children who struggle to make contact, I can move closer to the plate when I pitch or suggest that they use a bat with a larger barrel (two examples of differentiated instruction, if you think about it). With encouragement from their classmates and instruction from their teacher, our rookie players usually improve significantly from their first at-bat to their last, a really neat form of continuous improvement.
Finally, at the end of the game we borrow a tradition from the NHL hockey playoffs to highlight the importance of sportsmanship. Each team stands in a line with one player behind the other, and the two sides are about ten feet apart. The teams then walk toward each other, and every member of one group high fives and compliments every member of the other. We then gather our equipment and head to a special barbecue lunch the parents prepare for us. Not a bad end-of-the-year party. If you’re looking for an awesome way to culminate your school year, consider organizing a baseball game of your own.
About the Author
Steve Reifman is a National Board Certified elementary school teacher, author, and speaker in Santa Monica, CA. He has written several books for educators and parents, including Changing Kids’ Lives One Quote at a Time andEight Essentials for Empowered Teaching and Learning, K-8. Steve is also the creator of the Chase Manning Mystery Series for kids 8-12. Each book in the series features a single-day, real-time thriller that occurs on an elementary school campus. For weekly Teaching Tips, blog posts, and other valuable resources and strategies on teaching the whole child, visit stevereifman.com. You can also follow Steve on Twitter.