Monday, May 20, 2013

Teaching Reading & Running Together?

High school Track and Field student-athletes, and the adults who coach them, are fairly set in their ways. This can be seen in their commitment to individualized training groups: sprinters complete drill work with sprinters, jumpers stretch with jumpers, throwers lift with throwers, and distance specialists run distance with one another. Similarly, genre-lovers (especially those who are less adventurous about stepping outside their military biographies, romance novels, or zombie fiction) can subconsciously find themselves pigeon-holing there reading fare.

As both an English teacher and high school coach, I am always on the lookout for selections (technical articles, motivational biographies and commentaries, mostly) to share with my students and athletes. To this point, however, the "great white whale" of Track and Field reading has eluded me. For a number of reasons ranging from the perceived relevancy ("Why would a sprinter read a book about milers?") to interest ("I read in class not at practice!"), my search continues for that book that would be appropriate for those who love to run, jump and throw--especially those who are currently secondary school students. It would be wonderful to find the Track and Field equivalent to Friday Night Lights or The Natural.

The elusive "recommended reading" would be that extended text with a moderate reading level and an explicit appeal to sprinters, distance runners and field event student-athletes, the supposition being: if community reads, such as the NEA's annual Big Read, be used to facilitate a conversation of big ideas at a community, can't the same be done with literacy and sport?

Fortunately, there are a number of books out there that may have some appeal to distance runners, chief among these being Christopher McDougal's Born to Run. I recently began rereading McDougal's book for the fourth time, and as a former (sort of) competitive high school and road race runner, I found the mix of storytelling, social commentary and biography immensely entertaining. More importantly, it was accessible, which is likely what has contributed to its immense success.

Born to Run makes the sport of ultra running, one that can be accepted by any reader who has run races recreationally or competitively in the past an approachable one. Most can appreciate or relate to the idea of running, so the leap from the more traditional distance to hundreds of miles was a believable one. We've all come across crazy athletic types like those mythologized in the book, even if we as recreational athletes have not embraced our sport to the same degree. While a tremendous read, and one I recommend to student-athletes who are intrinsically motivated athletically, as well as academically, it could prove a challenging starting point for the struggling readers who make up the majority of my charges.

The best place to start looking for beginning team reads is likely the most obvious: anthologies. While I completely understand the attraction (short, simple, euphemistic, "inspiring") to certain Chicken Soup-style books, I'd rather have something more... authentic to use. To that end I'll continue this trail by perusing an anthology, Going Long, I bought my own son last year for Christmas, starting with the stories he (himself not a particularly avid recreational reader, but a dedicated high school/collegiate runner) dog eared. The title implies its emphasis on distance running, reflecting the focus of the magazine (Runner's World) from which the stories were culled, I remain hopeful that there may be something accessible to a range of track and field student-athletes with an equally broad range of reading abilities.

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