Introduction to Special Issue

By Huntley, Lu Ellen | High School Journal, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Introduction to Special Issue


Huntley, Lu Ellen, High School Journal


Early fall semester 1998, in an undergraduate literacy education class of preservice teachers I launched into the "basketball story" as a way to explain how we develop powers of observation and analysis. We had been discussing the analysis of student writing assignment, a major requirement in the course which asks class members to collect and analyze numerous examples of writing (i.e., both school and non-school related) from students of the age they plan to teach. As is often the case when assignments are first mentioned, students have questions; and, at times, the more explanation we provide, the more they seem to need. On this occasion I sensed premature anxiety about the assignment and felt it escalating. Rather than continue discussing student writing analysis any further I moved into the narrative mode and told the following story:

When I interviewed for my first teaching position in a public high school twenty years ago, Mr. James O. Waters, the principal inquired about my willingness to coach women's basketball in addition to English teaching. Without hesitation I assured him I could do both. I wanted to teach English; if it meant coaching too, so be it. Since I played basketball in junior and senior high with unusual ambidexterity, and my younger sister was studying health and physical education at the time with the idea of becoming a coach, I convinced myself I could do it and figured my sister could assist once the season started. I had no way of knowing all that I was taking on. Completely naive about school politics and inequalities between men's and women's sports programs I didn't think to ask about why the women's team didn't have a real coach. My desire to teach was strong; my optimism off the scale; my knowledge of basketball coaching, negligible at best.

The Lady Comets lost most of their games the two years I coached, and I still remember thinking how glad I would be when I could just teach the six English classes and not have to coach.

The point, I tell my students, is that through my failure as a basketball coach I learned "to read" the action on the court. Whereas at first I watched the teams move up and down the court, over time my ability to notice and analyze patterns of movement developed. The phenomenon of enhanced sight for the game of basketball was a delayed benefit of coaching, something that developed gradually. Just as it takes time to be able "to read" the patterns of movement on the basketball court if those ways of seeing are not already developed, it takes time to become observant of students' language patterns and structures in their speaking and writing. We may begin quite capable of hearing and seeing the language students use, but we have to acquire abilities to identify and describe patterns of language which, in turn, inform our teaching.

The basketball story is about a lot of things, and I can tell it with different emphases depending on the context and what I want to illustrate. With the undergraduate literacy students, I use the story as an analogy to stress how coaching basketball trained me to be more observant and analytical and juxtapose this with learning to read student language. On this most recent occasion telling the story I have doubts about the degree students understood the similarity between basketball and student writing. It was very early in the semester for one thing. Telling the story did, however, calm students' anxiety about the course assignment and disclose the beginnings of my teaching life.

I mention this story here in the introduction to this special issue of The High School Journal focused upon teacher narrative and life history because it is, as Ruth Vinz (1996) describes, part of the mosaic of my life as a teacher. The basketball story is not just an anecdote or an analogy to illustrate a point although I may use it in these ways; it is more than this, for it is part of the text I am still composing. "[T]he mosaic of our teaching life deepens and take other shapes" as we continue in our work, making choices, refining practices, learning as we go (Vinz, p. …

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