Students Learn By Teaching

November 7, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM FISHER: Big-time college football. The crowds, the cheers, the spectacle of autumn. Saturday’s heroes. Then there’s this: the Sam Hughes Elementary School in Tucson.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Who knows what a fossil is?

JIM FISHER: Athletic young men and women, football and baseball players, women’s basketballers, swimmers, heroes and heroines all, when you’re seven through ten years old, working one on one with first through fourth graders. Tutoring? In a way, yes, but much more. Be a kid for a minute again and imagine say Olympic runner Wilma Rudolph, Gold Medal Winner Mark Spitz–

ANNOUNCER: A world record every time he hits the water.

JIM FISHER: –football legend Joe Montana, or Phoenix Suns Superstar Charles Barkley showing up at your school. Would you ever forget? Would words difficult to read or write be a little easier knowing some guy only slightly smaller than a mountain was helping you? Wouldn’t incentive rise from just being around somebody like that? It wouldn’t have to be Wilma or Sir Charles. Compete in this sports crazy country, and you’re likely a hero to any child–not that their regular teachers aren’t. But, face it. Kids need heroes in this society where some have made a shibboleth, an easy grade, of getting by. So it gets down to basics.

MAN: I think it’s a girl. A woman, you don’t want a book about a woman do you?


MAN: No.

JIM FISHER: Part of the university’s game plan is taking kids to, of all places, an honest-to-goodness bookstore and letting them buy $30 worth of books of their own choosing. The athletes go along. It’s a big time for everybody.

LITTLE GIRL: This is a good book too.

ATHLETE: All right. We’ll get these three for sure.

JIM FISHER: Maybe the books aren’t War and Peace, but the point, at the age these kids are, is to get them to read–anything. Dr. John Bradley heads the program.

JOHN BRADLEY, Literacy Program Director: This course helps the student athlete build character. I mean, they are responsible–or all the students in the course are responsible for working with a child for a semester. It’s not just like writing a term paper. They have a real child that they have to work with, and that means that they have to be there when they promise to be there. They have to go to the school. They have to be dependable. They have to be reliable. They have to plan their lessons. They have to interact with the child.

JIM FISHER: Yet there’s something more subtle working here. Athletes aren’t dumb. You don’t play big- time football without something between your ears. Academics, though, can be intimidating, especially for those from backgrounds where sports have been a way off mean streets but who arrive at college with what educators call internalized stereotyping about their own academic achievements. What better way to make a young man or woman part of the system than embrace him not only as a student but also as a teacher? And if they can teach a kid, what does that tell them about themselves? Plenty. Listen to Strong Safety Kurt King, who plans to be an elementary school teacher.

KURT KING, Tutor: Personally, I think it helps my patience, ’cause whenever you work with kids, you know you have to have patience. It gives you responsibility. If you miss this class, your student cares because you’re, umm, you’re not only dealin’ with your education, you’re dealing with someone else’s. Even if you’re gonna let yourself down, in your own classes, you can’t let the child down.

JIM FISHER: Still, the athletes and the kids work together, young adults, that magic moment of life, where everything seems possible, and their charges, not even on the cusp of adolescence, it’s a sight to see. What comes to mind is an old saying, “To teach is to learn twice.”

I’m Jim Fisher.