A few weeks ago I was accidentally eavesdropping on a few co-ed student-athletes talking before class started. They were not being quiet and they were mostly comparing practice regiments in their respective sports. One was a football player and the others were basketball players. They realized they were talking loudly after they saw I looked up but I was smiling (I smile with eyes so they could tell even with the masks) so they tried to bring me into the conversation. So after a few stories about my football days I realized that there was a common denominator with all of our stories which I will call “run-a-lap” stories.

You all know these stories. Probably even suffered through one. The basketball players were all telling stories about free throw drills. These particular kids were on the girls varsity team and each girl had to shoot 10 free throws. For every missed free throw the whole team had to run a sprint. The football team had similar stories about running as a punishments for making mistakes. When I was a young football player I used to have to run-a-lap every time I missed a blocking assignment.

I never understood when coaches did this. Punishing a young athlete for making a mistake during practice does nothing to correct the flaw. I guess there is some argument about the need to practice handling the pressure of the situation; however adding a punishment without correction does nothing to fix the underlying problem. Running a Lap just adds anxiety and takes time away from practicing the skill that is flawed. I have often wondered if the coach is simply just lashing out due to frustration when they should actually be teaching.

I also wonder how often this is the case in classrooms. When do we give work as a punishment or even just for something to do? Is the work we do assign meaningful and designed to engage skill development or content understanding. If not aren’t we just asking students to “run-a-lap” – an activity that seems full of action and intent but doesn’t really address the underlying issue? I can think of a few examples. The ubiquitous “if you don’t get this done now it becomes homework” comes to mind. Students are not completing the assignment either because it is not engaging or because it is to difficult. In either case the work is going to be done poorly if at all. Any homework as a punishment would also be problematic. I have heard of students being assigned essays because they were talking too much in class. I am concerned that much of our distance learning activities fall in this category. As I plan for this upcoming semester I need to go back through many activities to see if they can be successfully completed away from a support structure.

Part of the reason this is so concerning to me is that as I have gotten older I have discovered the joy of distance running. It is a zen like experience that brings me a great deal of happiness and stress reduction. Similarly some of the history topics that used to bore me to tears are now some of my favorite “me-time” reading go to’s. In high school I avoided as much as I could about the Civil War. Reflecting on the way it was taught leads me to believe that was much of the reason. My US History teacher was fond of “read the textbook section and answer the questions at the end while I read the newspaper” activities. Now I am incredibly engaged with reading about the Civil War and Reconstruction. As I learn more I also learn how much depth and complexity was actually involved and how pervasive the Lost Cause mythology. My desire to teach better fuels the passion to learn more. I have taken ownership of the mental exercise and far from the punishing intent of the “run-a-lap” activity I am refreshed through the mental exercise.

My guess is that there are examples of “run-a-lap” assignments I haven’t thought of. Please share some in the comments so we can try to fix this issue.