Seated at the back of the brightly lit cafeteria of Supply Elementary School in North Carolina, 11-year-old Jonathan Velez can hardly be heard over the din of his fellow students. Occupied with the food he’s hunched over, the shy 5th grader is answering questions—What’s your favorite subject? What kind of sneakers are you wearing?—in a quietly polite tone.
But when the subject of basketball comes up—specifically, the fact that one of his favorite basketball players grew up in the state, less than an hour’s drive away—everything changes. The boy’s eyes light up under his closely cropped hair, and he almost jumps out of his cafeteria seat. “I know!” he says exuberantly. “I went to Wilmington once, and when we were driving around, my aunt’s boyfriend told me, ‘There’s Michael Jordan’s high school!’” Then he’s up and out the door, leaving his half-eaten cheeseburger on its tray. Quickly shedding his hip-hop-style parka in the warm May sun, he reveals a red-and-blue basketball jersey—just the thing to wear while shooting baskets at recess.
This level of basketball obsession, especially in North Carolina, is hardly unique among schoolchildren. What is unusual is that Supply PE teacher Marty Mentzer has somehow transmuted Jonathan’s—and more than 50 other students’—obsession into an almost equal enthusiasm for poetry. Combining two seemingly diametric opposites—the love of literature and the love of sharp-elbowed lunges toward a suspended hoop—her four-year-old Basketball Poets club has managed to raise kids’ achievement levels and has become a model for movement-boosted learning at schools across the region.
“This program integrates and permeates all levels of reading, writing, social studies, science, and art,” says Donna Michaux, a teacher at Southport Elementary School, east of Supply, who has adapted aspects of Mentzer’s program in her own classes. “Their critical-thinking skills and problem-solving capabilities are improved. There is strong evidence that this program assists students with positive end-of-grade test results.”
And the deep literary impression the program has made on the children has wowed adults far and wide.
“I was blown away at my first visit,” says Newbery Medal-winning poet and children’s novelist Sharon Creech, who came to see the Basketball Poets after they wrote her a letter. When she arrived, the kids adulated her like an NBA star, asking her to autograph their sneakers and books. She now drops by annually to hear and watch the club perform. “To play while reciting, it’s just magic,” she enthuses. “It means more to them. I can’t analyze it; I just think it’s amazing.”
It’s 2 p.m. on a warm spring Thursday at Supply Elementary, a modern-looking school set among trees and grass in the state’s rural southeast corner. Inside the cinderblock gym, Mentzer, wearing a green athletic shirt and a whistle on a lanyard, is putting her 5th graders through their paces. Not basketball—not yet, anyway—but poetry.
From a bookshelf full of verse leaning against one of the gym’s walls, the PE teacher picks up Journey Through Heartsongs, by child poet Mattie J.T. Stepanek.
Some sample verse from the Basketball Poets.
When they’re around
they spew poisons
in the air.
We hate plooters
and we don’t care.
By Karla Reynolds
Did You Know?
I wrote your name in the sky,
the wind blew it away.
I wrote your name in the sand,
the waves washed it away.
I wrote your name in my heart,
forever it will stay.
By Paolo Luna
“Who wants to read a poem?” the 41-year-old teacher asks her students.
“Me! Me! Me!” they all cry.
The first 25 minutes of each weekly club meeting are devoted to poetry, and the Basketball Poets take turns reading aloud to fellow members seated on carpeted, bleacher-style steps. Impressive as their attention level is, however, the kids inevitably do begin to fidget. “Can we play now?” calls a voice from the back.
Soon, Mentzer tells them. First, though, they must rehearse their combined recitation and physical interpretation of “Eldorado,” by Edgar Allan Poe. They’ve already performed it for a PTA meeting, but the organization asked them for an encore.
Quickly finding their places on the steps, the students get into what Mentzer calls their “confident stance.” Arms at their sides, legs together, heads up, and eyes forward, they begin to speak, then shout the poem in unison: “Gaily bedight, a gallant knight, in sunshine and in shadow…!”
As they do so, their movements begin to mime their words. First assuming proud postures, they form suns with their arms over their heads, and finally sweep their right arms to the ground, indicating areas of darkness. Riding invisible horses, “searching” with hands at their eyes, and kneeling on one knee, they infuse the poem with energy as they recite—from memory—all four stanzas. A couple of kids goof their way through some of the motions, but most, like Jonathan, take it seriously. At the end, all bow automatically. Before Mentzer finally lets her charges hit the boards for 20 minutes of pickup basketball and other games, she has a student lead them through a practice interpretation of “Fog,” by Carl Sandburg.
Not bad for a bunch of elementary school kids of whom, at least on paper, not much might be expected. Only 16 percent of Brunswick County residents 25 or older have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the last U.S. Census, and nearly three-quarters of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
In fact, someone with less enthusiasm than Mentzer might not have seen much promise in the handful of troubled students Supply’s administrators first asked her to tutor five years ago. They had learning disabilities, ADHD, behavioral or emotional handicaps, and weren’t doing well in school—but they loved athletics as much as she did. She saw an opening.
“At first the basketball was a basic carrot,” recalls the tanned 16-year teaching veteran, who has the lean, muscled look of a natural athlete. She told them, “Let’s come in here and read, then there’ll be time on the court.” As her seminal text, she used Creech’s Love That Dog—a short children’s free-verse novel about a boy who hates poetry, but eventually comes to know its beauty and power. “Before long they were absorbing the poetry,” Mentzer remembers, “and now there’s a really cool balance.”
The former high school basketball player and lifelong fan knew the draw of the game firsthand, but she also wanted to do more than just extort some reading time from play-minded kids. Mentzer, who created a movement-poetry master’s degree curriculum in adapted physical education for herself at East Carolina University, wanted to use their physical activity to improve their classroom achievement.
According to scientists who have studied the two, there’s a stronger link between movement and learning than one might assume.
Playing it Forward
Beginning this fall, all K-8 teachers in North Carolina are required to provide students with “moderate to vigorous physical activity” for at least 30 minutes each day. But teachers at Supply Elementary School are ahead of the game. If you ask Supply principal Dwight Willis why many of his faculty started their classroom-energizing programs more than a year ago, he’ll give much of the credit to Marty Mentzer. The PE teacher’s innovative Basketball Poets club boosts 4th and 5th graders’ learning by getting them to physically act out poetry in between bursts of ball-playing and other activities.
“I think Basketball Poets has been a model in our school for, ‘How do I connect movement with learning?’” he says. “Once teachers begin to see this model, it kind of opens up their ideas about how to merge the academic and the physical in their classroom.”
Here’s a sampling of some of those teachers’ techniques:
“There’s quite a bit of evidence that fitness is related to academic performance,” says Darla Castelli, a pedagogy specialist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “We don’t have a very good understanding yet of why; we just know it’s so strongly related that we can’t leave it out of the puzzle.”
Supply principal Dwight Willis says the data the school keeps aren’t fine-grained enough to gauge exactly how effective the Basketball Poets program is in helping kids learn. But what he’s observed and heard from teachers is proof enough to him that the club provides a significant boost.
“You know [it’s working] when principals and teachers can get a sense of programs that have a positive impact on students and their performance in school and behavior,” he says. “We just know that because we watch these kids and watch how they improve.”
Some of that impact comes from the way the program is set up. After Mentzer’s initial success with her small group of tutees, she got the go-ahead to make Basketball Poets a club, which now holds separate meetings for its 4th and 5th graders. Membership is limited to the first 25 students in each grade who show interest and write a poem, creating a sense of belonging and exclusivity among the Poets. Four years after the club started, there is now a waiting list of children who want to take part.
“I tell them they are ‘chosen’ because they are special,” Mentzer says. “If you are a Basketball Poet you are somebody! You are a writer; you have a voice. The pride instilled causes a jump in self-confidence, which carries over to other areas, like schoolwork. The honor of being a Basketball Poet or hoping to be one is a huge motivator for students.”
There are requirements, however. Like athletes at higher grade levels, students sign contracts pledging that they will maintain at least a C average. The documents also stipulate that if they’re caught fighting or academically cheating, they will be booted from the club.
“The Basketball Poets carry themselves differently,” Willis confirms. “They have more appropriate behavior because they don’t want to do something to discredit the program or cause them to be dismissed. They tend to be more engaged in other classes, more connected.”
Such results have created considerable local buzz among other educators, prompting several to start their own programs along the same lines as the Basketball Poets, the name of which Mentzer has trademarked. The district invited her to lead an inservice workshop for all nine of its elementary schools’ teachers, and as those educators move on to other schools, they’re spreading the word.
“What struck me the most was the desire of her students to create poetry,” says Randy Miskech, who arranged readings and basketball games between his students and Mentzer’s. “Combining an athletic component was pure genius,” adds Miskech, who now teaches in North Carolina’s New Hanover County, about an hour’s drive northeast from Supply, and plans to start a Basketball Poets-style program there this fall.
The Basketball Poets club (www. basketballpoets.com), in Supply, North Carolina, isn’t the only program trying to boost learning through physical activity. Non-school-based organizations also offer training classes and techniques for teachers of students with different kinds of challenges. Here are the Web addresses and summaries for a few:
Word has also spread among those on the lookout for pedagogical innovation. In addition to winning her school’s Teacher of the Year in 2004-05, Mentzer received an Innovation Grant from the National Education Association, as well as grants from the local electric company and the Brunswick County Association of Educators. That money has brought well-known poets to her school and let the students print T-shirts and self-publish collections of their work.
Her students have also won awards from the North Carolina Poetry Society, the Shallotte Junior Women’s Club, the Brunswick County Young Authors writing contest, and others. Jonathan, too, received recognition for his efforts last year. He was named Citizen of the Month at Supply, awarded the distinction of Most Improved by his class intern, and placed third in a countywide basketball-shooting competition.
He still faces challenges, as his teacher Kathie Pender attests. But she says Mentzer’s club has helped. “Jonathan is naturally very bright and a phenomenal writer, so Basketball Poets brings that out in him,” Pender notes. “Mrs. Mentzer’s contract is a really good incentive for him to keep focused. Even though his behavior sometimes gets in the way, he works toward her goals because being a Poet is something he really wants.”