Why I’m Integrating the World Cup Into My English Class, Despite My Disinterest in Sports

In late September, my sophomores were packing up for the day when I noticed a group of boys, heads down, all focusing on what looked to be magazines open on their desks. They lifted each page carefully, with a mix of reverence and deep concentration.

”¿Tengo Andres Guardado?” “Sí… ¿Tengo Mbappe?” The boys burst into rib-busting laughter.

I moved closer, trying not to disturb the scene unfolding before me. Their joy was palpable. On each page was a series of partially completed soccer teams. They were exchanging stickers of sought-after players as they prepared for the 2022 World Cup, which was at least two full months away at that point.

Admittedly, I have absolutely no clue when it comes to sports. I do my best to fit in – nodding solemnly when colleagues lament a critical loss for a hometown favorite or congratulating a student if their athleticism was celebrated on the morning announcements. Still, by and large, I’m an extreme disappointment to my student-athletes and sports fans alike.

But this year, with the arrival of the World Cup, I came prepared, and my students knew it when they saw our sports journalism unit built into the syllabus on the first day. “Are these days blocked off for the World Cup?!” they exclaimed. “¿Estamos mirando fútbol? ¿En classes?!”

I learned my lesson four years ago when I taught summer school during the previous World Cup. Students sat with their phones tucked into novels or toggled between multiple tabs in their browsers. On the day of a crucial match-up between South Korea and Germany, I chose to project the game on the TV in class while they pretended to write essays, knowing I had already lost their attention for the day. My eyes constantly darted toward the classroom door; I was simultaneously worried an administrator would catch our class off task while also basking in the suspenseful atmosphere. At the match’s end, our classroom exploded in ecstatic celebrations when South Korea beat Germany, allowing Mexico to progress to the knockout rounds.

Over the few weeks of the World Cup in 2018, the games were inescapable, as they will be again this November and December. With other current events, I’m quick to brush up on the latest news, curating articles for my students to discuss in class. Why would one of the world’s biggest athletic events be any different?

Sports and Culturally Responsive Teaching

My school sits just six miles from the border with Mexico, and many of my students cross that border daily to attend school in the United States. While my school’s geographic location might be unique, its student demographics are not. Latinx students will soon make up 30% of U.S. schoolchildren. If the aforementioned events are any indication, it seems impossible to overestimate the significant role soccer plays in many of their lives.

The World Cup isn’t just a series of games for many of our students and their families. It’s a way for binational and bicultural students to connect to families and cultures and for students to see their national identities celebrated and validated. By welcoming their passion into our curriculum, I hope to affirm students for what they value and pursue outside the classroom.

During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, teacher accounts were abuzz with reading lists and calls to adopt culturally responsive and culturally sustaining pedagogies. All too often, the books in these readings centered on traumatizing and marginalizing protagonists. They (rightfully) paid attention to trauma and marginalization but missed the joy, creativity, and production of BIPOC culture.

So when educators returned to teach in the fall, what did those conversations and units look like? I’m lucky to have taught in four different schools throughout my career, darting back and forth across the country. One of the many lessons I’ve taken with me from those experiences is how drastically each group of students responds to current events. When I see calls on Twitter that declare, “If teachers aren’t having conversations about X with their students….” I always wince. If teachers are responding to calls on social media to integrate more stories of historically marginalized groups, and these lessons are centered on the same literacy practices that only adjust who the texts were written by and for, we are not adopting culturally responsive teaching practices. We’re simply replacing one text with another without interrogating our students’ entry points into how they engage with the content.

How do we know that the students in these hypothetical classrooms crave these conversations as much as their teachers? How do we know whether their learning community has established a framework for critically analyzing these events?

Our students’ radars are often turned to a different frequency than ours. If they are disinterested in or unprepared for conversations about historical oppression, these lessons have the potential to do more harm than good. While our students of color experience marginalization, they may not center their academic and extracurricular pursuits on it.

Our students have rich, cultural lives and dynamic insight into their passions. Part of being culturally sustaining means giving students vibrant ways of seeing the world and the things they care about space in the classroom.

Inviting In Students’ Literacy Practices and Values

Instead of regurgitating texts that our students have no interest in, what would it look like if we asked ourselves about the literacies of our students? One of my most humbling moments as a teacher didn’t happen at the front of a classroom; it happened on a soccer field when I taught in Las Vegas over fifteen years ago. Students organized a “teachers versus students” game, and I enthusiastically signed up. How hard could it be? We chase a ball and prevent others from chasing a ball. I laced up my shoes, already daydreaming about bragging to my eighth graders the next day.

As it turns out, my students were scholars of the sport. I embarrassed myself early enough into the game to recognize I needed to do what I always did in elementary school gym class: fade into the background until no one noticed I was sitting on the bench. Meanwhile, my students were reading the field with a level of complexity I will never adequately capture. They were observing their opponents’ patterns, collaborating with one another, anticipating each other’s decisions, and applying all this knowledge to make their next moves.

If this is what they’re doing when they play a game, imagine the level of analysis that goes into watching one. They apply the intricate rules of a complex sport and observe nuances in players’ personalities, team dynamics, and reflections of national and collective values to understand how players work within (and bend) a complex set of rules.

Their level of analysis is evidence of their literacy with soccer. Like school literacy, they can read the basics of what’s happening and also analyze and appreciate symbolic, deeper meanings of what happens on the pitch.

This November, despite my own uncertainty with the game, I am inviting my students to bring this level of literacy for the sport to their writing in a sports journalism unit. Rather than teaching from the bench, where I’m much more comfortable given my uncertainty with sports, I’m asking guiding questions and creating opportunities for research that students can apply to their already high level of analysis of the sport. Since we will have just finished reading Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”, it will be the perfect opportunity to apply what we know about the lasting legacies of colonization to our analysis of a world sporting event.

What might it mean for their writing to explore how current competitors are now on equal footing with their former colonizers? In what ways are those power imbalances still present in commentators’ game analyses? And how might individual players’ personal histories contribute to their athletic strategy and performance? We can consider all these questions as students report on the games they watch at home and from the school cafeteria.

Embracing My Discomfort for My Students’ Benefit

Sure, I hope this sports journalism unit expands my students’ use of soccer jargon in formal writing. But I’m also hoping that the level of analysis they’re being asked to apply to everything they consume associated with the sport – play time, commentaries, social media discourse – all work together to increase both their analysis skills and, consequently, their enjoyment of their favorite game. I hope they turn up the volume in seemingly boring stretches of the game when they hear commentators describe some teams from countries in Africa as “physical” and those from Europe as “cerebral.” I hope these observations lead to meaningful discussions and allow for opportunities to explore the depths of the sport, like the oftentimes ignored intersection of sports and race.

In this way, embracing what students love, and honoring that their deep engagement with soccer is a literacy they have mastered, can act as an entry point into the very conversations that culturally responsive teaching aims to facilitate.

I cannot claim to love my students if I am not interested in what they’re passionate about and fail to appreciate the literacies they have and value. My students were not just trading stickers recently. They were allowing something they love to become tangible and communicating that with their peers.

I know I’m not alone in my aversion to sports. Despite my discomfort and disinterest, I’m eager to see what my students have to teach me. I may not yet understand how elated my students will be if Mexico finally reaches the quinto partido, but I hope to celebrate along with them— and this time, my classroom door will be wide open.