This past weekend I had the opportunity to take five students that are about to graduate to the School Scrabble Nationals in Washington D.C. These students have been playing with me since they were in ninth grade, and I was looking forward to one last competition with them before they became alumni. The competition provided me with a moment to reflect on how I was able to maintain their interest in Scrabble despite their growth into talented young Black adults, who let’s be honest, a board game may not be their biggest priority in life. I realized that what kept bringing them back was the positive extracurricular (EC) culture I developed that made them feel loved, challenged, and helped them believe in themselves.
The name of the Scrabble team is the Word Ninjas. I am proud of that name and so are they. My students truly OWN the name with a positive “I came to play” attitude. They may not win every game or competition, but they show up ready to play. My Word Ninjas are a mix of student athletes, students who have jobs outside of school, or take care of their younger students at home. The senior Word Ninjas include a salutatorian who is going to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, a student who is attending the Community College of Pennsylvania, and three students who are still trying to find the finances to go to the school of their choice.
Part of the reason why my Scrabble team has been sustainable for so many years is because of pure Black joy. At every practice we do a check-in, students take turns picking songs to play on the speaker, and they are able to share stories about what is going on in their life. Sometimes we don’t even play Scrabble, and instead play cards, Jenga, or something else to pass the time. Being a Word Ninja is not just about knowing your two letter words and how to play scrabble, it’s about being the most joyous version of yourself while still in a school setting.
Extra-curricular opportunities for Black children are deeply important to their educational growth for numerous reasons. Research suggests that “outside experiences have just as much impact on a child’s life as the classroom ones.” They provide students with a safe location to participate in activities they might not get at home or in their neighborhood. They give students the ability to make friendships and connections with students outside their regular classes. They also provide a location where students can continue to be themselves, have some fun, and develop leadership and communication skills.
Three of the senior Word Ninjas are currently mentoring three 9th grade students I have. Many of the Word Ninjas struggled just like them in 9th grade. Through coming regularly to scrabble practice and competition they have developed leadership skills that they are now using to empower the younger version of themselves. They check in with these students regularly, and are encouraging them to participate in an EC like scrabble. I am also pleased to share that two of the Word Ninjas are seriously considering becoming teachers.
One last issue I must mention regarding ECs in schools; asking any teacher to additionally take on running an EC on top of their existing duties is a huge ask. Especially for Black teachers, where retention at many schools is a problem, it is important that schools provide the means, supplies, and encouragement necessary for any teacher to run an after-school program. Teachers should be paid for their time when the club/activity occurs AND their time prepping for it.
Administration should include their leadership in an EC in any evaluation they provide to help remind and thank that teacher for providing their school with educational opportunities outside the normal school hours. And lastly, schools should help fundraise, find grants, and support for helping the EC leader take their students to competitions, events, and field trips. Extra-curricular activities are foundational to any school wishing to build a strong community partnership with its students and families. Those who lead on them deserve the necessary compensation and recognition.