Basketball Brings Students Together, On Court & In Classroom

Action was heating up under the Red Hawk Rockets’ basket. Emma Cassiday passed the ball to Sam Shepard, who seemed unsure what to do with it.

“Shoot! Shoot!” Emma exclaimed. But Sam did not shoot, passing to another player instead. Next time down the court, Emma passed to him again. This time, Sam did shoot. The ball didn’t go in, but his confidence may have gone up.

In this Special Olympics basketball tournament, the Cedar View Elementary Project UNIFY team ended up winning both games, against teams from Hudsonville and Grandville. That was a big deal, celebrated with streamers and treats when the students returned to their classroom in Cedar Springs.Working together on an anti-bullying poster are (from left) A.J. Gates Joshua Vick and Emma Cassiday

But the bigger deal happens between games. That’s where special education students work together with general education students on classroom projects and basketball skills. By the time they hit the court for games, they are a team in more than shooting hoops.

“They get to know each other in the classroom,” said Chris Lesley, a special-education teacher and Special Olympics coordinator. “When they go to the basketball court, that cooperation falls into place.”

For the cognitively impaired students, she added, “It’s another avenue to get success. Some of them struggle academically. Put a basketball in their hands and they make a shot – all that disappears.”

Teaming Up Against Bullying

Project UNIFY is a program of Special Olympics aimed at promoting inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities in school activities. By teaming students with and without disabilities in sports, leadership roles and school-wide activities, it seeks to foster acceptance, respect and dignity. It operates in more than 2,000 schools with as many as 500,000 students.

Cedar Springs fields fourSpecial Olympics unified basketball teams, including two in the middle school and one in high school. Teams play five to eight games per season. High school teams potentially can compete in state tournaments.

Students take to the court in shifts of two general-education students alongside three special-education athletes. While all students compete, only the special-education players shoot the ball. And though score is kept, fans cheer for every basket on both teams.

Teacher and coach Chris Lesley gives a pep talk to Emily Straub, Collin Mills and other players

“It’s beautiful when you see it work,” says Lesley, herself a former player in high school. “The whole gym erupts. It’s so cool.”

It’s also cool to see the students working alongside each other in class.

In Lesley’s classroom, a dozen cognitively impaired fourth- and fifth-graders are joined every other week by eight fifth-graders. They spend half an hour on class projects and another half an hour practicing in the gym.

On a recent Friday morning, students made anti-bullying posters to be hung throughout the school. General-education students Emma Cassiday and A.J. Gates worked with Joshua Vick to write positive messages around a bright orange basketball.

“OK, so what else do you want to add?” Emma asked. Offered Joshua, “What about ‘Don’t give up’?” He wrote it on the poster.

Nearby, Lesley’s student Zoe Gonzales worked with three others on a poster packed with phrases like “Be nice” and “Be a buddy not a bully.”

“We feel good about it,” Zoe said. “When we work together, we are respectful to others.”

Later, after basketball practice, Calvin Hammerstrom said proudly, “I made a shot. It’s so fun shooting hoops.”

Winning in More Ways than One  

The companionship engendered among students in her class often carries over into the lunch room, art class and recess, Lesley said.

“When you see them together, you can’t pick them out” from each other, she said. “That’s my goal, is when they’re collaborating with their peers, sacrificially.”

Two weeks later the students collaborated on the basketball court, in a tournament at Caledonia High School. Parents, grandparents and students cheered loudly in the stands.  

Cedar View players get ready to shout “respect the Hawks!” after their winJustin Aurich had a hot hand, making several baskets. A big cheer went up from the Hawks’ bench when Mason Ford sank one. Other students shot several times in a row, with players on either side handing them the ball to give it another try.

Cedar View fifth-grade teacher Joan Boverhof watched her students play alongside Lesley’s, and spoke of how their interaction sets a tone for the entire school.

“The kids start to see the ways they’re alike more than the ways they’re different,” Boverhof said. “It gives kids a different possibility of a way to serve. They see it as a privilege.”

After the Cedar View team won both games, they huddled and shouted, “Respect the Hawks!” Then they feasted on pizza.

Lesley beamed not just over their victories on the court, but over what the experience meant to the students. For them, she said, “It’s more than a basketball game.”

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Special Olympics Project UNIFY

Cedar View Elementary School

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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