Linking Literacy and Lacrosse With Teacher/Coach Liam (Part II)

This is the second post in a two part series on ways to connect sports, literacy, coaching and teaching. Please click here to read the first post. 

When asked how he has used lacrosse as a way to engage kids in literacy and literature, Liam (4th/5th grade teacher; lacrosse coach) said that City Lax has done a good job with selecting literature that is both culturally relevant and interesting for middle school aged student-athletes. Liam and his team have read Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky and Charlie Hernandez and the League of Shadows. Both books have characters who young student-athletes can relate to, while also connecting to important historical and cultural content. 

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.             Charlie Hernandez

Summer 2021 

During their first Summer Academy, the academic sessions centered around the creation of lacrosse and the history of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. They discussed the cultural background and roots of lacrosse and the history of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations. The timeline led up to what current professional lacrosse players from the Six Nations do both on and off the field. They also read articles on Zed Williams (photo below right) a strong role model in his community, and Lyle Thompson (photo below left) and what he does off the field for the Indigenous Movement Every Child Matters, in the wake of the findings at Indigenous “reform” schools in Canada. Specifically, the student-athletes learned about how Haudenosaunee players have been fighting for the right to be seen as a legitimate nation because they’ve been barred from competition and tournaments in the past because they did not meet the “qualifications” of being a nation. Additionally, student-athletes learned about Oren Lyons and the many hats he has worn as a leader of the Onondaga Nation. He is a larger than life figure, was an All-American lacrosse player alongside Jim Brown, and is now a professor, faith-keeper and prominent artist with a message of peace and preservation. They took a field trip to the Colorado Art Museum and toured the Native American exhibit on display and learned about current Haudenosaunee players in the professional league. The experience taught them that the Haudenosaunee community and culture is still thriving today, and combats the myth that American Indian culture and history is gone. Then they had the opportunity to see many of the players compete at the professional level in Denver. Eric Law, one of the directors of the program who also plays professionally, provides free tickets to all the players interested in going to the games when they are hosted in Denver. It is powerful for the student-athletes to see people in person who they learned and wrote about. Their work culminated with a student-choice project on a favorite lacrosse player. The student-athletes gravitated towards stories about Players of Color, so we provided magazine articles and websites that highlight players of color, such as the Black Lacrosse Alliance

Lyle Thompson.     Zed Williams

Summer 2022

During the second summer, Liam and his student-athletes read the Young Readers’ Edition of Hidden Figures, which many of the student-athletes enjoyed - particularly the girls group. They supported each other and called out everyone and everything in the book that was socially unjust and unfair. They carved out time to read, reflect, and discuss the book in small groups, which yielded animated discussion and interest, particularly because of the popularity of the movie! They watched the movie as a whole group on their last day together. The overlap between the book and lacrosse lies in Hampton, Virginia, a key location in the story. In college lacrosse, only one HBCU, Hampton University, has a Division 1 program (photo below: 2024 Team). The other overlap lies in the fact that both lacrosse and the STEM world are historically dominated by wealthy white men. The efforts of the women in Hidden Figures broke down those barriers, and the women in City Lax have the potential to do the same. While reading the book, they took a day to travel to Lincoln Hills, whose history is closely tied to segregation in America. Lincoln Hills was created as an outdoor vacation spot for People of Color, particularly African Americans, when Denver and other outdoor vacation spots were segregated and barred to them. 

Rod Allison, City Lax Director, created a book as a tool to spread the message that lacrosse is for everyone. This book also provides an ideal way to introduce lacrosse to schools. Come in, read a story about lacrosse, then head to the gym for a clinic! For the last two years at school, City Lax has partnered with the Denver Men’s lacrosse program to read with the kids then run a clinic for the students in their gym. Similarly, their elementary summer academy read Willis and the Magic Stick then Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. Both books promote a message of lacrosse bringing everyone together, that each person possesses unique abilities that make them special to the team, and a message of unity and peace from the original founders of the game: The Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

Hampton Lax Crop

Favorite Moments

When asked to recount a favorite story or comment by the kids, Liam shared that he finds joy in the small moments and interactions at City Lax; however, there are two incredible brothers who he worked with over the years that he wanted to discuss. The oldest brother is currently a freshman at CU Boulder and is the first member in his family to go to college. For his junior and senior year, they put lacrosse and writing together by focusing their tutoring time on reading articles on Players Tribune, or relevant lacrosse topics he was interested in such as how to bridge the racial and opportunity gap in a game like lacrosse or hockey. This past fall, Liam worked with his younger brother, who is also a bright and diligent student. They primarily focused on writing his college essay. He, too, will be attending CU Boulder, along with his brother. Liam loves working with these guys on connecting topics of interest with writing. He is particularly moved by what these two young men do because they also work at the City Lax Summer Academy. To see them work so hard to make it themselves, then to come back and be so patient with the younger students who need some support with Hidden Figures is really incredible. These brothers set a great example.

Another favorite moment happened after reading Willis and the Magic Stick, which has a few pages on the topic of the Onondaga Nation’s connection with lacrosse. After reading Hiawatha and the Peacemaker, written by Robbie Robertson, a legendary rock star with The Band, whose mother is Cayuga and Mohawk, they spent a day watching videos of lacrosse highlights from Zed Williams and the Thompson brothers, listening to the stories and observing the art of Oren Lyons. Finally, they watched part of the Last Waltz, a documentary on the Band, led by Robbie Robertson. Liam said it was awesome to sit back and see kids immersed in the highlights and art and jamming out with a bunch of kids, just like his brothers showed him when he was younger, watching Robertson at his Grandma’s house.

Willis        Hiawatha

Liam really enjoys the crossover between school and lacrosse, especially in the summer. It’s nice to see kids in a different light, away from school, but still in a focused setting. He loves building relationships with them, where they can see a different side of each other. Liam believes it is important to see them be successful in an area outside of the classroom.

Finally, a special moment occurred when the Denver University Men’s Lacrosse team partnered with Liam’s school, Annunciation Catholic School. They had the whole team in first through fifth grade, reading Willis and The Magic Stick, and then they went to the gym for a clinic. It was really moving, out of this world, to look around and see guys who Liam worked with for years with City Lax, walking around the school, helping out and making this happen. Then seeing guys who he coached with during the summer with Denver Elite, both the coaches and the college players, in the different classes having a blast with their students. For a long time, Bill Tierney (Denver’s coach) has been one of the most legendary names in lacrosse and when Liam was younger, he and his brothers idolized him. Bill Tierney started his career as a teacher. When Liam began coaching, he listened to every podcast he was on. Then, to have him in Liam’s class, looking around, taking everything in with a smile on his face, seeing young City Lax student-athletes, and commenting on what was going on, was a sacred experience.

Final Words on City Lax

Liam believes there are a lot of things that City Lax does really well, such as being year-round, which allows for higher engagement and closer bonds to be built within the community. The City Lax office is consistently a home base for a lot of kids to practice and get work done. It is not just a one time thing in the spring season. This also sets kids up for success because oftentimes the barrier to success is that a lot of teams and players have to pay for extra practices, to be on more than one team, and pay for trainers and specialization of skill development. City Lax can continue to support players free of charge, to continuously focus on improvement. 

City Lax also brings back older student-athletes who are working professionals and played City Lax in their younger years, to work with kids on reading and lacrosse. The younger student-athletes really connect to the older student-athletes, who have the sway and influence to push them to grow as people. For instance, the female counselors for the last couple of summers have had a really positive impact on the middle school girls group, and they took a lot of pride in being “the best” group at camp week after week. The female counselors bought into the program and did a great job of building a strong, inclusive, caring team culture. Similarly, many of the men who come back to help out the younger groups have such a positive influence on the kids. Representation matters in a game like lacrosse, and the older students and young professionals show them the way. They have such a positive and caring rapport with the kids and the families. 

The sports world has a lot of opportunities and people who want to see kids be successful. Lacrosse pulls kids in. Liam believes we can pull a kid into the world of lacrosse, and while they’re there, take time to read, develop strong writing skills, and balance those critical literacy skills with communal lacrosse time.

City Lax does a good job of partnering with community outreach programs and sharing what they do with the community, so people around Denver are always looking to get involved with the work they do. Liam thinks this opens up the door for a lot of success and higher interest, like seeing how books are published at companies such as Yellow Dog or partnering with other lacrosse teams such as Regis, Valor, and Cherry Creek for clinics.