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Cool Schools: Elementary teacher inspiring students through football-themed teaching

DOWAGIAC, Mich. –

Jonathan Leazenby has been teaching first grade at Patrick Hamilton Elementary for thirteen years, but he’s loved football his whole life.

With a goal to teach with his heart, he decided to incorporate football into his teaching in hopes it would engage his students.

“He talks to them a lot about having a fire and a passion and a spirit about learning, and the kids leave there being excited about learning,” said Heather Nash, principal of Patrick Hamilton Elementary.

Now Leazenby’s classroom is filled with maize and blue for the University of Michigan, and at times sounds more like a football field than a classroom. 

It all started about seven years ago when Leazenby decided to use what inspires him in the classroom. For him, that was music.

“I love music. I’ve got a very musical family and music inspires me,” he said.

But he's also a huge University of Michigan fan.

So he started to brainstorm a way to combine music with his lifelong passion for Michigan football.

“One goal I have as a teacher is to make sure the kids know how to read well,” said Leazenby. “And to make sure that they know that reading is not just a class for whatever amount of time you spend in school. Reading is everywhere, and it’s intertwined into everything we do.”

His solution was to write out the lyrics to The Victors, Michigan’s fight song, and lead his kids in singing. While they read along to the lyrics, they march around a rug with an image of Michigan’s football field.  

“When you show kids that one of their favorite songs, you can actually read the lyrics to it, they get really fired up about that,” Leazenby said.

Leazenby carries the Michigan theme to other areas in his classroom. He teaches math by having the kids do football drills. From up-downs to fast feet and high knees, he has the kids count out how many they’ve done, and how many they have yet to do.

“They’re counting on to find the missing number, which is a standard I have,” said Leazenby.

He also has what he calls the "Wolverine Writers" that displays the student's best writing through the year. The writing is displayed with a picture of the child's face, and a jersey made from blue construction paper. 

Nash says when Leazenby first came to her with his idea to incorporate Michigan football in the classroom, he was so fired up about it that she couldn’t say no.

“I think that any time that anybody has a passion that they want to share with the kids that makes the kids want to learn more,” she said. “As much as some of the students maybe aren’t University of Michigan fans in that classroom, they see how much he loves it and they learn to at least appreciate it.”

She says, the class is a motivator for the students. And they know that Leazenby, or Mr. L as they call him, puts action behind his words.

“One thing I really like about Mr. L is that he wants to prove himself,” said Ella Richter, one of the students in Leazenby’s class. “Like he doesn’t just want to say it, he has to prove it…”

Now, he’s working to prove that believing in yourself can make dreams come true.

Back in December, Leazenby started what he calls the “Jim Harbaugh Project.” He made a video and posted it on social media showcasing his Michigan themed teaching, and asking Michigan’s football coach Jim Harbaugh to come visit.

That video has now been shared nearly 600 times and has 37,000 views on Facebook.

He also wrote a letter to Michigan’s athletic director, and his students wrote to the football team.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” said Leazenby. He says he hopes this shows the kids to chase their dreams.

The school’s administration is now rallying behind the project, and is sending someone to go to the University of Michigan and ask if Harbaugh would be willing to make a visit.

If that happens, Nash says Leazenby would be over the moon.

“It would be a bucket list thing for him and I hope we can make it happen,” she said.


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