A music teacher at a South Florida elementary school is striking a positive chord with his students — using sports cards to teach life lessons.
For seven years, Nate Adams has been teaching at West Riviera Elementary School, “one of the most challenging schools to teach at in Palm Beach County.” Academically, since 1999 the school has had three failing grades — most recently in the 2009-10 year — six “D” and six “C” grades. The school got a “B” in 2008-09.
Reaching kids and enforcing positive behavior can be a challenge. Adams, 29, came up with the idea to use sports cards in an incentive program and as a way to stop bullying.
“Some of the kids here lacked parental involvement,” Adams said. “I’d come up with different behavioral systems.”
Adams had been buying and selling sports cards in his spare time on eBay. A passionate collector of T-206 cards, he got his start in the hobby when his father bought him a 1990 Score baseball set (“worthless, but I still have it”).
“I’d talk about how as a side business i began buying and selling old baseball cards to make extra money, and the kids were very interested,” Adams said. “I’d tell them, ‘you all can do this too, maybe not with baseball cards, but with something else and start your own business.’ ”
Adams began bringing baseball, football and basketball cards to school, nearly 9,000 of them. Students who had a good day in his classroom and exhibited positive behavior would be rewarded in a point system. Students that earned 20 points would receive cards. The cards themselves had little value on the open market, but paid dividends for the students. For many at his school, receiving anything is a small treasure.
“Other kids would say, ‘How do you get a card?’ ” Adams said. “And they’d say, ‘No, you don’t get a card, you have to earn it.’
Since beginning his cards for points program five years ago, Adams has rewarded more than 1,000 students.
Some of the students were given cards because they were bullied. If a student was targeted, Adams allowed him or her to choose any card. If the bully continued to pester the student, more cards were given to the affected child. A student who politely stood up for a bullied student also would receive a card.
In one case, a second grader who was getting picked on was given an entire box of cards.
Soon, the bully would get the message.
For some students, negativity had been ingrained since kindergarten. Adams’ method was more positive.
“Anyone who’s been a parent knows that positive reinforcement works better than anything else,” Adams said. “You look them in the eye and tell them what they did right.”
While many take their cards home, trade them with others (“it’s like a time warp”), Adams also marvels at some of his students’ resourcefulness.
“One told me that he sold some cards at a pawn shop down the street and got a buck,” he said. “I thought that was pretty cool.”
Some students who aren’t interested in cards will, at Adams’ suggestion, barter them.
“It’s pretty funny seeing a kid trade a basketball card for a few Cheetos,” he recalled.
One of the more popular cards among the students: Atlanta Falcons kick and punt returner Devin Hester, a Riviera Beach native who also attended West Riviera Elementary.
Several years ago, Adams posted on Net54, asking for some help. Generous members responded with boxes of cards, all of them going from collecting dust to playing a remarkably important role in the development of at risk young people.
“There are certain kids who have shown marked improvement and have literally changed their futures,” he wrote on the message board.
Sports and music have always been a part of Adams’ life. Born in Racine, Wisconsin, Adams moved to Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, a month shy of his 13th birthday. His parents were worship ministers, meaning that they used contemporary worship or Christian music to minister to the congregation. Adams played sports, but also sang and played the piano.
After graduating from The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, where he played basketball (guard), Adams attended college at the University of Miami. He studied vocal performance but decided to move closer to home, transferring to Palm Beach Atlantic College, and graduated with a degree in music.
He met his wife Kristin at the West Palm Beach school, and after several years of dating they were married in November 2011. They are expecting their first child in February 2016.
In addition to his teaching, Adams is the co-director of choir and band at Memorial Presbyterian Church in West Palm Beach. His wife, a third grade teacher at Pine Jog Elementary in West Palm, is director of the children’s ministry at the church.
Adams is a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Chicago Cubs. “My dream is to sing at Wrigley,” he said.
Music does not trump his baseball loyalty, however. Several years ago, Adams was invited to sing the national anthem at a Cardinals-Mets spring training game at Roger Dean Stadium in nearby Jupiter. He decided to wear his Cubs shirt, but Cardinals officials told him he had to take it off in order to sing. Adams refused and the Cardinals threatened to play a recording instead.
“In a moment of honest confidence and perhaps arrogance, I said ‘Well, you can do that, but everyone will miss out on a passionate version of the anthem,’ ” he said. The Cardinals backed down and Adams gave a rousing rendition.
The best part of this standoff, Adams said, was that comedian Jerry Seinfeld was attending the game.
“If you’re a fan (of his TV show), you’ll remember when Elaine was told to take off her Orioles cap because she was sitting in the (Yankees) owner’s seats,” he said. “She refused, citing that it was a free country.”
Adams later heard that Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa was upset that he was allowed to sing with his Cubs shirt on.
“If I ever am able to verify that, it’ll make my life,” he said.
Adams’ sister-in-law teaches at Jupiter Middle School, where many of West Riviera’s graduates are bused. Students still recall the teacher who gave them cards for good citizenship and hard work, the guy whose dream is to have a baseball field constructed on the east side of the West Riviera campus.
One student still carries a letter that Adams wrote to him after the boy graduated from the fifth grade.
“They’ll come back,” Adams said. “No one has said ‘you have changed my life,’ but they said they remembered.
“You hope that if you can save one student and change their life, then that’s a lot — not trying to sound cliché,” Adams said.
With a new school year just beginning, Adams would like to start the term on a high note. He said any donations are appreciated and even offered reasons to online collectors who might be able to help including:
- Incentive for many students to make better choices while at school — if only for the reason that they realize there is a teacher willing to show enough interest to reward them when they actually DO do something right. Many of the most challenging kids are ones that only hear about what they do wrong, so much so, that is what becomes their identity.
- Their excitement level when they get to pick out a card is unreal, just like when we would go with our dads, brothers, or whomever to open up a pack, or go home and sift through the cards we already had.
- These kids are growing up in a generation where collecting cards isn’t as widespread, and many of them keep all the cards I’ve given them, and begin to organize and put them in groups. (Sound familiar?). He’s given some old 9-pocket pages I had to some kids as well so that they can organize them.
There are no condition requirements, and cards can be shipped in any kind of box. The address:
West Riviera Elementary School
Attn: Nate Adams
1057 W. 6th St.
West Palm Beach, FL 33404
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