COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (May 12, 2016) – Seven years ago U.S Women’s National Volleyball Team middle Christa Dietzen (Hopewell Township, Pennsylvania) was in a classroom student teaching at Yapton Elementary School in southern England finishing up her elementary education degree from Penn State University before joining the U.S. Women’s National Team in April 2009.
Dietzen has gone on to win silver at the 2012 Olympic Games and was captain of Team USA’s gold-medal winning 2014 FIVB World Championship team. She is working towards a second Olympic Games berth as one of the veterans of the current Olympic cycle for the top-ranked team in the world.
As her national team and international volleyball career is winding down, Dietzen has been back in the classroom, albeit in an online world through the Classroom Champions initiative. From its website, Classroom Champions “believes kids have what it takes and that all students deserve to learn the skills of success. Sometimes they just need a champion to help them.” The Classroom Champions program, which started with the 2009-10 school year and focuses on kindergarten through eighth grade students in publicly funded schools, has athlete mentors joining teachers in their efforts to help students thrive. Mentors help students identify and accomplish their dreams using skills such as goal setting, perseverance, team work, community mindedness and other topics.
Dietzen got connected to the Classroom Champions program through Heather Bown, a three-time U.S. Olympic Women’s Volleyball Team member and silver medalist at the 2008 Olympic Games.
“I got connected with Heather through an event last spring,” Dietzen said. “She knew I was an elementary education major and what a great opportunity to connect back to the classroom. Her good friend Giddeon Massie, an Olympic indoor cyclist, is the program manager of Classroom of Champions. I was connected with him, and that is how it got started with the program.”
Dietzen’s interest in the program was sparked because it was a year-long project. While she has been a guest speaker at schools in the past, this program allowed her to be an invested partner in educating students.
“My number-one goal was to be able to give back to a classroom,” Dietzen said. “Classroom Champions provides a rare opportunity to create a relationship with them beyond a one-time speaking engagement. I really wanted to be connected throughout a full school year and continue to build upon these lesson. It is great to have the ability to interact with the students through a Google community group, a private group where teachers post videos or classroom work all related to the topics. We can kind of see what they have captured. It’s special to watch these videos, read the different comments to see how students responded to the lessons and how they are implementing them.”
Knowing her playing career is nearing an end, Dietzen is already thinking ahead where a classroom may be her new court.
“I am definitely starting to think about that,” Dietzen said. “I am coming toward the end of my playing career. I think it is nice to be re-connected to a classroom and know I still enjoy that, to see that could be a potential option. I have been out of that world for eight-plus years since training. I think it was important to be re-connected where schools and kids constantly changing and growing. That helps me to be re-connected back to elementary and middle schools and see where kids are eight years later.”
As an athlete living most of the winter and spring overseas in Istanbul, Turkey, playing for her club team Fenerbahce, time commitments and even time zone differences were worked out throughout the year to enable her to take part in the program from August to May.
“Each month we have a specific topic that Classroom Champions outline for us,” Dietzen said. “For example, one month was courage, one month was teamwork, one month was honesty. All these values that are important to teach to kids at a young age, and I was able to relate my own experiences to a lesson outlined that Classroom Champions had given me. I would make these videos using iMovies and various other media outlets and send them on, then they edit them and forward to classrooms.”
Making video lessons was only one facet of her involvement with Classroom Champions. As a mentor, she was part of the interactive phase with each of her classrooms.
“I was assigned three classrooms,” Dietzen said. “It takes 30 minutes to an hour every month to record lesson videos. We are also connected to these classrooms twice using a Google Hangout for 30 minutes twice a year. It is not a huge time commitment, but very rewarding.
“I think this is an ideal program because it allows Olympic athletes to be connected to classrooms more than a one-time thing,” Dietzen said. “It reaches the next generation of the Olympic movement.”
Dietzen has plenty of memories from the year-long program, but one lesson in particular stands out to her.
“I taught a lesson on courage a few months ago,” Dietzen said. “My theme was ‘Courage over Comfort,’ something that we on the National Team talk a lot about. Kids are put in uncomfortable situations all the time at a young age, maybe they have fears or are faced with difficult moment or choice that they are trying cope with or overcome. My classrooms actually shared their fears or a moment they chose courage over comfort over this Google community group. I think that was a very vulnerable thing for them to do, but something very encouraging to me that they are understanding the importance of continuing to choose courage and push through tough situations.”
Dietzen has also been able to tie volleyball and the lessons that she has learned from the sport into her Classroom Champions lesson plans.
“One of our final lessons was teamwork,” Dietzen said. “We teach a lesson through talking points given by Classroom Champions, then tie own experiences into the lessons to make it personable. At the end, you give the kids a challenge. My challenge to the students was to come up with a mission statement, which we have done on the National Team. The idea was to share the importance of all working towards a similar goal or purpose. That was awesome to have the class brainstorm, a similar process that our national team went through, for their own mission statement.”