Wednesday, August 20, 2008

This I Believe (About Teaching & Learning)

Way back in April, Bill Ferriter of The Tempered Radical tagged me with a meme. Here's the post with his response to the meme. The idea to write a "This I Believe" essay had been rattling around in my head for a long time and this challenge, tying it to my teaching philosophy, gave it the focus it needed to get done. Alas April and May are months that I get so swamped with school work that little else ever gets done. And then came June and vacation time. Then July and the wonderful world of Sun Belt. I finally got it written during an extended workshop with Sun Belt. Then I let some people read it to help me focus it a bit. Then I let it marinate and reread it.

For better or for worse, here is my take on the idea.

I believe that tossing my students into the deep end of an assignment is—sometimes—the best way of getting them to succeed.

When I was four years old, my family moved to South Florida, and my grandparents bought a house with an in-ground pool. I had gotten into it many times, sitting and standing on the steps with my parents or grandparents there to watch over me. I would jump in to them, or pull myself along the wall to them. If I had an inflatable tube around me, I would “swim.” But I wasn’t really swimming and I knew it. I was just pretending. It was fun, yes, but I wanted more.

One day my father and I were out by the pool and I again expressed my desire to learn how to swim—probably for the thousandth time that day. A little exasperated, my father asked me, “Do you really want to learn how to swim?”

In a flash I thought about all the times I had seen him and the other adults in the pool having a good time. I had been in there, imitating them, wanting to do what they were doing. As much fun as they appeared to be having, it still looked a little scary to me, though. At four, the backyard pool was enormous. But I really wanted to, so I answered, “Yes!”

My father said, “Okay,” picked me up, and tossed me in the middle of the deep end of the pool. In seconds I was swimming and dogpaddled my way to the other side.

While that might seem a little harsh, it wasn’t. It was a safe environment; my family was all around. There was support if I needed it; my father was ready to jump in and make sure I wouldn’t drown. I had shown some beginning skill at being in the water, so my father had an idea of what I could do, but knew I had to get over the anxiety of my first try; so, he tossed me in and I got over it like that.

Often in my classes, there are students who are hesitant to start writing. Students who are not sure that they can get off the steps and give up the inflatable tube of worksheets and heavily structured writing assignments. When told to just write, for many of them, it is the equivalent of being thrown in the deep end of the pool.

Sure, it can be a little scary, but we work to create a supportive environment. I am there (as often are other class members) if anyone has real difficulties they need help with—so they don’t wind up drowning in their own thoughts. We start with some more guided assignments first, giving us all an idea of what we are capable of, so I know how to better help them.

And they “swim.” Some produce little “dogpaddles” for days or weeks; others are diving in on their own in no time. And, just as swimmers differ in the way they enter the water, some always content to jump right in others acclimating themselves to the water a bit at a time, students who have found they can write enter assignments differently. Sometime they jump right in, sometimes slowly work themselves into an assignment a bit at a time.

Just as I couldn’t learn how to swim correctly before being exposed to it, before getting a chance to try it out on my own, so my students won’t learn to write any better unless they get to read good examples, talk and write about them, and get a chance to write in a stress-free environment, like a journal.

Eventually I was taught that some of what I was doing in the water wasn’t as effective as it could be. I was shown ways to improve my kicks and taught different strokes. But I spent days and weeks of summer in pools by myself, swimming as I wanted and learning new and better ways on my own as well. Sometimes asking for help, sometimes not.

In the classroom mistakes can be dealt with and the writing can be improved. They learn and practice better usage, different types of writing, different ways of getting from here to there in the ocean of words. More importantly by writing they learn how to help themselves improve. Sometimes they ask for help, sometimes they don’t. They dive more deeply on their own. Swim more freely.

Sometimes they still need to be pushed a little to get them move to a deeper level they are capable of. Sometimes they need to see the strokes performed by one who knows how to do it—by someone who is in there swimming with them. And sometimes they just need to be set free to swim as they please and have a little fun. When they are doing that, they’ve learned the most important lesson I can teach them.

Now I will tag five people with the meme and see what they think:

Whit at both hands
Ted at CyberEnglish
Carla at The English Teacher Blog
Dawn at The Polliwog Journal
Andrew at “the Pierian spring” - ramblings of an English teacher

And, as always, I would be grateful to anyone who chooses to share what they think in the comments section.


Bam Bam Bigelow said...

This, my friend, was an entry worth waiting for! I really enjoyed your connections to your own experiences learning to swim and you caught me from the beginning with an opening that left me wondering whether you were going to horrify me!

Very cool stuff....

Here's an interesting question: Do you think that parents of today are generally supportive or critical of "thrown them in the deep end" instruction?

Most everyone from our generation grew up in a time when self-sufficiency was a respected trait---and when "survival experiences" were valued. Today, though, the protective layers we wrap around children would have left your dad accused of abuse!

Has this made the kinds of jump in feet first learning experiences of earlier times impossible for today?

And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Bill Ferriter

Carla said...

I accepted the challenge, and I'm drafting. My goal is to post a response on Labor Day. (This is, however, my third target date, so we'll see if I can get it done.)

Anonymous said...

Wow. That was both unexpected and delightful. Thank you.

I love the post and will accept the challenge although (yep, here come the excuses) I start work at a new school tomorrow and I expect to be intimately acquainted with the deep end for a while.

Thank you again.