What I Learned about Teaching Writing from Swim Lessons

Although this post isn’t what I intended to write today, it is the post that needs to be written today. Nate is a good friend of my husband and mine. He is quite simply amazing. He is 20 years old and every time I’m around him I learn something that makes me a better person. What makes Nate even more genuine is he is not perfect. He is a typical college guy — at least on the surface he seems that way. Once you know him, you realize there is something remarkable about him. Today’s post is all about what I’ve learned by watching him teach our kids swim lessons this summer.

  • Get in the pool. Nate was a competitive swimmer. He knows how to swim well, so he can teach in a richer way. As writing teachers, we need to put words on paper. It gives a deeper insight into how to teach writing well.
  • Teach one thing. After watching a swimmer he gave one suggestion to make the stroke better — Keep your legs straight, Get your elbows out of the water, OR Put your whole face in the water. He wouldn’t demand all of those things, just the ONE most pressing.
  • Model. With every piece of verbal instruction, Nate also showed what it would look like. He did this almost every time. He was constantly modeling.
  • Give lots of encouragement. High fives, thumbs up, and verbal encouragement were as much a part of his time as anything else. When someone was nervous or didn’t think they could do something his response was, “Sure you can, watch me. Now let me help you. Just do this one part . . . ” Then after the attempt he celebrated with them until they were going to crack from smiling with pride.
  • Adjust to different personalities. My oldest daughter is sensitive and wants to please people. Nate’s work with her was quiet, gentle, and non-stop encouragement. My middle daughter is the complete opposite. Nate would yell across the pool to her. He was a little more “in her face” and demanding. She responded better to this kind of interaction. After each accomplishment Nate would offer her a high-five and lots of encouragement. My son is four and ornery. Nate once again adjusted his teaching. He would splash back, do things to make him laugh, and tease more. The encouragement was still always there.
  • Give everyone else time to practice while you work one on one. Nate would take one person to the other end of the pool while everyone else was able to practice in the shallow end. Although the kids left in the shallow end weren’t always “on task,” they were in the pool and that was what mattered. Nate wanted them to enjoy being in the water.
  • Smile. Nate smiled a lot. When kids accomplished something, when they refused, when they were nervous, Nate smiled. Nate loved swimming and he loved kids. He couldn’t help but smile. Smiling goes a long way and we should do this more when teaching writing.
  • Set boundaries. When kids did something they weren’t suppose to, they paid the consequence. He made his explanations clear and the consequence for crossing a boundary evident up front. And since he was clear and no one wanted to sit out of the water during practice time, they did what was expected.
  • Give challenges. Laced with the encouragement was a constant challenge. Since Nate is a swimmer himself, he is able to constantly push each person to become stronger.
  • Give a small amount of whole group instruction and a lot of time for practice. His instruction with the whole group was a matter of minutes. Then he watched them all attempt the teaching point. Then he would call them together and refine his instruction. He never “instructed” for more than a few minutes at a time. He knows learning happens by doing.
  • Teach the big things first. From a distance I would watch kids attempting the different strokes. Although I know how to swim (I was a life guard throughout college), I don’t have the same kind of training as Nate. I would watch an attempt and think “Where do you even begin to teach?” However, Nate would pinpoint one thing that would make a difference. Ignoring everything else, he would say, “Good job, now this time would you try ______?” He made his teaching important by focusing on the things that would make the biggest difference.
  • Ignore the mess. Learning something new can be messy. Nate ignored the mess. Instead he focused on encouragement and teaching one thing. As a writing teacher I need to ignore the mess a little more.
  • End with fun. The end of each session involved jumping off the diving board. For the little kids they jumped into Nate’s arms. Nothing is more fun than boinging off a diving board into the deep and either swimming to the side or being caught by someone special.
  • Give a reminder at the very end. As they were drying off, he would say to each person, “Now what are you going to think about until you come back?” He would give one reminder. The really big thing he expected of each person.
  • Celebrate BIG from time to time. At the end of all the lessons, we had a pool party. Nate played in the water with them. Tossed them, tipped them off of floaties, let them hang from his strong arms, showed them back dives, and made waves in the pool until their giggles left them breathless. He also arranged for his mom to make brownies, complete with gummy worms. We sat around a table by the pool and talked, laughed, and joked.

I am a better teacher because of Nate. These lessons will go with me into classrooms next year.