Monday, September 5, 2011

If school were like summer swimming lessons

School's about to begin and there are a lot of inspirational start-of-the-year articles out there on the blogosphere. I'm approaching this year much like my own children. My daughter is eager and excited. She wants to get back to learning new things and seeing old friends. My son is anxious and apprehensive. He will miss the freedom and relaxation that summer brought. I feel both ways. This is my fifteenth year teaching (happy anniversary to me!) but every summer I get those "school dreams" in late August - the ones that show that I worry about the start of school just as some students do.

Ideally, I'd like things to be like the swimming lessons my son took this summer.

During our holiday, my family and I went to Wasaga Beach. While we were there, I noticed that my son really enjoyed the water. If waves tried to push him over, he'd laugh. If water got in his face, he'd shake his head and go right back to playing. I wanted to keep him at arms' length from me but he kept straying away, exploring the bay further. Maybe this is a good time to consider swimming lessons, I thought to myself.

I spoke with a dear friend who is both a fellow teacher and mother. She told me about the private instructor her boys see during the summer. I emailed him and we arranged to give it a try. My son does not participate much in organized extra-curricular activities. We've tried gymnastics and sports in the past and he's participated but never asked to return or shown any enthusiasm for any of the clubs or teams. He showed a bit of concern when we drove up to Ryan's house in a quiet residential neighbourhood ("it's in a house?") but his swim coach was an absolute dream come true and perfect for my boy.

Swimming lessons were twice a week around noon. Ryan was patient and positive. I stayed during the lessons; sometimes I'd read and sometimes I'd watch. It was delightful to hear my son chatting with his teacher and laughing out loud because he was having such a good time. It was amazing to see how his teacher scaffolded the tasks, praising him when he did it correctly, encouraging him when his energy flagged, and describing exactly what he needed to do to improve his bubble-blowing technique. My boy never whined when it was time to go to lessons. Near the final days of summer, my family and I took another trip, this time to Great Wolf Lodge in Niagara Falls, home of a huge water park. My son practiced his bubbles and his "basketball" float while we were in the pool and promised to teach me some of the things Ryan had taught him ("but you need to get goggles like me, Mom" he instructed me).

After the final lesson, Ryan gave me a written description of what my son was doing in the pool. There was no passing or failing, just an account of the things he learned, the things he needed to do to continue getting better, and some suggestions. None of the things his swim coach wrote in the letter was a surprise, as my husband and I both had ample opportunity to see for ourselves. Then, Ryan gave my son a medal for all he had accomplished in his one month series of lessons. Peter wore that medal around his neck all day and we promised we'd pin it to his door like his sister's horse-riding and masquerade competition ribbons.

As I re-read my description, there are so many elements that I would like to see or implement as part of "regular school". Some are silly or wishful thinking, like just going twice a week, attending because you are interested and not required, or having one-on-one instruction. Some aren't possible the way things work in "real life", like watching your own children take class regularly or ignoring grades on a "report card". Many things, however, are do-able with the right attitude. I'll try my best to make this school year just like my son's swimming lessons - a truly positive learning experience - and I hope my children's classroom teachers will do the same.

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