Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Good School: Kayaking

Since I haven't written of a good school in a while, I should explain. The notion of a good school is one I've stolen from James Herndon who wrote The Way it Spozed to Be and two other books about teaching that have never been surpassed. His good schools were in bars, involved dogs with tennis balls, and once took place on a baseball field with a bunch of kids who couldn't play worth a damn. My schools fall into the same kinds of patterns. This is one of my good schools.

I was an instructor at a good school yesterday. It was located at Bear Island in New Hampshire on Lake Winnepesaukee. The student was my daughter and I was her teacher. The lesson was focused on the proper maneuvering of a kayak.

My daughters selected the course of study having seen the kayaks just lying there on shore waiting to be taken out. As with most learning tasks, this seemed easy to them. They had seen kayaks on the water, watched people paddling, imagined themselves doing the same, and modeled the activity using dolls and toy kayaks. They had it all worked out.

Being the instructor and father, I was ready to engage in this teaching experience and we went to the shore, along with the athletic director (one of the owners of the cottage we were visiting) to launch boats. Each girl took up a paddle and got into a boat ready to float away.

Conditions were not perfect. The breeze was up on the lake as was boat traffic and so there were waves. Almost immediately my younger daughter dropped the class, having realized that the kayak hewed more to the laws of fluid dynamics than to her dsesires. I tried to further engage her in the exercise, but she was gone and the class had shrunk, mercifully, to a manageable number of one. My older daughter remained enrolled, struggling against the waves, the kayak, the ungainly paddle and her mounting frustration.

Soon, despite my efforts, she was nearly in tears. The athletic director came out to assist, and though he is an experienced teacher at this and other schools, my daughter couldn't get past her frustration. Soon, she too was headed for shore and, upon arrival, got out of the kayak. She ran toward the woods crying and cursing her teacher. As I pulled the kayaks up on shore, I realized that I had been an ineffective teacher. The realization ate at me. Clearly I had run a bad school.

Our school social worker, the girls' mother, sat on a hammock with my older daughter, calming her. Shortly thereafter, she engaged me in a conference about our student and suggested an IEP and teacher improvement plan. This was good stuff, but like my daughter, I was lost to frustration and not ready yet to modify my plans or imagine teaching this lesson again. She suggested that I wait and see.

School didn't close, but we went on a break for lunch and recess. Then my daughter asked if we could go again. She asked me to talk it through a bit before putting the boat in the water. We did, maneuvering the paddle together as we stood on the shore. She suggested that I then stand in the shallows as she got the feel of the kayak. We put the kayak in the water and I held it as she tried the paddle. Soon she paddled away. I got in a kayak and followed, occasionally assigning homework: paddle three times with your right hand, paddle backward on your left, go to the neighbor's dock.

This second go round was a smashing success. B+ work on her part and reason enough to keep school open another day. I transformed into an effective teacher on little more than the social worker's and my student's advice.

I lay in bed last night considering this and asked my imagined administrators and policy makers, how would one design a paper test to assess my daughter's learning and through that my teaching in this school? Assessing real learning isn't difficult, but designing a paper test for it is. Schools often imagine they are testing learning when they are really assessing something else entirely. My daughter knows that it's a paddle not an oar, but would likely describe the strokes incorrectly if asked to say what would make a right turn. Hell, she would probably mistake her left and right and her score on any such test would likely be middling to poor and so would my teacher effectiveness rating. This would frustrate us enough that we would be inclined to put kayaks in the water and paddle toward and around the island across the way. Me following just behind as she paddled  straight and true to wherever it is she wants to go.

Write on.