Right Start Blog

If Tex Robertson Could See Me Now

By: Becky Amaral
Ms. Amaral shares how a hobby taken up as an adult has taught her many lessons about teaching kids.
Starting after my sixth grade year, I spent two weeks each summer at Camp Longhorn, an idyllic scene started by Tex Robertson who was a former competitive swimmer and swim coach at the University of Texas. Naturally, swimming featured prominently in our camp days and even included “Mile-Swim Day.” I hated the mile-swim. For a non-swimmer like me, it was 42:42 minutes of torture. (That’s accurate data. I looked up my time from that first year; four years later I’d improved to a lightning-quick 42:41). But the mile swim was not optional, and every summer I gutted it out while camp counselors shouted encouragement and the camp cheer, Attawaytogo — and I earned my mile-swim badge.
Since those camp days, I’ve avoided all types of swimming beyond just floating in the water or dangling my feet poolside. So, when one of my running partners said at the end of our fall running season, “A friend of mine is leading an 8-week swim clinic and I think we should do it,” my instinctual, knee-jerk response was, “Nope. Hard pass.” What I managed to say more politely was, “No, thank you - I don’t swim.” But several injuries later, combined with potent encouragement from friends, made me reconsider.
I joined the class, and I learned so much more than how to swim well. Swim class reinforced for me several aspects of good teaching and reminded me about the benefits of being a lifelong learner. Here’s what I took away from swim class, besides a better freestyle stroke:

A challenge is often easier with friends. I was hesitant about swim class, but knowing that I was going with friends made me willing to take the risk. Sometimes we need a buddy to try new things. My friends helped boost my confidence that I could learn to swim.

In the classroom, I try to pair my students up so that they have support for the hard thinking work I’m asking them to do about their reading and writing. As often as possible, I try to incorporate an element of choice for them in partnerships. Partnerships also mean that each student has increased opportunity to practice skills, rather than listening to just one voice at a time in a full class discussion — and the only way to get better at anything is by practicing. Working with a partner they trust makes it more likely that my students will take a risk and try something they may not yet be confident in doing.

Learning anything takes considerable effort and focus. Learning to swim properly is not an easy endeavor. I’m sure I scared my coach the first time he saw me in the water doing my glorified dog paddle. I had to learn everything, and there are so many things to think about all the time: head position, streamlining one’s body, arm angle on entry, kick speed, arm width, breathing … and these were things introduced just on day one. With each length of the pool, the coach told us to focus on just one of these skills.

As I struggled to keep all of this straight in my head that first day, I thought about how my students face similar challenges trying to remember every little rule of grammar and mechanics when they’re writing. Or, as readers, trying to learn to be critical and analytical. These goals take a new kind of focus and concentration — it’s very different from just dashing off a text where proper grammar isn’t necessary, or simply reading for pleasure. Becoming critical readers and technical writers takes work, and doesn’t always yield instantaneous results. This “slow burn” reality can be frustrating when students expect to see big differences immediately. It does all eventually come together—progress requires patience.

Breaking down complex skills into component parts. In the first few classes, our coach introduced several swim drills that broke the freestyle stroke down into individual, component parts. Like focusing on one thing at a time, these drills helped us to improve our overall stroke technique by getting better at each, isolated part. The full stroke is built by combining the component parts.

In the classroom, we isolate skills often. In grammar, we practice one part of speech at time, adding new ones and building on the previous work. When my sixth graders write literary essays, we focus on one aspect of the writing at a time (characters, setting, plot, repeated objects) as they analyze their chosen texts. For the essay work, they’ll pull all of that together to craft a claim and build a theory. In class, as in the pool, it helps to focus on just one skill at a time before we put it all together.

Building on strengths & finding successes to praise. The first thing my swim coach did after watching my humble attempt to swim the length of the pool on that first, cold day in December, was point out - and name in specific terms - what I had done well. His expertise allowed him to identify moments to celebrate and help build my confidence, and it emboldened me to try more and try harder. From there, each coaching tip connected to a skill I owned, so he was building new skills and confidences on my existing framework of swimming successes, no matter how few in number those might be.

I try to keep this in mind with my students as they learn new, more complex grammar skills, become ready to jump into more complicated texts as readers, or try experimenting with more challenging compositions as writers. Learning new things is hard and can feel intimidating, even impossible. Honoring the small accomplishments opens the gateway to future achievements. We have to be able to imagine ourselves into success, and building on and celebrating the strengths we, as learners, have already attained makes that leap of imagination more possible.

Ask for help & work toward independence. Recognizing that my coach had a deep well of knowledge, it would be crazy to not take advantage of the opportunities presented in class and coaching sessions to not ask questions. Otherwise, how could I learn? In addition to my coach, I was surrounded by other swimmers in the class who had more experience than I … and I learned to see each of these classmates as resources. The more I asked for help, the better my stroke became.

For my middle school students, one of the best things I can teach them has little to do with specific English content. Rather, it’s helping them to advocate for themselves and learn how (and when) to ask for help - teaching them how to be independent learners. If I can send them off at the end of their time in my room more comfortable with asking for help, I know that whatever they endeavor to learn in their futures, they’ll go with the ability to get for themselves the support they need to be successful.

Practice, practice, practice. Each swim clinic session began the same - we’d practice the drills to isolate specific components of the stroke, focusing on arm entry, breathing, or the kick. And class ended each time with the coach giving us specific goals for the number of solo swim sessions he expected us to complete between classes. An actual swim performance was rare; most of my time in the water was practice. I had another coach tell me once that “practice makes permanent” — so it’s important that we practice the way we intend to use a skill. Sloppy practice means sloppy performance when it counts.

I try to convey this message to my students every year, also with a sports analogy. When they join a soccer or lacrosse or basketball team, they don’t only have games. Time spent playing the sport is almost all practice. The only way we get better at any skill is through practice. And the way we practice matters. That’s why students need to read and write every day. We can’t expect these skills to suddenly be “game-ready” for only ERBs or final exams; for those performances to go well, our students need to have put in the practice hours over the long term, building the habits they need to continue growing their reading and writing skills.

Practice becomes especially critical over the summer, when students have a tendency to stop reading and writing all together, or read only the few required texts. Not only does their progress stop, it often deteriorates. Hard-won gains earned during a school year must be reacquired when school starts up again in the fall. This “summer slide” is easily avoidable if only students maintained a modest practice schedule of 20 - 30 minutes a day — much less than a typical sports team practice session.

Aim for progress, not perfection. In the close quarters of swim lanes in a pool, maintaining optimism about one’s progress can be stymied by the stark visual of always being the last hand to reach the wall. In class, I had to keep reminding myself that this viewpoint was too myopic and simplistic. It had been more than 35 years since I’d done any stroke-specific swimming; expectations that I’d suddenly be awesome were unrealistic. What I could aim for, though, was progress. Was I getting more comfortable in the water? Yes. Was my form improving with each practice session? Absolutely. Was my stroke perfect? Nope. Far from it. But, was I gaining confidence and actually seeing myself as a swimmer? You bet.

Kids need this messaging too. Not everyone excels at each individual academic subject, but all can improve. No teacher expects students to strive for perfection; we all are here to encourage and support their learning process, celebrating the progress made along the way.
I recently read Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent book on his year spent challenging himself to learn five skills that had no purpose other than the pleasure of learning them. In many ways, Vanderbilt’s book affirmed my learning to swim experience. I wasn’t great at it, but I made progress. I had a sense of accomplishment as I set new markers on my “personal best” list - like completing my first ever indoor triathlon (transitions left much to be desired, but I finished!); trying my first open-water swim (and avoiding the jellies); simply knowing that I’d tried something that felt difficult, met the challenge where I was a learner, and gained both skill and confidence.
And, if Tex Robertson were here, I’d hear him cheering, ATTAWAYTOGO!

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