We Are Always Learning

First Grade teacher Valerie Reynolds takes us on a journey of adult learning that, of course, circles back to the children.

As a teacher, we are always making connections between life outside the classroom and time spent with students. Below is a story I wrote about the unexpected things that can happen when we put ourselves in the learner’s chair, and about how we as teachers and adults in a child’s life can cushion learning with compassion.

Tonight’s Lesson…
A story in two voices

Last summer, I rediscovered a love of tennis. I have since wondered, “Why did I ever quit playing?” But the most pondered question is, “WHEN will I play?” I have to get creative sometimes trying to fit it into our family schedule. I do have a couple of places that I like to go to for drills, but one week I decided to check out a new place.

I get to the unfamiliar tennis center and I meet the instructor. He has a friendly smile. Minutes later we are on the court, and he suddenly looks very serious. What happened to the friendly smile I wonder? There are only eight of us. The coach immediately breaks us into two groups and gives directions so quickly that I have no idea what he just said. I know I heard my name for what court to go on, but other than that, I am guessing. I had been playing it safe with lessons for 2.5 level players, but I quickly realized that this is not going to be the same kind of lesson. I now know I will get lots of practice tonight, but will it be what I need?

I started to make a connection between playing “out of my league” and readers reading “out of their league.” The instructor’s tennis vocabulary was a bit unfamiliar to me. He is talking so fast. I am trying to use context clues to fill in the missing pieces. Do I have enough experience to figure out what to do?

One drill seemed easy, but it was actually kind of hard because I wasn’t sure if I should hit the volley hard to win or soft to keep it in play. My teammate and I actually discussed, “…Not too hard, not too soft, but just right!” I immediately thought of my first graders and how we say that usually a book shouldn’t be too hard or too easy, but just right!

How many times have I had that discussion with a young child picking out a book? Each tennis move is like a child plugging away with the text. Sometimes I reach out and surprise myself with a good return. Other times I totally miss it. Readers do the same thing as they reach into their tool bags for a strategy to try.

We rotate courts to begin another drill. I know my partner is better than me. He is friendly and encouraging though. I am grateful. He asks me, “Do you need anything?” “What does that mean?” I wonder. I want to say, “I need to leave!” But instead I just say, “No, just trying to get some good practice. Oh, I might need patience from you though.” He laughs and says, “No problem.” He adds, “I’m a leftie. Can I start on this side?” I make many mistakes in this doubles game, but I am so glad that my serves are ok. When it was over, I thanked him for being a good sport. He said, “Your first serve went in every time.” Wow – he found something encouraging to say even though he knew I was in a little over my head.

When children get in over their heads with a book that is too hard, how do we respond? Do we encourage and support them to try? Or do we immediately tell them to try it another time? Do we scaffold them to succeed? Do we try to find at least one positive thing for that child to apply in other books that he will try? Do we leave our reading time together with an encouraging word?

When our lesson was over, I went to thank the coach. I said, “I think I was playing “up” tonight, but I sure appreciate the practice.” He smiled, and agreed that it was for 3.0 and up… yeah, slight detail I overlooked. He said, “You know, there is another class for 3.0 only on Mondays and Thursdays. That would be great for you.” I immediately thought, “Yes, that sounds JUST RIGHT!”

On my way home, other connections are swirling around in my head. I think of Regie Routman’s book Teaching Essentials and her advice about making time for doing things you love, and how it can enrich your teaching. I feel like I have just put myself in my kids’ shoes – tennis shoes – and have a strong feeling to write it all down. Those connections that we make between reading and writing and our life experiences are all coming together in my head. I feel a mini-lesson forming, and I am so glad I made time for tennis tonight – in more ways than one.

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