by Leslie McBane
Is it just me, or can every life experience find an apt metaphor in Reading Recovery teaching and learning? Cooking, for instance — the kitchen as a staging ground for “assembling working systems.” People-watching during a lengthy airport layover — “observing and hypothesizing” during behind-the-glass sessions. And don’t even get me started on an “economy of words” — always helpful during spirited conversations with a significant other.
So, since my mind cannot help drawing comparisons (and aren’t we champions of analogous thinking?), when I started taking golf lessons this summer I found myself thinking of all the ways in which learning to golf can be like learning to read and write. If you prefer, it seems to be about the teaching of these complex tasks as well.
Many of you remember Julia Douetil’s fine JRR article in the fall of 2003, Ringing Recovery: The Experience of a Slow Learner Engaging in a Complex Process. Douetil likened the complex task of learning English bell ringing to Reading Recovery theory and practice. Read it this summer, if you haven’t done so, or read it again. Her engaging and masterful description of the complexity of the cognitive challenges in both endeavors is a treat!
What you’re getting here, on the other hand, is a raw and clumsy attempt to describe the highs and lows of learning along with a plea for each of us to attempt new things occasionally so that we can empathize with our students.
I embarked on my golfing journey because we recently joined a club and my husband has golfed nearly all his life. He purchased a set of clubs for me and we secured a pro to begin my instruction. Lesson one, teaching complex tasks to struggling learners, requires the most skilled instructors – not paraprofessionals like my husband. Plus, we like each other and after 37 years we hope to remain on the best of terms.
Starting to golf was much like a novice reader opening The Hippo in the Hole and wondering why her alphabetic skills were so inadequate for the task. I mean, do you know how many clubs are in the bag? What are they all for? A tennis player manages quite well with one racket. Is this how children feel when they are bombarded by the sheer number of words on the page? Or consider the teacher completing Assessment Training. How can one manage the standard administration of six different tasks, not to mention the complexity of running record coding and scoring?
But back to golf. Armed with my new set of clubs (we didn’t overdo it pricewise – my husband is an eternal pragmatist) I arrived bravely at my first scheduled lesson. Caleb, the pro, was kind and confident both in his ability to teach me and in my ability to learn (another lesson here that goes without mentioning).
He wisely gave me three things to remember:
1. keep my left arm as straight as I could for as long as I could
2. keep my head down
3. and follow through.
Genius. Is that all there is? Heavens no! But that’s all I needed at the time, and it made me think: is too much information for the learner too much? Too much to digest, too much to integrate, too distracting from the task at hand (i.e., getting the message of the story). Or in my case, actually hitting the ball?
I felt buoyed by that first encounter. Yes, Leslie, you too will be able to golf! But alas, there was another lesson and another. And guess what? I got worse. Think of it as all going well at levels 3 and 4 and then at 7 and 8 where there is actual work beginning to happen, the bottom falls out. I’m talking integration.
You see, Caleb, in a subsequent lesson, broke the mechanics of the swing down for me, step by step. Think “stop at the point of error, reread, notice the first part…” you get the idea. The trouble is, you can’t swing in discrete steps. The very term itself suggests one continuous motion! Again, my analogous mind was working (even though my swing wasn’t). Sometimes, when we break down strategic action into “strategies,” children become mired in the steps, and the purpose of reading (“a meaning making problem solving activity”) can become obscured. Or, procedures taught to teachers in our training classes can become the focus, rather than responsive, contingent teaching using those procedures.
If you are little tired of golf at this point, I’m right there with you. But, stick with me a little longer because I gleaned a few more lessons out of my feeble attempts at this complex game. Each golf course is unique – there are no duplicates. But the tennis court remains the same the world over. I sound rather angry about tennis. Sorry. On golf courses, diabolical people move the pin around from time to time – you are never playing the exact same hole. This variation also has parallels in our Reading Recovery world. We ensure that children read many different books within a gradient of increasing challenge and we are careful to teach children to read, not just to read the book we’ve introduced that day.
Golf is all about efficiency. We’re after the lowest score, right? We want the drive straight down the fairway, the approach shot lofted onto the green and the short game is the most challenging of all. (A friend admonished: drive for show; putt for dough, He’s right). In teaching, our moves should be succinct and to the purpose, wasting no unnecessary time. We are constrained by the 30 minute lesson, by 12-20 weeks, and by the “clearest, most memorable example.”
Finally, I spend lots of time at the driving range but it’s very different than being out on the course. Aiming is really hard, I’ve discovered. What does this make you think of, with all the current focus on decoding and a simple view of reading?
So, as of this writing, I am still golfing. Sometimes daily. Am I improving? Possibly, but it doesn’t feel like it. Think of me as reading Baby Bear Goes Fishing right about now. I know more stuff, but I also know more of what I don’t know. But here’s the thing – I won’t improve unless I golf. Lots and lots of golf. What did Dr. Clay say about massive practice? Once in a great while I hit a great shot and I feel marvelous. Much like a child who has successfully problem-solved a hard bit. And that is what keeps me heading back to the practice range, back to the course. Plus, there’s always a lovely view and a glass of wine waiting at the clubhouse.
So, this summer, try something new and revel in the experience of being a learner. Your students will thank you. And who knows, you might just discover talents that you never knew you had!
Leslie McBane is a Reading Recovery teacher leader in Columbus, OH.
Leslie McBane will be a speaker at the 2019 National Reading Recovery & K-6 Literacy Conference, February 9-12, in Columbus, OH. Her session will be, “Old Friends: Using What is Known to Solve in Reading and Writing”.
Any views or claims expressed in The Reading Recovery Connections Blog are those of individual authors, not RRCNA.