Lessons from a Surfboard

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This summer I learned to surf.  Actually, if I’m being honest, I learned to kinda-sorta-surf.  I also really learned to appreciate the skill involved in the sport of surfing.  And while I’m not headed for the pro surfing circuit any time soon, learning to surf paralleled the teaching and learning that occurs off the beach, in our classrooms.  Our surf instructors weren’t trained teachers; they were a geologist, a musician, and an environmental studies major.  Their methods, however, reflected much of what we know about best practices.

Direct Instruction:  This part of the lesson was brief, but necessary.  We learned important safety rules, as well as the vocabulary for different parts of the surfboard (deck, rails, fin).

Demonstration/Modeling:  The instructors modeled proper techniques at the beginning of the lesson.  They broke the actions down into discrete steps and explained each part of the process in detail.  They demonstrated what it looked like when all of the pieces were put together.  Then, still on the sand, we engaged in guided practice of paddling and “popping up” onto our surfboards.  Instructors circulated, observing each student and providing feedback.

Differentiation:  Each learner approaches learning tasks with a unique set of skills and background experiences.  That was certainly evident in our group of learners.  My niece, a gymnast, has balance, dexterity, and upper body strength in abundance.  I don’t happen to have that same skill set.  The instructors differentiated my instruction, breaking the one, fluid motion of popping up onto the board into several separate steps.  This met my individual needs, and allowed for success.  My route to success was just different.

Guided Practice:  In the water, the instructor reminded me of what I’d learned on the beach.  He held onto my board until the right wave came along.  As he pushed me off to catch the wave, he called “Paddle!” and “Pop up!” at just the right moment, providing me with the best opportunity to get up on my board and ride the wave all the way into shore.  As I improved, my instructor removed scaffolds, gradually releasing the responsibility of paddling out, catching a wave and knowing when to pop up, to me.

Feedback:  After each wave, my instructor & I would debrief, talking about what I had done well, and where I should work to improve.  Who knew you could confer in the salty waters of the Atlantic?  These conversations, which were positive and encouraging, helped me become a reflective practitioner of surfing.  Through guided practice, I gained skill and confidence.

Independent Practice:  Surfing on our own was more challenging.  There was a lot to remember!  My son & daughter dealt with this by engaging in partnered practice.  They took turns coaching one another as the instructors had.  They held the board in position until the “right wave” came along, and then give their sibling a push to get them going.  After each ride, they talked about what had gone well, and how they could improve.  Their cooperation resulted in greater success for both.

My surfing experience was 100% positive.  I was fortunate to have skilled teachers and a supportive learning community.  We cheered one another on, and helped each other up after inevitable dismounts (That’s another thing I learned; surfers don’t “fall” off their boards; they “dismount.”  I am the queen of spectacular dismounts!).  Everyone left the beach grinning from ear to ear, and tired from our rigorous efforts at learning.  And isn’t that exactly what we want for our students, every single day?  To walk out our doors knowing that their exertions have paid off, knowing they know and can do more today than they did yesterday?

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