In The Teaching Olympics, Who Wins Gold?
Fox and Wilkinson ‘94
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when it was announced that Sydney would host the year 2000 Olympics? I’m Australian and I was working in Guam at the time of the announcement about eight years ago and I remember how excited I was. Time has flown since then and the Olympics (the summer Olympics) is about to be held in Sydney so it means a lot to me. We’re hearing about the Olympics every day at the moment: the scandals, the excitement, the torch relay, the competitors, and so on. And all this has made me wonder what would happen if teaching were an Olympic sport? In the teaching Olympics, who would gold?
We want our students to be winners, don’t we? We want them to achieve the best they can: their personal bests. So children are the metaphorical athletes in this presentation. And we, their teachers, are the coaches.
Metaphors are a powerful way of thinking about complex ideas. They can help us cut through to the essence of things. They can help us see in a new way. Of course they can also be a bit limiting and confining, especially if we stretch them too far, because they are, after all, only metaphors. But the Olympic metaphor, like all metaphors, is useful for two reasons: first of all it can show us similarities between teaching and coaching, and secondly it can highlight significant differences.
Let’s begin by looking at the coach to see what we can learn about striving for gold in our teaching.
The coach is a highly proficient and ardent practitioner.
That’s my first point. In other words, the coach can do it, whatever ‘it’ is. And loves doing it. Long before the coach ever becomes a coach, he or she will have been a player in the hurly-burly of the game, living through the fear and exposure of competition, the longing for recognition, the delirium of success, the devastation of not winning; risking injury and ignominy, failure and frustration, striving to achieve mastery of whatever sport he or she is now coaching, in the quest for gold or glory or both. The coach will know the game from the inside out because the coach has been there. The coach has done it.
If we were training for an Olympic event, let’s say in cycling, would we be so unwise as to allow ourselves to be coached by someone who couldn’t ride a bike? By someone who’d been only a spectator of cycling events? Who hadn’t been a participant first? Who was unable to understand our pain and hope, unable to empathise with our difficulties, unable to rejoice in our triumphs? Of course we wouldn’t.
In the Education Olympics, literacy is the most important event, since the other sports can’t get started without it. Yet into whose hands do we commit our players? What sorts of coaches do we let loose on our eager athletes in reading and writing as they compete with each other at the beginning of this millennium?
I remember once when I left the International Reading Association Convention in San Antonio Texas and took a two and a half hour flight north to Denver, Colorado. I was surrounded by fellow teachers wearing their conference T-shirts and struggling with their crammed IRA tote-bags. As we all settled into the flight it became clear that only two or three of us had a book to read, let alone a magazine. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Here was plane full of non-participant coaches! A plane full of teachers of reading who could read, I assumed, but didn’t read for enjoyment. A plane full of teachers who had been to the International Reading Convention only as spectators in the sport, not as keen, dedicated athletes. Yet they had the nerve to call themselves coaches.
Some years ago in a workshop for teachers in which we were writing silly verses, I was given a piece of paper which I kept as grim evidence of the existence of writing coaches who teach writing without having the prior level of skill that a sports player brings to sport. I wish I could tell you that this is the only example of teacher incorrectness that I’ve ever come across. But I can’t. Ho hum. Anyway, the group which produced this verse and failed to notice or correct the spelling was made up of experienced teachers who were, sadly, less than competent readers and writers.
In Sydney town not long ago
We spent a day with Mem.
She showed us how it was OK
To steel from writing men.
Happily, there exist many teachers who have every right to be coaches in the Reading and Writing Events of any Education Olympics. For many years in my home state of South Australia, for example, was fortunate to enough to have a teacher called Rex Rehn as its senior English consultant, leading us as a kind of head coach. Rex was a voracious reader then, and of course still is. Whenever anyone talks books with him and says: ‘Have you read…? he always says: ‘Yes.’ It’s maddening. There’s no keeping up with him. So when Rex was head coach, if you will, for the development of reading and writing in South Australia we trusted his guidance and gave him our confidence because we knew he knew all about reading. We knew that he understood its processes from the inside out.
Similarly, a teacher called Barbara Kamler, one of my most effective writing teachers in recent years, understood the processes and rewards of writing from the inside out. She was a writer herself, a coach in whom I had great confidence and trust because I knew she had been there and done it, and could therefore teach me many nuances of the writing game that I was desperate to know. My favourite piece of hers is this poem about her father, called ‘Heartache.’
The doctors say
my father’s artery
the way to his heart
could have told them
from the stony silences
By engaging in the action of reading and writing, Rex and Barbara put themselves on the line and exposed themselves to the rewards and difficulties inherent in literate behaviour in a manner which went way beyond the merely functional. As teachers we’re constantly asking our students to go beyond the functional. But how often do we go beyond the functional as readers and writers? Can we still do it? Do we know what that feels like? Can we remember? It seems to me that we ought to know what it feels like if we’re going to be able to support the development of literacy in others.
It must be obvious by now that in terms of being metaphorical coaches who want gold for their teams, teachers who don’t read and can’t write are a real menace. Let’s ask what we can we do to improve our coaching by getting back into this great participant sport and becoming more active.
Our professional lives are frantic, chaotic and overcrowded. We therefore need to make time for what we think is important. If it’s important for teachers to read, might it not be an idea to have an occasional faculty meeting that has a single agenda item—the sharing of books—where teachers rave about what they’ve read or are currently reading? It needn’t be fiction; it needn’t be adult. It might be a self-help book for coping with stress, or an article that has set someone alight, or teenage fiction, or a novel that critics have panned and everyone else loves, such the latest book on the Oprah list.
If it’s important for teachers to read, can we run silent sustained reading programs in our classrooms, and actually make that time sacrosanct for reading ourselves, so that our students see us laughing or crying or even yawning over a book?
If it’s important for teachers to write, might it not be an idea to have an occasional faculty meeting that has a single agenda item—the sharing of writing? It needs to be other than functional writing. It needs to be writing that takes a risk, that goes out on a limb, that aims to affect colleagues, to make them laugh, or cry, but of course never to yawn!
So, to summarise my first point: if the coach is a highly proficient, ardent practitioner the literacy teacher has to be a highly proficient, ardent reader and writer.
The coach understands the problems.
My second point, which arises directly from the first, is that if the coach is a highly proficient and ardent practitioner the coach will understand the problems associated with playing the game.
I was given seven novels a few Christmas ago and joy of joys, knew that I’d have the time to read them all before the teaching year started. I love reading. There’s nothing that quite compares with curling up in a chair and losing myself in the world of a book, meeting new characters, going to places I’ve never been, experiencing events beyond Adelaide, South Australia, and simply wallowing in a darn good story. So I looked at the seven titles with delight and wondered which to read first. I chose The God Of Small Things by Arundati Roy.
I have never finished The God Of Small Things. In fact I’ve only read 10 pages of it. I hated it. It seemd to me that there were too many irrelevant details, presented in an irritatingconfusing manner, which interfered with the telling of the story. There was nothing in the choice of words or the placement of sentences that made me stop in admiration, envy or delight. I just couldn’t get on with it. Tragically, this book turned me into a reluctant reader for most of the summer. I didn’t want to read anything else. I felt so guilty about The God Of Small Things being unfinished that I didn’t feel I could start any of the other six books I was given. Four weeks of the summer holidays went by without my having read a single book. Not one! I could hardly believe it was happening to me.
But I’m glad it did. It was a new and scary experience of reading that has made me a much more understanding teacher of readers than I was before. Now when a student is struggling with a book, I’m able to say, ‘Look, you don’t have to finish every book you start, you know, especially if you really hate it. Get on to something new and different, for heaven’s sake, before you’re turned off books for life. It’s not a crime to put aside a book. There was a book I read once called The God Of Small Things. God, I hated it but I felt I ought to finish it. I never did. It put me off reading for months. Don’t let that happen to you. Read something else.’
Coaches understand the problems because they have been and remain skilled practitioners. Having engaged in the sport for years coaches have a spectrum of insights arising from personal experience; insights which could never have been learnt second-hand from others’ experiences; insights invaluable to the athletes in their care, which is why, as teachers we need to read widely in order to be able to analyse as coaches, all the processes we go through.
The first process we go through, of course, is deciding what to read. I’ve come to believe we don’t pay enough attention to the recurring problem of ‘What shall I read next?’ After years of walking around bookshops and libraries in a kind of cross-eyed numbness, unable to make decisions, I’ve come to realise that I need a lot of help in deciding what to read. I rely on friends, family, colleagues and booksellers for suggestions.
It’s my hunch that many people who can read, but who don’t read, especially boys between the ages of ten and sixteen—let’s call them ‘inactive readers’—simply have no idea what to read and have no strategies for finding out how to find out what to read. They don’t talk to teachers. They don’t talk to librarians. They certainly don’t talk to booksellers; and their own friends aren’t reading either, so they’re no help. If they had friends who knew their interests and could recommend great books with enthusiasm I think they might read again, and find it a surprising pleasure. It’s our job as teachers to know our students, to know what books are being read and enjoyed by that age group, and to find subtle and nifty ways of making those books irresistible to the inactive readers in our classes, so that they can spread the word on the underground telegraph.
When I was a professor at Flinders University (my university!) there were many inactive readers in our classes. To replicate my own valued peer group with all its valuable suggestions, I set aside 45 minutes from the precious three hour session each week for reading or talking about books. My students huddled together in corners on cushions, in small groups or ‘reading clubs,’ chatting and reading, raving and sharing, suggesting and rejecting a huge variety of books. The choice of material was theirs; the weekly agenda was theirs also. I often feared that I was wasting time indulging my students in this manner; then I pulled myself together and asked whether I wanted my students-as-teachers to be merely spectators of literacy events, or whether I wanted them to be in right in there as participants, experiencing the game and gaining the understandings necessary for their lives as coaches. The answer is obvious. I let them read. Here’s a reaction to reading clubs from Fleur Moore, one of my students :
During high-school I only read novels set by my teachers. I read and analysed these texts to complete assignments, tests and exams. I recall writing many chapter reviews and preparing myself for short-answer tests about characters’ names, dates, etc. When I read these novels, I focussed on each individual word because this is how I believed that I could understand the texts. My reading pace was therefore so slow that I would only read a few pages during each reading session. I soon became extremely bored with reading because I would constantly forget what I had previously read.
Being in a reading club has enabled me to read novels purely for my enjoyment. At first I still believed that I wouldn’t understand the novels if I didn’t read each word slowly. Therefore, when I read my first novel for the reading club, I analysed the words carefully as I read them.
At the first club meeting I began to see how and why other people read different types of texts. I realised that the other group members often forgot characters’ names and even some of the minor events that had occurred in the texts they had read. For the first time I realised that no one cared any more if you read a novel and forgot the main character’s name so long as you loved it and could say why.
Knowing that other readers forgot parts of books that they read encouraged me to skim across the text in my second novel for the reading club. I was drawn into the story as I scanned the pages instead of analysing the words. Because I was reading faster I was remembering more about what I had previously read so I could feel the story form around me and I really enjoyed reading for the first time in my life. If I hadn’t seen how other people enjoy reading novels, I may have never experienced this myself. And I was going to teach reading! Quite a joke, hey?
Another of the many positive aspects that arises out of participation, out of doing it, is understanding the reality of the event. Readers who read regularly will not need to be Einsteins to realise that in a normal reading event all they do hold a book, (or rest it on a knee, or a pillow or a table) and read. Nothing else. During that reading, if it’s a long novel, for example, they might talk about it with friends and family or colleagues. When the book is finished, if they have enjoyed it they will rave about it to all and sundry. In the last year the two books that everyone in my acquaintance read and talked about were: The Reader by Bernard Schlink and The Hours by Michael Cunnigham.
To my knowledge not one of us kept a reading journal during the reading of any of those books. Do we ever keep reading journals? No! I can’t think of anything more infuriating than having to stop in the middle of a novel and write down predictions or analyse a character. For what! For whom? I do sometimes use a post-it note stuck inside the cover to jot down page numbers of things I want to go back to, but that’s all, and it’s usually only if it’s something I’ll use at work. For example, I’ve post-it noted many pages of The Wedding Ghost, by Leon Garfield because they’re crowded with metaphors that make me gasp. They’re superb and I like to drool over them as I read the book to my students. But I certainly don’t keep a reading journal!
So the reality of the reading event (and if we read we know this) is that when we read—we read, we don’t write. If we believe it’s important for our students to read, if we want them to read, why do we ask them to stop reading in order to engage in the unnatural activity of writing while they read? Might reading clubs, where readers recommend and discuss books, as I did a moment ago, not be a more natural way of encouraging students of all ages to interact with literature?
If we think about how we choose whatever it is we choose to read, how we like to sit or lie or curl up when we read, why we love reading or why we hate it, how bad we feel if we don’t like a book, why we don’t read or do read, what we find difficult or boring or riveting and why, we can’t help but become better coaches, more sensitive to our students’ needs and wishes. Being active participants will grant us a unique understanding of reading, an understanding available only to those of us who play the game, not to those who stand, arms folded, watching from the sidelines.
As with reading, so it is with writing. The coach, having been a skilled practitioner, understands the problems. When I was struggling to write sections of this presentation I was constantly on the phone to Lyn Wilkinson, my closest colleague, with new and silly ideas for how to get out of writing The Dreaded Amarillo Presenatation. She suggested I get on the wrong plane in Sydney and keep going till I was in Paris where I could hide out for a week or two until the dust died down. (Who says writers enjoy writing? I detest it much of the time.) But there I was, participating in the writing game, gaining insights that have made me a better, more sensitive coach of writers.
I learnt how unwilling I am to begin any piece of writing; how helpful it is not to write alone; how some pages come in a rush and some sentences take days; how hard it is to connect paragraphs smoothly; how tiring it is to maintain the discipline and keep going; how the ideas I started with were quite different from what I have finally ended up with; how distressing it was to draft and redraft, especially when I seemed to be running out of time, but how I was driven to it by the fear and awe of you, my audience; how upsetting it was to get rid of things I’d once thought clever and essential; how I never would have made the effort had I not cared about making a difference, had nothing hung on the outcome of my writing.
Here’s a particular example of the learning that happens when we engage in real writing that goes beyond the functional. Often when I was struggling to write a particular sentence my good friend Lyn did not talk to me with gentle understanding, like an I’m-OK-you’re-OK Californian psychotherapist. Instead she simply said: ‘Write this…’ and she’d dictate exactly what she thought I should say.
That taught me a lot. I changed as a teacher of writing because as a participant writer a problem had been solved by the unconventional method of having someone else write it for me. And I recalled many other instances of lines in my children’s books which weren’t written by me but by my husband Malcolm, or an editor or a friend. The line ‘mornay and Minties in Melbourne’ in Possum Magic, is Malcolm’s, not mine, for example. So next time a student says: ‘I don’t know how to start,’ I won’t necessarily talk her through her problem so she can solve it herself, poor thing! Oh no. I might write the sentence for her and if I do I’ll feel no guilt. She can change it later if she wants to. At least she’ll have got moving, beyond the writer’s block of a seemingly insurmountable problem.
I know how to help. I’m the coach. I’ve been there and done it. You can’t tell me a thing! Every time you or I write, we learn skills and strategies to improve not only our own game but the way we coach others in its subtleties. It’s often what we don’t do as readers and writers that we can learn from as coaches.
The coach sees the possibilities.
My third point is that the coach sees the possibilities. Because coaches are themselves usually skilled practitioners of the game, they are able to put themselves in their players’ shoes. They know the problems that the players are having, but they also see the possibilities. It’s the coach who helps the player to keep the goal in sight when the going gets tough. It’s the coach who says, ‘Come on, you can do it, just a bit further, just a bit harder, just a bit longer.’ It’s the coach who knows the athletes’ potential and helps them persevere until that potential is realised, until the goal is attained.
If it weren’t for perseverance, and the constant encouragement and support of my personal coach and husband, Malcolm, Possum Magic would never have been published. After all it was sent to ten publishers over five years before it became the best selling book in Australia’s history. And there were forty nine drafts of the 577 words of Koala Lou before I considered it ready for publishing.
The coach helps the athlete to remember the point of the training, why they’re doing it, why they need to keep pushing for perfection. The coach gives constant encouragement, especially when the athlete hits the wall and wants to give up, when injuries bedevil them, when their technique just won’t come together. The coach constantly reminds the athlete about the rewards that the training and hard work will bring.
Because coaches are proficient, they also know when to suggest alternative strategies—when things aren’t working, the coach can suggest something else. How often, as teachers, are we able to suggest another strategy when things are not working for kids because we’ve experienced the same problem?
- When they’re stuck for a book to read, do we know what they’re interested in well enough to be able to point them to possibilities?
- When they want to deal with a non-fiction topic, but are having trouble understanding the discourse of the books available, can we suggest strategies they might use for firstly locating and then comprehending relevant passages?
- When their writing falls into a hole, can we draw suggestions from our own experience as writers? Can we ask the students
- Might this might work better in verse?
- Would a metaphor convey more effectively what you’re are trying to get across?
- Can you eliminate some of the adjectives in favour of some stronger nouns—would ‘villain’ or ‘bully’ or ’skinhead’ work more effectively than ‘cruel looking man’, for instance?
- Might the first paragraph of your memoir be better as the last paragraph?
- Have you considered shifting the focus from yourself to one of the other people in the piece, so that you can act as a commentator on the action?
- Have you tried extending the exaggeration you use in describing one incident across the whole piece?
That happened at the end of one year with Adrian Francis, one of my friend Lyn’s students. After a writing conference with Lyn, Adrian decided to make a feature of his mother’s preference for the colour aqua. It became the pivot of his piece. Her fetish about the colour aqua: aqua curtains, aqua bedspread, even aqua zinc cream on her nose, not to mention a see-through aqua negligee, had the rest of the class screaming with laughter. After Christmas the same student wrote her a note saying :
Guess what? My mum gave me an aqualung for Christmas. Isn’t that hysterical?
Of course, we need to ensure that students know that our suggestions are just that: suggestions. They are not mandates for action. But I think that too often in the past I have erred on the side of the Californian psychotherapist, and have left writers groping around when I should have provided strong directions that would have winched them out of their writing bog.
Teachers need to read and write! And not just for functional purposes. We need to read and write about things that are important, for audiences who matter to us, because it’s out of the experience of reading and writing ourselves that we understand what the possibilities are for kids, just as the coach draws on experience to suggest possibilities to the athlete.
The coach expects a personal best.
My fourth point is that the coach expects a personal best. As I analyse my own teaching I realise that that’s the biggest difference between a coach and me. Coaches expect much more from athletes than teachers do from kids because they are much more aware than we are of the competition they are aiming to win.
As teachers we need, perhaps, to be more aware that the range of possible employment is shrinking daily for both unskilled workers and highly qualified graduates. This means that in a very real sense the players in the Education Games are pitted against each other in an event which has fewer and fewer prizes for more and more competitors. Knowing that what we expect is what we get, we should begin to ask more of our students, for their sake, whoever they are, as they race towards the goal of a dignified, occupied life. Near enough is no longer good enough.
The coach, in expecting a personal best and pushing for it, knows the players’ capabilities, weaknesses, and strengths, and understands their personalities. Nevertheless allowances for poor performance are rarely made. After all, athletes are in there to win, not to mess about having tantrums and sulks and not turning up to training. As teachers it seems to me that we make far too many allowances for poor literacy:
‘She’s an abused child.’
‘Her parents are unemployed.’
‘There are no books in that household.’
‘He’s only seven.’
Coaches don’t let those difficulties get in their way because they know they’re training athletes to win. Coaches take the responsibility of training upon themselves and work incredibly hard to get the team up to scratch before the race or the game begins. The coach does not give up and make excuses for poor performance, nor does the coach accept less from the player than the player can achieve. The coach enthuses, re-inspires and makes tough demands, and when it’s all over the coach is more excited about improvement than teachers ever are.
The coach reaches for the stars. The coach says nothing’s impossible. The teacher-as-coach says children can be much more correct in their spelling that we are currently expecting. The teacher-as-coach says kids can write more, and better. My own students, in their inexperience, kept expecting a personal worst instead of a personal best from the children in their classes, especially in terms of the level of literature they expect kids to be able to cope with. If I mention reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to First Graders, they say: ‘Charlotte’s Web? Isn’t that too difficult?’ Pooh! Difficult, my foot!
I’m aware of a particular teacher-as-coach who works in Africa, in Zimbabwe. She said, ‘I’m teaching in Zimbabwe, but so what? Should that lessen my expectations? There’s this African kid in my class, called Blessings. She’s eleven. She and the other six members of her family live in two rooms. Both her parents are disabled.’ [This is a true story.] ‘They have no books. Their first language is Ndebele. This kid is growing up in a world in which English is the language that leads to employment. I want her to win. It’s up to me to help her.’ So Blessings, thanks to her coach making no allowances for her background, is able to write long letters to me in Australia, in English; letters which are entirely correct, well-constructed, and full of fun and better in many respects than the writing done by my own privileged students at the university. Blessings is blessed indeed. She won the literacy race faster than many of her peers in Australia and America and that scares me.
Do we, as coaches, expect personal bests from our children?
The coach plans and organises the training.
Because their coach expects a personal best, and because they want to win, top athletes train. They train hard and they train long. The training builds their stamina, and improves their skills.
One of the things that worries me about many students—and I’m talking here mainly about students at high school and college level—is that they have no stamina when it comes to reading and writing. They’re either unwilling or unable to grapple with challenging literacy tasks. They have no reading muscles, no writing muscles. They don’t stick at tasks, they have little endurance, they give up easily—either completing the task in a superficial way or claiming that it’s too hard, or, more often, that it’s ‘boring’.
Why aren’t our students developing literacy stamina?
It may be because they don’t see the connection between training and winning. So much of the training that goes on in schools doesn’t just seem to be purposeless, it is purposeless. In 1989 a three year literacy audit was begun in South Australia. It looked at 6000 pieces of writing by students in years 6 and 10 across all areas of the curriculum. The results were horrifying! They showed that most students lacked opportunities to engage in sustained, original writing for particular purposes and audiences. More than half the writing was simply exercises or copying! Nearly 60% of the writing was for the teacher as assessor (WRAP Final Report Summary p.10) and was there fore without any meaningful outcome for the children concerned.
How do conditions like these build writing stamina? How is the commitment to training, which depends so heavily on the will to win, fostered by these kinds of literacy events? The goal of training is not to show the coach how well you’ve done—it’s to win—and yet too often impressing the coach appears to be the only goal for our literacy athletes.
We’re all familiar with the cliché ‘No pain, no gain’. But too many of our students experience pain—the pain of pointless copying, the pain of worksheets, the pain of unimaginative questions which test their comprehension—without ever experiencing gain. They never reap the rewards of engaging in real reading for their own intrinsic purposes; in writing to real audiences for a real response.
So students might not be building stamina because they are not engaging in the kind of worthwhile practice that brings rewards.
Or they may simply not be getting enough practice. When the Early Literacy Inservice Course (ELIC) was first evaluated in South Australia, the researchers were startled to find that in the majority of K-2 classrooms children were spending less than three minutes a day in reading practice. Three minutes a day—no chance of building stamina there! And in writing, to turn again to the report I have from which I have already quoted:
Two thirds of year 10 and three quarters of year 6 writing activities involved students in providing single words, phrases or single sentence responses… extended prose activities in year 6 [comprised] 12.3% [of the total writing]… More than 50% of all writing tasks in year 6 were less than half a page.
Where is the kind of extended, challenging practice that helps our children build literacy stamina?
We need to be straight with our students and share how hard writing is. It’s not easy to write well. But it’s not easy either to get up at 4 a.m. to go to the pool to train. But that’s what you do, morning after dark and gloomy morning if you want to win gold as a swimmer. And you keep going because you’re clear about the goal at the end, you know the rewards that perseverance can bring.
Students may not be building skills because we haven’t allowed for over and over-ness. I’m not talking about mere drill and repetition. No one gains skill in anything either by doing it once or twice, or through mindless drill. Improvement, perfection come from constant variations on a theme, from over and over-ness.
By now you may be thinking ‘But, but… ‘, because there are a number of problems in the Olympic metaphor when it comes to talking about practice or training. I agree. It’s not a simple analogy. But as a teacher I find it challenging to consider the connections between training and goal—the pain and the gain if you like; actual time on task; and over and over-ness, because they challenge me to think about my practice as a coach and how I can better assist the young athletes I’m training to build both their stamina and their skills.
The coach encourages analysis of performance.
My penultimate and very brief point is that the coach encourages analysis of performance. The most bothersome aspect of our Education Olympics metaphor is that words ‘coach’ and ‘training’ create a definition of learning that makes it seems mechanical in a lock-step kind of way, which I regret. In the relationship between coach and athlete. Initially the coach and the athlete ( in this context: the teacher and the child) both have responsibility for performance; both need to be able to analyse the performance but it’s the player who has to act on that analysis, because in the end players are on their own. After all, the coach cannot play tennis for Gabriella Sabatini—she has to play the game on her own. All top tennis players, after a match, are able to analyse what went wrong for them or why they won. Ultimately power and responsibility must shift from the coach to the player and we have to ensure that the same occurs in our classrooms.
In practical terms that means having a language with which to talk about language: reading and writing terms like ‘leads,’ ’showing not telling,’ ‘in media res,’ [in the middle of the action], nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, direct speech, indirect speech, singular and plural, metaphor and simile, first person and third, point of view, voice, tone, round and flat characterisation, and so on. And we shouldn’t wait, like coaches without ambition, until our students are so-called ‘old enough’ to use and understand these labels. It’s our job to find ways of teaching in which these necessary terms become desirable, easy to grasp and easy to use, from the word go.
There’s no inherent brain-blockage to prevent a first grader from saying: ‘I know. My lead’s pathetic, isn’t it?’; or a tenth grader from saying: ‘I guess I could’ve put all of that plot development into one sentence of direct speech, huh?’; or a fourth grader from saying: ‘I think it works better because I changed it from third person to first.’
The coach shares the athletes’ thrill and glory.
And that brings me to the final point—the coach shares the athletes’ thrill and glory. How must Olympic coaches feel after every victory when they have been so intimately involved in the event? Like me, I guess, when my students reach giddy heights in their careers. I remember being wild with delight when one of my language arts students Amanda Graham, published a very successful picture book called Arthur. And how I swelled with pride when one of my ex-drama students won the leading role in the national television series: ‘Police Rescue’. Their ‘wins’ were my wins too. It’s different, but nearly as good as doing it yourself.
When my friend Lyn is marking assignments she gets on the phone several times a week to share new pieces of cleverness from her brilliant students. She bubbles and raves and howls with laughter and drips with pride down the phone lines. You’d think she’d written the stuff herself!
And of course I was so excited about my students’ achievements in an assignment several years ago that I wrote that over-the-top article ‘There’s a coffin in my office’ which was published in Language Arts and has been reprinted in Radical Reflections, the book in which I have exposed my major passions. I love some of my students’ work so much that I keep it for years in my brag file. I long to share it. I can’t help myself. Like this poem, for instance:
The Word’s Prayer
Who art in front of us,
Hallowed be our quest.
Thy inspiration come,
The task will be done,
In school as it is at home.
Give us this day our daily writing.
Forgive us our errors,
As we forgive those
Who have not shown us ours.
Lead us not into boredom,
For writing is
And the Glory,
Forever and ever!
It is wonderful to be a teacher when my students do well. It fuels my enthusiasm, boosts my morale, renews my vigour and makes teaching worth all the tension and stress.
And it’s not just me. When I was at a small country school late last year I was talking to a teacher I had never met before. It was recess time. Within seconds of our conversation beginning she had dragged me from the faculty room into her classroom to share this piece of writing by one of her first graders. She just couldn’t help herself. She thought it was brilliant.
Once upon a time there was a little girl. She liked princesses. She watched them on TV every day. She liked them very much. Sometimes she wished that she could be a princess, but her mother said, ‘When are you going to get your mind OFF that! You should get a job!’ On her 20th birthday she met a prince. They got married. She had a baby prince. She called it Prince Tim and never saw her mother again.
Celebrating children’s achievements is one of the areas in which teaching is very different from the Olympics. In the Olympics there is only one winner, there is only one best, there is only one gold medal. But as teachers, we must make sure that everyone is a winner, that each child experiences and celebrates success in literacy; indeed in every area of the curriculum. Teaching is much more about the celebration of personal bests than the awarding of gold medals.
As a teacher I need to check constantly that I’m not so busy looking for the gold medal achievements that I don’t recognise and celebrate every student’s personal best. How often do I tell my students what they are good at, where they have made significant improvement, when they have achieved a personal best? How often do I show them the delight, the emotion, the over-the-top reaction that a coach shows the athlete who has just kicked the winning goal, swum the winning lap, jumped the winning round? How often do I convey to my students that they’re just the best? How often do I start a wild rumpus of ecstatic celebration?
So there it is—my heptathlon of points! In summary:
- The coach understands the problems.
- The coach sees the possibilities.
- The coach expects a personal best.
- The coach plans and organises the training.
- The coach encourages analysis of performance.
- The coach shares the athletes’ thrill and glory.
And the first and last and most important point is that the coach is a highly proficient and ardent practitioner. We ought to be readers and writers, and we ought to reflect on our reading and writing because if we’re not in there doing it how on earth can we teach it?