I was the surfer observer. I was completely satisfied to be lounging on my towel under a shady palm tree or scavenging the shoreline for beach glass and shells. We’d chosen our Puerto Rican destination for the beach as well as the surf. As the surfer observer, it was my responsibility to photograph my surfing daughter and more importantly I was to watch for her head to resurface above the waves each time she went down. I spent many hours on the Rincon beach doing just that.
After breakfast, my daughter would meet her instructor and paddle out and attempt to catch waves. Early morning surf was best for the less experienced surfer and the beach became a classroom for novices and professionals. I became captivated with watching the various surf companies and their methods of instruction while on surfer observer duty.. There seemed to be two distinct types instructors. The first type of instructor would talk to their audience for quite some time and then demonstrate getting up on a surf board. They would place their surfboard in the sand in front of their students and show them the sequence of steps. Then the students would paddle out into the ocean and try to do what the instructor had demonstrated.
The second type of instructor began much like the first. They talked and demonstrated the steps to getting up on the board much the same as the first. It was what they did next that I noted, made the big difference. Before sending their fledgelings out into the ocean to be tossed about, they had their students practice on the shore as well. I was in Rincon a week and I was able to observe that the second form of instruction always popped more surfers up onto their boards.
I immediately saw a parallel to the teaching of writing. If I want to have success with my first grade writers, I not only need to talk about my teaching point and then demonstrate it, but I also need to make time to actively engage my students before sending them back to their seats to begin writing. When I reflect on my earlier methods of teaching writing lessons, I believe I was able to excite and motivate my students to attempt a particular writing task much like the first type of surf instructor. I realize now after much more experience that my students will enjoy more success having participated in some form of active engagement. I may have my students help me interactively write or it may be participation in a group piece we write together. On some occasions we will look for places in a past piece of writing where we might try this new technique. I might invite partner discussions and notice how a famous author we know, has used this particular skill.
I am always frustrated when I hear a teacher say, ” I taught the greatest writing lesson but, it’s too hard. They just can’t do it.” The teacher then wants to give up as well as the students. First graders are capable of remarkable pieces of writing. Too often we forget to not only tell our students how to approach a particular strategy but also to show them and let them experience it. To use the metaphor of surfing, we need to do a little practice “on shore” before we send our students out into the ocean.