running · teaching · writing

Teaching as Coaching

I just finished Week 3 of my running app. I have the settings arranged such that while my music plays in the background, the soothing British electronic lady not only indicates when to shift from running to walking and back again, but also encourages me and gives me tips. So she’s like: “Start your one-and-a-half-minute run now.” But she says more: “You have 45 seconds left! Keep running!” And, crucially, “If you find this run hard, slow your pace a little–remember this run is three times longer than what you were running last week!”

Luxuriating in my five minute cool-down walk heading for home (“Remember to keep your pace brisk! I’ll let you know when it’s time to slow down and stretch your muscles!”) I got to thinking about how easy it is to move from Couch to 5K.

And I got really mad. I got to thinking about how I spent most of my life thinking I had a hidden heart defect or lungs the size of mandarin orange segments that made me incapable running from my house to the corner, let alone in increments longer than televisions commercials. Never mind movie-length runs. Because years and years of elementary and middle and high school pays ed had painfully demonstrated that some people can run and others can’t.  This is how we were taught running in high school gym: here’s a map of the route, and we’ll meet back here in 45 minutes. And then the teacher trotted away, leading the two students who could keep pace with her. Basically, the teacher set a goal, and gave us absolutely no indication of how to meet it.

Don’t we often teach writing a lot like this?

Let’s read a lot of books and discuss them in class. Now go away and come back with an essay. Oh, we’ll teach you some rules, about academic integrity, and topic sentences, and proper citation. But the way that most of us were taught writing there was no: process, strategy, training tips.

Teaching phys ed is probably a lot like teaching English. Most of my phys ed teachers were strong and tan and wiry and fast. They looked like they were born with whistles around their necks. They were naturally really good at tennis or running or basketball. They made it look effortless. It was, for me, completely alienating and mostly served to reinforce the message that I could never do any of those things and it was useless to try.

I teach English. I write every day, and I read constantly. Give me 200 words of text and 30 seconds and I can craft you 400 words of analysis in the critical school of your choice. I speak and write in two languages and as I get older my command of allusions only grows. I make it look effortless. And I can see that, if my teaching style, like my phys ed teachers, is to simply model excellence, it’s quite likely that a lot of my students are demoralized and alienated.

I spent decades on the couch, thoroughly convinced that it was impossible for me to be fit and enjoy it. That I was a loser who would never be able to do it. That’s what phys ed taught me: that I would never be strong. Are there ways that I teach English that convince my own students that they will never be writers? That English is something they’ll never be able to “do”?

If so, it’s a terrible waste. Experts who become teachers risk working in a blind spot big enough for their students to disappear into: we are so good at this, so easily compared to most, that we don’t even know how to coach novices into the practice.

It took me a free app with a recorded British lady doing nothing more than setting 9 weeks of goals and explicit instructions of when to trot and when to walk to get me running, happily. What simple steps can I take to draw my students into writing with as much joy and curiosity as I do?