Sixth Shift: There Are Many Ways To Learn How To Swim

Sixth Shift: There Are Many Ways To Learn How to Swim

“Aren’t you going to get in?” I ask my son.

I was sitting on the edge of the pool, dipping my feet in, wishing the wind would stop, and the sun would come out from behind the clouds. The forecast called for sunny, but this is Boston, and our weather is persnickety, an unreliable narrator, the most dynamic of characters.

“I don’t think I’m ready,” he says and sits down next to me.

Meanwhile, his stepbrother has already disappeared under the water, and is fully submerged.

Both boys are still learning how to swim. They take lessons. They have had many afternoons at the pool to practice, but they have approached learning to swim differently.  I’ve had to meet them where they are at. Sometimes this means diving in the pool after Thomas who has gone out to the deep end. Other times this means walking down the steps with Cian and slowly making our way to the wall.

I pivot and I adjust based on what each boy needThis parenting thing is a lot like teaching.

The problem is this: when I am at the pool with the boys, there are two children to help. I can use different strategies, and I can pivot and adjust. When you have a classroom of 25-30 students, making moves that allow you to meet your students where they are each at can feel like standing on the edge of the diving board not sure if you should jump off or not. The water feels far away, and it is a long way to fall. 

Many of the teachers I work with come to our first meeting with a clear focus: they want support on how to differentiate instruction. So often I hear, “I have kids at all different levels, and only 52 minutes. I know I can’t teach the skill one way, but there’s never enough time.”

If you are beginning to think about making differentiation manageable and sustainable in your classroom, there are strategies to support you whether you want to test the waters or jump right in.

I thought about watching my kids learn how swim while I was talking with a teacher this week. She’s incredibly focused on empowering her students with reading strategies so that when she says, “read,” they have a toolbox of approaches to try.

She talks about the strategies she has been teaching, and then says, “for some kids, it is going great. Others still look at me like I’m speaking another language that they’ve never heard before.”

I nod my head. I’ve been there before. I had so many reading strategies that I believed in when I was teaching. One of my favorites was Stop, Notice, and Note, an annotation strategy created by Kylene Beers. In this strategy, students learned different signposts to look for while they were reading. When they came to one of these signposts, they stopped, answered questions, and took notes. It was an effective strategy for some students to practice important skills like re-reading and annotating.

The problem was it worked for some students. I made the mistake of requiring all students to use it as we worked through a whole class novel. When I asked my students for feedback, many expressed how their reading experience was so much harder because they felt they had to read in one particular way.

The teacher and I came to an “ah ha” moment during our meeting. We should differentiate reading strategies just like we differentiate other types of instruction. A one-size-fits all approach wasn’t going to get her to her goal.

“There is more than one way to learn how to swim,” I told her. “And there is more than one way to read.”

We jumped right into the work. She wanted to teach her students that there are different types of reading. I thought about my children and swimming. Cian wanted to test the waters, and Thomas wanted to dive right in. If I was going to ask them to read something, Cian would be more engaged if he was able to look at the headings and the pictures, and get a sense of what the story was about before he started reading. Thomas would be more engaged if he was able to start reading right away and immerse himself in the story. Was one better than the other? No. Did it mean that Cian would need support moving from skimming to swimming? Yes. Did it mean that Thomas would need support coming up to the surface and seeing the big picture? Yes.

If you want to differentiate reading for your students, try this strategy. I like to give students a guiding question to help them think about what they feel would be most helpful to them before they start the work. Their answer to that question helps them make a choice about how they want to learn. Once they have made a choice, I give them specific tasks to hold them accountable and support their learning. 

How Do You Want To Read Today?

Do You Want To Test The Waters?

Read Titles
Look At Pictures
Read The First Few Sentences
Think About What You See and Read

Do You Want To Dive Right In?

Read As Much As You Can In The Time Given
Stop And Summarize As You Read
Look For Repetition And Patterns
Jot Down Questions

Do You Want To Go Deep and Explore?
Read and Annotate

Read A Few Paragraphs
Pay Attention To Word Choice, Imagery And Style
Note Character Development, Contrasts And Contradictions
Make Text To Self, Text To Text, and Text To World Connections

One of the teacher’s initial concerns with this strategy was that the students who chose to skim would do less work than the other students. I can understand that reaction. However, we have to recognize that all students aren’t beginning at the same starting line. I like to use this visual to help explain what I mean.



Do we want all students to be able to go deep as readers and explore a text? Yes. Do we want students to develop confidence in their reading abilities? Yes. Do we believe that in order for students to be willing to go deep that they need to have confidence? I think so.

Building a student’s confidence starts by meeting her where she is at. Whether that is on the edge of the pool, or down in the deep end.

There is also the matter of preference. Readers have preferences. When I read a mystery, I skim through it as quickly as possible in order to get to the end. However, when I read literary fiction, I submerge and go deep, paying attention to language and the writer’s craft. If a student is really interested in the ocean and you are reading a text about coral reefs, then that student may want to go deep. Other times, the student may went to skim. I believe that helping students identify their reading preferences builds their reading confidence and reading identity. Do we all have to read things sometimes whether we like them or not? Sure. That doesn’t mean that we can’t acknowledge our likes and dislikes.

Whether your students choose to skim, read, or read and annotate may depend on how they are feeling when they come to school. If a student is really tired or hasn’t been feeling well, she might want to skim and that’s ok. If a student comes to school feeling curious and eager, she might want to read and annotate. By providing students with different approaches, you are showing your students that you see them not only as students, but as readers, and as people.

At the core of this approach is to remain flexible, to provide options, and to pivot and let your students pivot as needed. Regardless of their choice, each approach will meet your students where they are at and honor your ultimate goal: to empower confident readers.

We spent a lot of days at the pool this summer. On some of those days, Cian wanted to test the waters before he got in the pool. Other days he jumped right in.  It was the same with Thomas. Sometimes I jumped in with them and swam next to them. Other times I sat by the side of the pool and watched. When I took a step back, I could see how far they had come as swimmers, regardless of the path they took to get there.

Shift Small: Small Steps For Teachers And All Of Us To Start Shifting

1. You Have Options
Structure is good, but flexibility within that structure is better. Recognize that you have choices, and that you don’t have to do something the same way each time to do it well. For example, I used to think I had to go running every day in order to be a runner. I would force myself to go for a run even if I didn’t feel like it, and I hated every mile. Or I’d set a routine that every run had to be a half an hour, and I’d sacrifice sleep to get my thirty-minutes in. Now, I give myself options. I ask myself, “do you feel like running today or do you feel like going to yoga? Do you want to go for a walk with the kids?” My goal is to move my body every day. That doesn’t mean I have to run every day. The same goes for teaching. It may feel helpful to spend the first ten minutes of every class on grammar and vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean that every class has to start with a daily edit. When you provide your students with options and choice you are teaching them that there are many ways to do the same thing. You are showing them that it is ok to feel different each day and to try a different approach.

2. We Don’t Teach (Or Live) In A Vacuum

We have to compartmentalize sometimes. However, I believe that everything is connected. A student doesn’t leave what happened at home over breakfast at the door before she walks into your classroom. We have to acknowledge that at the end of the day we are all humans doing the best that we can. Somedays we don’t get as much done as other days, and that is ok. Be kind to yourself. Know that being flexible and having the ability to pivot and adjust are the makings of a strong teacher. You are modeling an important skill for your students: when things don’t work out or goes as planned, we do the best that we can, and move on. This is why I believe framing your instruction and debriefing with your students is so important. Tell them why you are doing something, and ask them what they think. After all, we are all in this together, whether we are talking about the classroom, our homes, our communities, etc.

3. What Works For You May Not Work For Me

Last night at dinner, my friend Kate was talking about how sad she was that her daughter doesn’t love soccer. Kate played soccer in college. Soccer is her Thing. However, her daughter begs not to go and would rather sit on the sidelines. Soccer may not be her Thing, and that’s ok. Often we become teachers because we love our subject. Our subject is our Thing For me, writing and reading are essential parts of my identity. They are the ways that I make meaning of my experiences and how I express myself. I can’t imagine not wanting to go to the library to look for books or not wanting to keep a notebook where I jot down poems. However, writing notebooks and stacks of books hasn’t worked for all of my students, and that’s ok. This is why I believe in providing a lot of choices. I didn’t teach myself, I taught my students. I couldn’t only share with them what worked for me, I had to create different pathways so they could find their Thing and what worked for them.

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