Diving into Differentiation
In a lounge chair by the pool the other day I was browsing Chip Wood’s Yardsticks, our school’s summer read for staff and parents. With more than three decades as an educator under his belt, this New England-based elementary principal knows a thing or two about kids between the ages of 4-14. He not only makes a compelling case for developmentalism in schools, he provides a manual for each age covering growth patterns (physical to cognitive), in-classroom concerns (fine and gross motor ability, social-emotional behavior), and thoughts on curriculum (the three R’s plus age-appropriate themes).
Of course, one size never fits all. Looking up your child in Yardsticks might result in a few “Aha’s” and also a couple, “Ehh, not really’s.” The power in a developmental approach is recognizing that a kid can be younger or older than his chronological age in various categories, spot on in others. Real kids are messy, and I don’t just mean when they eat. That's challenging for parents, and sometimes downright confounding for classroom teachers.
"What if my 8th graders are all over the map this year," I wondered. "How am I supposed to teach the same accelerated curriculum to a bunch of kids with different aptitudes and abilities?" My thoughts were interupted as my two sons dragged me into the pool.
With a season under his belt as a Bluefish (the same swim team I grew up on) my 7-year old has learned his strokes pretty well. He went from being scared to attend practice at the start of the season to swimming lengths of the pool in freestyle and breaststroke in meets by the end. The one thing he never quite learned to do, like a lot of the kids in his age group, was dive.
Watching 8-and-unders start a race brings a collective wince to the crowd. The rail-thin boys freeze in their stances before the electronic beep, goggled up like beetles. Then with a surge they fling themselves forward into perfect belly-flops before madly starting to paddle towards the other end, lifting their heads every couple strokes to look around at the kids in adjacent lanes as the cheers of the crowd wash over them.
My 4-year old, on the other hand, picked the last day of the season to finally let go of the lip of the pool to which he’d clung all summer. Now he can do a couple strokes of doggy paddle. I wouldn’t throw him into the deep end yet, but he's definitely crossed a threshold. (It’s true there are kids younger than he who can swim a crawl stroke; they don’t all seem to get it at the same time.)
What Will lacks in water confidence, he makes up for in brio. His favorite pool game with dad is to leap off the wall into my outstretched arms, dunking under the water for just a second and coming up spluttering, “Again!” He can do this about as many times as a young black lab will fetch a tennis ball chucked into a river.
So, there I was with both boys, Yardsticks set aside safely out of the splash zone. Each vied for my attention; each wanted to do, and was capable of doing, different things in the water. Because Will’s range was limited, we were stuck on the steps. A noodle floated nearby and without thinking, I grabbed it and held it on the surface of the water a few feet away.
"Hey Jack," I called to my diving-challenged son, "Grab this!" Extending his body in a near perfect dive, he lunged.
“I got it!” he yelled. He got it four more times in a row, laughing and fearless, before I told him that what he was doing looked a lot like diving. He glowed from the sense of accomplishment and the praise.
Meanwhile, Will was getting antsy. “My turn, my turn!” he yelled, assuming his position like a paratrooper on the edge of the pool. “Closer, closer,” he squealed, as I tried to inch away. When I was in the right spot, he leapt, with the usual abandon. We touched hands as he went under, and by the time he popped up, I’d moved back a few feet further away from the steps.
“Push me, push me!” he squealed, and I sent him towards the steps with a whoosh. He paddled madly in a pantomime of swimming, going down quicker than forward but nevertheless gaining the steps. (Reread the last couple paragraphs four more times then move on).
While Will was jumping and sort of swimming, Jack had been patiently practicing his new technique. “Okay, five turns for Jack now,” I said to Will. He didn't want to stop the game. “Then you get five more," I bargained. "And, you can help Jack-- you be the starter.”
Excited, Will took over the job of reciting the mantra: “Swimmers, take your mark…go.” With each try, I gave Jack a little feedback: “Great job—tuck your chin a little more when you throw your arms up. Like this. Let me see you do it.”
With direct, specific coaching, his dive got neater almost every time. Before we knew it, it was Will’s turn again (do “Will was getting antsy” five more times, then proceed).
The next time Jack dived and popped up asking, “How was that one?”
I replied without thinking, “8.8.”
“Out of 10?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “you lifted your head at the end.”
“I know,” he said. A new wrinkle to the game was born. An Olympic rating system appealed to Jack's 7-year old sense of competition, especially as his scores kept climbing.
During Will's next turn, Jack went back to practicing.
"What was that one?" he asked once.
"I don't rate practice dives," I said.
We jumped and dived until the boys lips turned blue, then returned to our towels. "You guys did great, today," I said. And I meant it. Through engaging challenges targeted to each kid's age, coupled with timely specific feedback and low-stakes practice, each had made real strides.
I guess they do come with directions after all, I thought, slipping the half-read volume into the pool bag. If I keep reading Yardsticks, I bet I can figure out how to do the same thing in the classroom this year with my 8th graders.