Friday, 18 May 2012

Gone Fishing

A master at work
A practicum student visited our school for 2 days this week, and after a day and a half of classroom lessons we thought it might be nice to hop on a bus with the adventure tourism class and go fishing at a nearby lake. We had some great conversations along the way about taking academic classes on field trips, and the benefits of having students outdoors, but those will be blog topics for another day. The clearest lesson from that afternoon came from 2 particular students on the trip. 

The first student is a young man that I haven't taught since grade 9 (he is currently in grade 11). During his English 9 days he was one of my most frustrating students when it came to effort and work completion. While we had a good personal relationship, he would often refuse to complete written work and he absolutely loathed reading.  There were many one-on-one talks, then eventual trips to the lunch hour homework room and finally meetings with his parents and admin as well as suspensions (for all of his courses not just English). I do remember his mom telling me about his love of outdoor activities including mountain biking, hunting, and fishing. At school however, he simply seemed to suffer through most of his courses. 

Catch #2 (before being released)
In contrast, the boy I watched on that afternoon was truly in his element.  He was confident as he quietly walked down to the dock and within 2 minutes (no exaggeration) of casting his first fly he had hooked a fish.  The adventure tourism teacher took me aside and mentioned that this student had basically taught his unit on fly fishing. He had shown all the other boys how to tie flies and it was obviously something he excelled at. The first fish was released and again within  2 minutes he had caught another. It was phenomenal how effortless the entire thing seemed to be for him. Slowly a number of other boys wandered over to join him on the dock and try to study what he was doing. I watched him patiently set his rod down and help some of his classmates, and I also watched him remain silent even though he knew that 7 more people on the dock casting in the same area were going to greatly reduce his chance of catching more fish. Though he was the only one to catch anything that afternoon he did not ridicule his classmates or gloat about his skill. 

The now crowded dock
There was another student on the trip who I also taught in grade 9. This boy is someone I would definitely have described as a pleasure to have in my English class. He was eager and cooperative and had solid work habits. He was a strong reader, wrote well, and had a great sense of humour.  Unfortunately his skills as an English student did not translate into the fishing arena. The practicum student, adventure tourism teacher and I all watched with mild amusement as he snagged his line again and again and lost lure after lure. Finally (about 30 minutes into the fishing experience) he quit. He wasn't rude or angry about it but he was obviously frustrated to the point that he did not want to continue with the activity. I'll admit that I was a bit surprised how negative the experience was for him and how quickly he gave up. I flashed back to my experiences with the first student in my English class, and I recalled telling him that he needed more perseverance, and that to succeed in life he had to be willing to work at things he wasn't good at. At the time I would have classified him as someone who gave up easily while I definitely felt that student number two had obvious determination, work ethic and resilience. 

Perhaps those were not accurate observations.  Perhaps I was simply observing the students in contexts that played to their individual strengths, and when it came to confidence, skill, and tenacity they were actually both fairly equal. We all like to consider ourselves determined in the face of adversity, but how many of us put ourselves through situations day after day where we are unsuccessful? As an English teacher I observed each student over and over again in situations where one was constantly being rewarded and one was constantly being punished. What if we reversed what we valued in school? What if school was seven blocks of fishing a day and one block of an "academic" subject? Which student would have straight As and which student might be at-risk of not graduating? 

Overall it was a wonderful class because we were able to observe the first student in an environment where he excelled, and could earn the respect of his teachers and peers. No matter what the context, it is always a pleasure to watch someone who is passionate about what they are doing. I was struck by how drastically different that 45 minutes at the lake was to what he faces every day in our school where class after class is a frustration. Just today at lunch I heard his name called (again) over the announcements for not attending homework club. It is actually amazing that he has hung in for this long. I wonder how student number two would respond if he was summoned to homework club at lunch and found a rod and reel waiting for him...

1 comment:

  1. Another fantastic post! I love the question, "what if school was seven blocks of fishing a day and one block of an "academic" subject? The example I always give my students is that if I had been required to sing my assignments, I wouldn't have lasted a day! Your post has underlined the importance of striving to provide opportunities for allowing all types of intelligence to be used to demonstrate learning.