October 16th, 2015

Plunging into Learning

By:

I looked down into the menacing waters as a rogue wave jolted the raft. Trembling, I stepped back, my chattering teeth and throbbing heart in perfect sync.

“Let’s go!” It was Miss T, her tone, fierce and impatient.

Again, I crept forward, looking out toward the distant boat wondering how in the world I would ever make the 30-yard swim. Suddenly: hands on my shoulders—a push. I was airborne.

It was complete bewilderment: daylight, descent, and darkness in one second. When I hit the water, I remember an explosion of bubbles, an endless string of them as I flailed about trying to get my bearings. Worse than gulping the bitter salt were the feelings of helplessness and disorientation. I knew I had to go upward and, somehow, worked my way to the top.

***

In 1961, I flunked my swimming test. To this day, I can still see the many hands reaching for me as I surfaced. At one point, during the boat ride back to shore, Miss T leaned in close to me and said, “You needed that push—that’s how I learned. Sink or swim.”

Like white caps, Miss T’s sink-or-swim talk periodically crashes my thoughts. Her push hypothesis still rocks and challenges my teaching philosophy today. I find myself asking, to what extent do I push my students?

***

Miss T, the towering life guard and swim instructor made me uneasy. She detested getting wet and, once, when Anthony splashed her by mistake during kicking drills, she pinched his earlobe redder than a cherry Popsicle.

Miss T got wet once during the summer: the first day of swimming lessons when she hastily demonstrated the dog-paddle, front crawl, and floating techniques. For each class thereafter, we paired off to try the moves she had haphazardly shown us. She monitored us from ashore pantomiming various strokes that looked more like imitations of a rearing stallion or a salmon-snatching bear.

By the third week, my partner and I were sinking. We surreptitiously “walked” our swims thinking that we were fooling Miss T who blew her whistle whenever she spotted our counterfeit actions.

***

In the long run, Miss T’s questionable pedagogy has been invaluable to me as a teacher. It’s compelled me to ask critical questions. Am I guilty of pantomime? Do I veer off into “distant” teaching? Are my students fake-walking their way through class? I have found it helpful to occasionally get into the water with my students by participating with them in various assignments. After completing an essay last semester, for example, we shared our challenges in writing it, focusing on the successes and struggles we had encountered. The follow-up discussion helped establish a valuable student-instructor connection as well as classroom cohesion.

***

My swim partner was Bones, a prankster, and well known for various forms of marine delinquency. He once uprooted a buoy and rode that Brahma bull through class with half of us chasing him like rodeo clowns. He taught us how to squirt people in the face by cupping and squeezing our hands together, an aquatic misdeed that never resonated well with Miss T. Everyone wanted to hang out with Bones.

***

Bones, though a lot of fun, was a focus-wrecker. When I tell students my swimming lessons story, many of them admit to having a Bones in their academic life. Ensuing discussions often lead to purpose and responsibility. For some, it’s a wake-up call, a reminder of where they are and why.

***

The fear of what I could not see inside the surf kept me on edge. Jellyfish and sea crabs made me a little jumpy. A Portuguese man ‘o war was nothing to mess with—same thing with a horseshoe crab. One good ankle stab and I could kiss my Little League career goodbye forever.

***

This portion of the story often leads to students expressing their anxieties about their new academic journeys. They talk about some of the things that make them jittery like class presentations, midterms, or GPAs. When they begin to realize they share similar feelings, you can almost feel a collective sigh of relief sweep the room. It’s amazing how jellyfish can be an effective lead-in to such conversations.

***

More than anything, I wanted to swim out to that raft. So, bit-by-bit, I taught myself how to float and how to swim five yards at a time without walking. I began immersing my face into the water to see what was beneath the surface.

A day in late-August, two years after the push, I stood alone in light rain on the shore. To get a better view of the raft, I calmly waded into the tide and was greeted with a soft wave’s embrace. I felt a push, this time one that came from within.

Finally ready, I took a deep breath and slipped into the water.

***

To what extent do I push my students? I don’t. My goal is to get them to that point where they feel the push from within. And sometimes, the best way to do that is to get into the water with them.

Richard H. Kenney, Jr. is an assistant professor and the social work program director at Chadron State College.


  • Jacki D.

    Great article Rich! I enjoy reading your writing, it is very thought provoking. This article encourages me to explore, evaluate, and consider my teaching philosophy. Thank you and Go Chadron!

  • Rich Kenney

    Thanks, Jacki D. I appreciate your comments. Do you happen to be the Jacki D from FBC?