Wednesday, June 5, 2013

New Roads

This is a double-sided post - on the top is my perspective, and below that is Jennifer's take on the same process. That was her cool idea!
Not long ago, a teacher friend of mine, Jennifer, emailed me to announce that she’d just splurged on a new bike for herself. She was excited about the prospect of riding, but hadn’t ridden much since she was a kid, and asked if I’d be willing to meet with her somewhere to go over the basics. She knew I love biking and asked if I could “coach” her into getting started.

Afterward, it occurred to us that this coaching/learning experience could be blog-worthy, and so we each have posted based on our own perspectives. Coaching, it turns out, is not quite as intuitive as falling off a bike, but the parallels between our ride together and coaching in general were difficult to ignore:

1.    Market yourself – In this case, Jennifer had identified me as someone who could help with her new-found hobby. I’d “advertised” my passion for riding bikes through Facebook, and so she sought me out. As a coach in a building, only rarely will the Jennifers of the world seek us out – most of the time, we have to look for opportunities to coach. We have to advertise our wares – through weekly newsletters sharing proven teaching strategies, responding to emails to offer specific support, or even drop-in “cold calls” visiting classrooms to listen for teacher frustrations. We need to advertise our passions.

2.    Let the student guide you – When we met up in the parking lot, I still wasn’t sure what Jennifer’s previous biking experience consisted of or what sort of help she wanted from me. But a few quick questions helped me know that it was mainly the shifting she wanted explained. If I’d jumped in at a too basic or overly advanced level, I’d have wasted time for both of us, and likely frustrated her as well. Don’t make assumptions – ask questions.

3.    Gradual release is universal – No matter the activity, gradually releasing responsibility while simultaneously increasing difficulty is alsmost always successful. In our case, we started off on level ground in parking lots, then gradually meandered around the college campus drive before eventually tackling a dirt road with loose patches of gravel and mud puddles, and finally a rooty dirt path through the woods. Each time we stepped up the difficulty I asked Jennifer if she was game, and she always was – she even mastered the steep downhill with a hidden S-curve over a narrow culvert at the bottom. By then she’d gotten the hang of her overall goal for the outing – to master shifting and knowing when to use which gears. If we’d started out the day on that downhill she could have gotten hurt, both in ego and in body, and the prospect of her new bike would have seemed much less inviting. Start slow, and always stay within the learner’s zone of proximal development.

4.    Be aware of the curse of knowledge – This idea comes from Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Made to Stick” and has to do with our tendency to forget  just how hard it was to learn something once we’ve mastered it ourselves. I found myself having to think through processes and steps (down-shifting gears before an uphill, using both brakes on a downhill) that I’ve done so often I’m unconscious of them. As a coach, it can be very easy to make assumptions about prior knowledge – I sometimes think assumptions are the curse of coaching – and so we inadvertently leave out crucial, basic information. In coaching, step back, empathize, and empty yourself of what you know. Make yourself conscious of everything involved.

5.    Be a learner – Donald Graves once said, “The teacher is the chief learner in the classroom.” As a coach, I try to model constant learning, mainly because life is more fun that way. On my ride with Jennifer I came away with a bit more knowledge about hybrid bicycles and their surprising capabilities, but I learned much more through our discussions about popular blogs, her possible dissertation topic on social media as professional development, and the surprising fact that she used to race cars! This she told me after the S-curve culvert incident, which totally explains why she didn’t crash.

In reality, coaching is simply one adult sharing ideas with another and, ideally, vice versa. In the best coaching situations, both participants get fed. People shouldn’t leave the interaction feeling demoralized, angry, or tempted to give up, but rather empowered - and perhaps a little sore around the edges from stretching beyond their normal range of motion.

Jennifer's post:

Me....after just one lesson! Okay...not really.
Faced with numerous gears and trepidation about the "proper" way to ride a bike, I recalled reading an educator-friend’s many updates on Facebook about bike rides and thought she might be game for a riding lesson. One message to her and the date was set.

Heather is working on her Ph.D. and has been in a coaching position with our county for several years. I've always enjoyed her relaxed manner with the students as well as the teachers I've seen her work with. So from the get-go I wasn't too nervous about our meet-up even though I knew she was light years beyond me in biking experience.

Having joked about this experience being great fodder for a blog I couldn't help but draw comparisons between our “lesson” and those that we face every day in the classroom.

First of all, I sought out the help of someone I knew had already mastered the content. How many times in our classrooms do we squelch conversations without realizing that our students are actually seeking help from their more experienced peers?

As we unloaded our bikes Heather assessed my experience level with one question, “So, when’s the last time you rode a bike?” I reassured her that I knew that I could ride a bike, but it was “that gear-shifting stuff” that had me worried. Plus, I was concerned that my bike, having been assembled by an unknown person in the backroom at Target, could possibly have been put together backwards and I wouldn't know it until a wheel fell off.

Heather chose the local college campus which was a great area for our initial ride. We were able to start out on level pavement so I could practice shifting gears. She gave me simple, short instructions as we practiced - basic things that I could have read about or Googled, but that were easy for me to grasp with an expert by my side.

We made several laps around the campus on pavement. I had to stop a few times in the beginning to get my seat height worked out. Heather was quick to lend a hand, tightening a screw that I had no idea existed. Already this free lesson was worth gold to me! She also pointed out that I should take my bike to a real bike shop after a few weeks to have everything tightened up and checked. I never would've thought to do such a thing, but it made total sense, especially given my paranoia about the initial assembly of the bike.

We chatted about school and our possible dissertation topics as we cruised around. All the while I became more and more comfortable shifting gears and braking without throwing myself over the handlebars. When Heather suggested trying out a trail I was confident in her experience as my coach that I would be able to manage whatever she led me through. How many times have we been told that trust is critical in student-teacher relationships? Because I trusted her, I had confidence in myself.

The trail was great fun! I’d never ridden off pavement before and although my hybrid was not as adept as her mountain bike at handling mud, I made it through without incident. Again, as we navigated puddles, gravel pits, roots, etc. Heather provided concise tips when I needed them. How often do we front-load students with all the instructions for an activity only to find ourselves repeating information later? No one wants to eat a steak in one bite. It's much easier to digest information one bite at a time.

After an hour we returned to our cars and parted ways. We’d rode about 6 miles which was great for me as a beginner. I’d come light years from where I started an hour earlier thanks to Heather’s support. This experience further cemented my belief in programs like The Daily Five and C.A.F.E. by The Sisters. Students learn by doing.

Heather could’ve met me at a coffee shop and we could’ve talked about biking. She could have explained how to change gears and maybe even presented a PowerPoint about proper bike assembly. I bet she could’ve found a worksheet online that would’ve quizzed my knowledge of how to shift gears and adjust my seat.

Instead, we biked. 

Jennifer's blog:

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