like a back float

Posted on October 15, 2011


One of my favorite parts of teaching beginning swimming was teaching the back float.

Back floats are really, really scary and one of the things that keeps people from getting to Advanced Beginner. They can do everything but the back float. (Can you see the connection to math yet?) And… if you’re scared, you tense up and bend up and… even if you could have done the back float, you can’t do the back float now, and you’ve gotten water up your nose every single time as your “reward” for “trying harder.”

Here’s how I’d learned to teach it: Okay kiddos, grab the wall. We’re going to learn the back float, but you will not have to let go until you are ready and you say so.
Now, stick your belly up agains the wall and lean your head back, back until you can see me behind you.
Now, try to relax! Just keep looking back… if you can, straighten your arms out and feel the water holding you up.
Okay, that’s enough for now. Let’s grab a kick board and…

Next day, we do the same thing again. Many are already less scared and tense. I go down the line and put my hands under shoulders and work on individual positioning and relaxing, and a little diagnosing — some of ’em are going to have to float *and* kick, those little muscly, wiry kiddos. But not ’til they’re ready– they’re the ones who *need* to master everything else.

Okay, if you really, really want to, straighten your arms *all* the way out and… let go for a second, but I’ve got my hands right under your shoulders. NO, I’m not going to move them until you tell me to. NO, really, and I don’t. And you can look right up and see my face — is your belly trying to touch the sky? Could you balance a glass of lemonade on your forehead? Stay relaxed — no reason to be tense. I’m not going to let go until you tell me to — and even when I do I’m just going to have my hands one inch under your shoulders, and if you’re scared you’re going to feel my fingertips and how you don’t really need my hands there…

and by the end of the week, you’re blissfully leaning back, sticking your arms perpendicular and floating away. (Okay, most of you. Some of you ‘sinkers’ will have needed to learn to kick your feet, but we’ve been practicing that, too, and if your belly’s touching the sky, you don’t have to kick much…)

YOu’re also a whole lot more willing to listen when I say “I wouldn’t ask you to try if I weren’t sure you could do it.” YOu’re infinitely more likely to recognize your fear as its own creature, and to look for ways to *accomplish* the challenge before you instead of ways to manage the “inevitable” failure that you’d been accustomed to.

Math should be like that. What if you could *see* the problem happen, and see the answer, and only when you were ready did you have to … construct what you would have seen… *then* construct it in your mind and figure out the solution.

What if you didn’t have to wait until you *guessed* wrong to get hints? What if you kept finding out that no, you weren’t going to get water up your nose… or feel like a complete idiot?

WHat if they weren’t “hints” — but were descriptions of what was happening, and you could pick — number lines or shapes… assorted scaffolds…

What if you *could* ask why and get answered? WHat if you *could* see “why not?” with an example of why (x + 3)^2 isn’t x^2 + 9 — visually *and* numerically?

What if teachers and students knew there was a curriculum out there with a design for the anxious?

(Oops, first somebody has to develop the curriculum… time to get to work…)