“Aim for the middle of the square,” I encourage an 8-year old boy on my basketball team.
The power of geometry on full display. Meanwhile, another player kicks the ball against the gymnasium wall, seemingly confusing basketball for soccer. Two others chase each other in a game of tag. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot another dancing the Macarena. The Macarena? Is Tik Tok responsible for the one-hit wonder Spanish song of 1993 being brought back? Reaching for my whistle, I notice another player launching shots from beyond the three-point line. In wonder I look on, taking a few seconds to just take in the full scene.
Weren’t the directions and demonstration clear? To take shots from 3 feet away, stepping from side to side and aiming at the middle of the box. A timeless backboard drill.
Before I am able to blow the whistle, it happens.
“Coach, can you tie my shoe?” one 4-foot tall player earnestly requests. His large blue eyes match his dyed fringe. The shrill tone of his voice resembling my 5-year old nephew’s.
I look down at his knotted lace and caught up in the chaos, regretfully do not seize the opportunity to teach this “life skill.” On the ride home, the moment continued to be replayed. Impossible to get out of my head, it stewed the next 48 hours.
For a veteran teacher, this was a serious self-check. An invaluable lesson to meet the learner, wherever they might be. A cornerstone of any education certification program, I would have guessed I perfected this lesson. However, in the midst of “herding cats,” did I forget? Mere negligence? Simply distracted? Whatever the reason, I was embarrassed for myself. A “wrong” to made right!
Grateful to learn from the error, I was reminded how we may have a particular aim for a class or practice, yet of even greater importance than our plan, is that we remain flexible and respond to the learners right before our eyes. Differentiation sometimes a reflex, while at other times requires utmost intention.
The next practice I approached the boy with the knotted laces and on bended knee showed him how to tie his shoe. Singing in a hushed tone, “Over, under, around and through, meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.” Smiling, he gave it a try, his motor skills a clear challenge. The third attempt a success!
During my childhood a poster hung in our home’s laundry room. It shared advice from best-selling author, Robert Fulgum and was titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Fulgum conveyed the simplicity and power of such adages as, share everything, and to play fair.
Years later, a third grade teacher, I turned to look over my shoulder each time a student called, “Mister…” I looked for my father, a bit bewildered because from one day to the next I had become a “Mister” myself. Though the exuberance, joy, and energy of 8 and 9-year olds was a pleasure, middle school became my wheelhouse. More than twenty years would pass before I would be in the company of third-graders again.
This time, wearing the hat of coach. A chance to improve my well-conditioned skills in patience but also explicitness, assuming nothing.
Not even that all the children can yet tie their own shoes.