10 Lessons about Life, Literacy and Learning
By Regie Routman
When I was a teenager, I spent much of my free time and weekends playing tennis with my best friend. When weather permitted, we would bike to neighborhood courts and play for hours. It was free, it was fun, and all that practice turned us into darn good players.
I continued to play for the next few decades and then stopped. Who knows why? I got busy raising a family, working, writing, and following other pursuits.
I took tennis up again recently with a specific purpose in mind: I wanted to meaningfully interact with my 16-year old, tennis-playing, very busy granddaughter. If you spend any time with teenagers today, then you know face-to-face, in-person time is not their favorite contact sport.
My granddaughter, like so many of her peers, prefers text messages, Instagram, Snapchat and the like – Facebook, email, and talking on the phone are relics from her past. Her dad had told me, “She’ll play tennis with anyone,” so I didn’t flatter myself when she accepted all my invitations, but I had my pride.
I did want her to see me as a competent player. So I joined the same local, public tennis club where my granddaughter and family played. I treated myself to private lessons every other week and took up tennis again in earnest.
The ruse worked in ways I hadn’t expected. I did get closer to my granddaughter and that has been rewarding for us both, but the main benefits have been more far-reaching and surprising. What I learned has made me think more deeply about teaching, learning, and living.
- It’s never too late to improve.
Even though I hadn’t been on a tennis court for over 25 years, my tennis playing got a lot better, even after just a few months of occasional lessons and practice. My desire to be a decent player propelled me to invest full mental and physical energy. I pushed myself, and though I was badly out of shape, I did not get discouraged. Small improvements that were named and noticed by my teacher spurred me on.
- Having fun makes you feel good.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed tennis. I felt exhilarated when I played. And, here’s the surprising part. While part of my motivation was to get exercise I badly needed, having fun eventually overtook every other reason for playing. Playing tennis made me happy. If we are investing a lot of effort and time into teaching and learning, shouldn’t joy be a by-product for us and our students?
- Doing something for yourself is a luxury and a necessity.
Like you, I don’t take much time to treat myself to things that are just for me. Life’s demands and guilt routinely intervene. So I was amazed how marvelous it felt to indulge myself in a pleasurable pursuit that was purely personal. I loved taking those tennis lessons and having one-on-one time with a teacher dedicated to helping me improve.
Even being stuck in rush-hour traffic on my way home did nothing to dampen my spirits. Following a pleasurable, self-chosen pursuit continues to lift my spirits and give me energy to deal with the “hard stuff” life offers.
- Having an excellent coach makes all the difference.
When I signed up for lessons, I got the luck of the draw and wound up with a superb teacher. As a skillful coach, she gets the balance right between praising, nudging, demonstrating, practicing, supporting, and letting go. We start off each lesson with easy practice, rallying the ball back and forth, warming up with familiar volleys before adding any challenges. When I hit the balls well, she lets me know.
As needed, she stops, shows, and/or explains what modification or specific moves would help me play more effectively. Her tone and demeanor are always kind, nonjudgmental and encouraging, which makes it easy for me to try again and want to do better. She is exactly the kind of teacher I try to be and want for all children.
- How you follow through determines the end result.
One of my weaknesses in tennis is following through all the way when I hit the ball. I often start out the swing in good form, but then failure to move my arms and racquet in a manner that ensures accuracy and power hamper the outcome. I hit the ball into the net and have little control over where the ball goes. The end result is I come up short.
I’ve learned that starting well is insufficient; what happens all the way through the act of doing determines whether or not we meet success.
- Informing your practice doesn’t require a rank or rating.
It’s common practice at our pubic tennis club and other similar clubs that players are put into categories that define them by skill levels. As a practical matter, this makes sense for group lessons so players are matched with those with similar abilities.
Even so, for adults, and especially for kids, competitive rankings can be problematic. For some, having a lower rating translates to “less capable” rather than to “moving forward appropriately.” Even students placed at advanced levels stress out about the extreme competition and the pressure to maintain their status. The joy then goes out of the game.
- Avoid overreaching.
I recently took a serious fall while playing tennis with my son and landed all my weight on my dominant right hand. While x-rays revealed no break, I had severe ligament damage in several fingers and a near-dislocated joint. The healing process has been slow and humbling; the fall could have been avoided.
Normally sensible about my physical limits, why did I run for that ball that was clearly out of reach? Was it because I was playing with my son for only the second time in over 25 years and I wanted to impress him? Did I trip over ill-fitting shoes? Did I think because I had not fallen before, falling wasn’t possible?
Probably all of the above. How often do we add a new initiative or accept a new challenge to our already too-full plates—in schools, in classrooms, in our lives—even when we know better? Recovery can be painfully slow.
- Invest in excellent resources.
When I took up tennis again, I hadn’t given much thought to the equipment I’d need to play well. I already had a racquet purchased secondhand and a pair of old athletic shoes so I made do with those. I learned that you actually need shoes that are made for playing tennis, and not having those shoes may be part of why I tripped.
You also need a good racquet that fits your size, strength, and needs. Not knowing how to purchase those on my own, I consulted with the head coach of the tennis club, and he personally helped me select what best suited me. It got me thinking: “Why do we settle for second-rate literature and resources in our schools which shortchange us and our students and may even do damage?”
- Relax your grip.
“Relax your grip” may be the best advice my tennis coach gave me. Especially after the fall, I felt like I was holding on for dear life when I picked up the racquet again. My fingers were wrapped in protective tape and I had about 65% mobility in my hand. “Relax your grip” forced me to slow down, take deep breaths, and loosen up—all of which resulted in being more relaxed and playing better.
Isn’t that true in all aspects of our lives? Holding on too tight—to people we love, to our students, to our families—doesn’t work out so well for us or for them.
- What you’ve truly learned stays with you.
I was astonished. After resuming tennis slightly handicapped and after not playing for almost four months, I was playing as well as before the fall. My coach commented and I agreed: “You haven’t lost a beat. You’re playing very well.” I left that lesson pain free and exhilarated.
How was it possible that I had no loss in skill? I think that when we are taught well and deeply on topics we are passionate about, learning sticks. Also, while choice and deliberate practice matter a lot, perhaps most important of all, joy matters. It was the remembered joy of playing that gave me the impetus and will to play again even knowing new missteps were bound to occur.
Regie Routman (@regieroutman) is a longtime teacher, author, and speaker who is committed to improving the literacy and learning lives of children, especially those in high-challenge schools. Her professional development series from Heinemann, Regie Routman in Residence, captures the essence of this experience. For further ideas and lessons on reading, writing, and leading well, or to contact Regie, visit her website.
Her latest book, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014) focuses on the critical role of instructional leadership in creating strong literacy programs. Her next book, Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for ALL Learners, will be published by Stenhouse in early 2017.