Teach Writers Like Nate Taught Swimmers

My husband’s and my friend Nate taught three of our four children how to swim. Nate was 20 when I scribbled these lessons in my notebook after our final swim lesson.

Get in the pool. Nate was a competitive swimmer. He knows how to swim well, so he can teach in a richer way. As writing teachers, we need to put words on paper. It gives a deeper insight into how to teach writing well.

Teach one thing. After watching a swimmer he gave one suggestion to make the stroke better — Keep your legs straight, Get your elbows out of the water, OR Put your whole face in the water. He wouldn’t demand all of those things, just the ONE most pressing.

Model. With every bit of verbal instruction, Nate also showed what it looked like. He did this almost every time. He constantly modeled.

Give lots of encouragement.High fives, thumbs up, and verbal encouragement were as much a part of his time as anything else. When someone was nervous or didn’t think they could do something his response was, “Sure you can, watch me. Now let me help you. Just do this one part . . . ” Then after the attempt he celebrated with them until they were going to crack from smiling with pride.

Adjust to different personalities. My oldest daughter is sensitive and wants to please people. Nate’s work with her was quiet, gentle, and non-stop encouragement. My middle daughter is the complete opposite. Nate would yell across the pool to her. He was a little more “in her face” and demanding. She responded better to this kind of interaction. After each accomplishment Nate offered her a high-five and lots of encouragement. My son is four and ornery. Nate, once again, adjusted his teaching. He splashed back, did things to make him laugh, and teased more. The encouragement always continued.

Give everyone else time to practice while you work one on one. Nate took one person to the other end of the pool while everyone else practiced in the shallow end. Although the kids left in the shallow end weren’t always “on task,” they were in the pool and that was what mattered. Nate wanted them to enjoy being in the water.

Smile. Nate smiled a lot. When kids accomplished something, when they refused, when they were nervous, Nate smiled. Nate loved swimming and he loved kids. He couldn’t help but smile. Smiling goes a long way and we should do this more when teaching writing.

Set boundaries. When kids did something they weren’t supposed to, they paid the consequence. He made his explanations clear and the consequences for crossing a boundary were evident. Since he was clear and no one wanted to sit out of the water during practice time, they did what was expected.

Give challenges. Laced with the encouragement was a constant challenge. Since Nate was a swimmer himself, he was able to push each person to become stronger.

Give a small amount of whole group instruction and a lot of time for practice. His instruction with the whole group was a matter of minutes and he watched them all attempt the teaching point. Then he called them together and refined his instruction. He never “instructed” for more than a few minutes at a time. He knows learning happens by doing.

Teach the big things first. From a distance I watched kids attempting the different strokes. Although I know how to swim (I was a life guard throughout college), I don’t have the same kind of training as Nate. I watched an attempt and think “Where do you even begin to teach?” However, Nate could pinpoint one thing that would make a difference. Ignoring everything else, he said, “Good job, now this time would you try ______?” He made his teaching important by focusing on the things that made the biggest difference.

Ignore the mess. Learning something new can be messy. Nate ignored the mess. Instead he focused on encouragement and teaching one thing. As a writing teacher I need to ignore the mess a little more.

End with fun. The end of each session involved jumping off the diving board. For the little kids they jumped into Nate’s arms. Nothing is more fun than boinging off a diving board into the deep and either swimming to the side or being caught by someone special.

Give a reminder at the very end.As they were drying off, he said to each person, “Now what are you going to think about until you come back?” He gave one reminder — the really big thing he expected of each person.

Celebrate BIG from time to time. At the end of all the lessons, we had a pool party. Nate played in the water with them. Tossed them, tipped them off of floaties, let them hang from his strong arms, showed them back dives, and made waves in the pool until their giggles left them breathless. He also arranged for his mom to make brownies, complete with gummy worms. We sat around a table by the pool and talked, laughed, and joked.

None of us knew, while eating gummy worm brownies, that we would never see Nate again. Although he planned to eat dinner at our house the next day, he never made it. Nate died at the lake while swimming with his friends. His heart quit working. The final lesson I learned from Nate is the one that changed me the most.  
Life is fragile.As writing teachers, our work revolves around stories. What I remember each day is these stories are precious. We don’t know how long we have. Like Nate, I want to make each moment matter. I want to smile and encourage and make others believe their stories matter.
Life is too fragile to spend it any other way. 
Find a PDF version of this post here.
To read more about Nate, see these posts.

The original version of this post was published here — written the day before he died, completely oblivious to what the next 24 hours would hold.

I wrote about it raw here.

I wrote about how he impacts the way I parent here.

I wrote about how he influences me as a writer here.

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  1. Life is fragile, that is something we ignore too often. Rereading the story and lessons from Nate bring me to tears, every. single. time. His lessons live on through your words.

  2. I remember the stories, Ruth, and I do know that life is fragile, we must make things count, yet when you tell Nate's story, the gift he gave you and the children, it's so, so special. I'm glad you shared still one more lesson from him.

  3. This post has been rattling around in my heart since I first read it. My eyes were too full to respond in the moment. There is something special in the richness of your words when you write about Nate. Combine that with the heart you pour into writing about your children, and you get a piece that reaches out and grabs every reader. Sometimes I think it is your words that are the gift you share with us, other times I am convinced it is the very life you lead that is the gift. Either way, we treasure what you give. It fills my heart to know that Nate's life continues to be a gift to you and your family.