Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Learning English

Most of the kids we work with at swimming lessons are learning English. They speak some other language at home and they are just starting to spend full days with people who speak English. It's not too alarming with the two and three year-olds. Even the most WASPy American ones have a pretty limited vocabulary at two. They learn a new word every day and babble way more than they make sense. Yesterday I taught all my kids the word shallow. So the gap between a two year-old whose parents are English-speakers and whose parents are Chinese-speakers is usually pretty small in my experience,

It is shocking, however, when I get a five year-old who doesn't speak English. This summer is the first time it's happened to me in awhile. His teacher introduced him "This is [we'll call him Oscar] and he is learning English. He should pretty much understand what you're saying, but his first language is French." My first thought was a sigh. It's nothing like teaching an adult English language learner because the kid is much more likely to put himself in some stupid, dangerous situation. It's nothing like teaching a two year-old learning English either because the little ones just do what you say trustingly (whether they know what you are talking about or not) while the five year-olds ask why and how (even if those are the only words they know). It's easier to teach someone who is learning English than special needs, but only barely.

Oscar is always swimming away. He's never doing the drill. He barely improves. It's frustrating for both of us. I want to put away this arrogant American idea that everyone should know English (especially because I don't actually know any other languages), but when the only thing I'm sure we have in common is the word "no" I find a little fury that we can't communicate better. I know he's smart, but sometimes I don't know what to say to even keep him safe in the pool. It's all ok. Nobody has drowned yet, but I prefer the ones with excellent vocabularies if I'm honest.

One word really surprised me last week. After his lesson a five year-old was asking "What's that?" to everything around the pool deck. After we went through the names and various uses of flippers, fins,  pull buoys, and blocks he [we'll call him Graham] pointed to one thing and I notified him that they were called diving sticks. "They sink because they are heavy, right?" I cringed. Two years of high school physics made me abhor the word heavy. I looked at Graham and said,  "Well, if we want to get scientific about it the heaviness isn't really what makes it sink." Graham cut me off. "Is it because they are denser than water?" I... Yes. Denser. I agreed with him.  He even knew what it meant. That's the kind of vocabulary I can speak to. I brought out a rubber duck that was heavier than the diving stick so we had a ten-minute discussion about density. I don't know how you teach your five year-old words like density, but I appreciate it when I find a parent who has figured it out. I know they are all little, but I really respect kids who can use their words.

Monday, May 20, 2013


I have a roommate this summer who doesn't really know me. She's extremely nice, but it's the first time I've lived with somebody who wasn't my friend. Well, that's somewhat inaccurate. The first few weeks of my first semester of college I had a roommate that I didn't know, but at that point nobody had any friends and we were all surprisingly busy trying to become close to one another so it felt very different. I no longer need this person to like me the way I did freshmen year.

Even considering all that, I can't help but try and come off well. It's because she doesn't know me that I feel pressured to be interesting. Most of the time I think I am good company. I have great stories about the whole heart transplant drama. The tales from my dad's life make him sound like a Timelord who has been at every important event since his birth. Even my brother has had some great scenes to contribute to my portfolio of stories to tell by being so notably intelligent and lazy in the first epoch of his life. I just want to talk to her until she believes I am remarkable, but we don't really have anything to converse about because I'm not really doing anything right now. I'm teaching the kids to swim and hanging out with friends after work, but I'm not ruling the school like I do during the year or really "busy" with anything in particular.

I end up playing a game of "what's worse" with myself. Do I want her to think I sit around watching Netflix all day? I'm watching really good shows like Sherlock and Doctor Who, but she has walked past and inquired about what I was watching to which I responded Doctor Who and she said, "Oh I've never even heard of that movie." Now I feel like I can't watch it anymore because I have to explain it's the most popular drama in the UK that started in 1963. It is a movie too, but I haven't seen the movie because it's such an insignificant part of the overall canon. That would be embarrassing for her. It's completely outside of her box. Either that or the box I'm thinking in is bigger on the inside. Do I want her to think I sit around writing and reading all day? Whenever I assert that I don't do anything she points to the time I spend reading and writing every day. It's a kindness that she considers that productive, but I can't explain to her what I'm writing so she thinks it's a tiny bit strange simultaneously. Unless you've been a beginning writer you can't quit understand, "Well, I'm writing stories about my life, but they are almost all bad so then I just delete them." Do I want her to think I play games all the time? Gaming is still so frowned upon by people that she doesn't get that at all. She saw my frames per second running in the top left corner of my screen and inquired about what it was and I couldn't explain why I kept track of my FPS. Do I want her to think I'm vapid and spend all my time on Facebook and Twitter having debates in 142 charaters? Just no. Gtfo Twitter.

The truth is I can control what this not-friend roommate thinks of me based on what I display on my computer screen the couple hours each evening we're together. The problem with that truth is that all the things I'm doing right now basically amount to the collection of stories. I'm reading great stories. I'm watching great stories play out on TV. I'm playing games with great stories. It's not socially acceptable to live in fantasy worlds created by writers. Reality is broken as Jane McGonigal would say and I just prefer those worlds that aren't quite real. I hope this roommate doesn't judge me too harshly. If you can think of an activity I can do this summer that would make me a better human and is also "mainstream" leave it in the comments. I could use the help for this in future situations with non-nerds.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sportsmanship for Children

I'm teaching a lot of swim lessons right now, but my favorite is currently a group of six precocious five year-olds that just love swimming. A few of them I've been teaching for years and a few I met this week, but now that I've reached the conclusion of our first week of summer I can confidently say they all know my rules. They are, however, hyper-competitive despite their daycare preaching that they are all friends who need to help each other because their parents are hyper-competitive. They would rather race than play a game and, honestly, I respect that. Three weeks ago they asked if we could do a race and I said yes. I asked each kid if they were racing and then sent them off to swim down the pool. I was slower than them because I swam at the back with my little friends so I could maintain a headcount (even though they are all drown-proof), but when I touched the wall I heard the winner saying to the others, "I won. I'm the greatest nana" as you would if you were five. I considered this unacceptable behavior.

The next day I had a plan to change it. When they asked to do a race I said, "Sure. The rules are, though, that no matter what happens all you are aloud to say is 'Nice race. Good swimming.'" When I hit the other end I heard one of them (lets call him Benjamin) start with his victory speech and I responded, "What do we say, Benjamin?" His face was sad, but he parroted the correct response. He mumbled, "Nice race. Good swimming" It was completely disingenuous and forced, but that was fine with me.

We talk in the Like Minds Coalition, our community-building diversity and inclusion group, that you can't really change people's minds without first trying to change their behaviors. For instance, you wouldn't walk up to somebody and say, "You are really homophobic. You should stop thinking that way." It doesn't work. What you do is say, "That thing you just said sounded really homophobic even though you didn't mean it that way. You should watch out for that." People can't control what they think, but they can control how they act. Benjamin (and maybe everybody) didn't have an initial sportsmanlike reaction, but I made him do it anyway.

When we did our race this week on Monday and Tuesday I repeated the exercise of starting with the expectation of cordiality because I had a few new kids. Yesterday when I hit the wall I heard Benjamin (who always wins) lean over and say, "Nice race, Oscar. That was really fun. We are really fast swimmers," without any prompting. It made me ridiculously proud. Sportsmanship is important just so people keep playing with you. I was the one who always lost so if I can make a couple five year-olds learn how to win then I'm happy for all the children they are going to beat in the future. It's always more fun to lose to somebody who will force themselves to not gloat.

I know I'm pretty intense with the kids. Day one we swam three hundred yards (which is a lot if you are five) and practiced flip turns. Thursday this week I told them to do a drill (it was just kicking on their side so I knew they could do it) and I sent them off one by one. I did it in an order, though, so that they all ended up catching each other. That was my mistake, but I like to have everybody get a turn to go first. They ended up sprinting and entirely forgot about the drill. I noticed the head of their daycare was standing at the end of the pool observing, but in spite of her I put on my teacher voice (which is awesome) and said, "My friends that was bad. It was not good swimming.  We can have a race, but I will tell you if we are racing. You can do better so we are doing it again." The second time it was perfect. I noted that the woman in charge walked over to my boss and I thought I might be in trouble, but after the lesson my boss said, "Oh my goodness that was so fantastic. We couldn't stop laughing." My experience has been with those little kids is that wherever you set the expectation, they meet it. If you expect sportsmanship they'll give it to you. If you require them to do the drills they'll do it. So I don't mind if I'm a little more intense than my colleagues because my kids end up better swimmers and they love me anyway. I think everybody should get a job where people scream joyously when you walk into the room.