17 Jan 2012

Swimming 'Lessons'

Every January I spend two or three weeks in Melbourne so that Jemimah can attend intensive daily swimming lessons with Vicswim. Every day I sit at the side of the pool, sometimes reading, and sometimes watching what goes on in the lesson. And it appears that every year some new lesson strikes me.

My very own swimming 'lesson', as it were.

One year I was struck with the fact that my daughter's swimming lessons were presented in a spiral programme like her maths. You can read why I thought that here. The next year as I watched her in the pool I thought about play. I was watching children being over organised by their over enthusiastic parents, which lead me to thinking about masterly activity and about playing for fun. I wrote about that here. Last year there was no swimming 'lesson' for me, but maybe that's because the lessons were so rudely interrupted by a rather large downpour of water that was to change our lives in a somewhat inconvenient fashion.

This year I'm back poolside again.

I love swimming weeks. They are a gentle lead in to the new school year - swimming all morning; school lessons in the afternoon. We try and eat out at an ethnic restaurant for lunch. Vietnamese yesterday; Chinese today. We may be back at school while everyone else is on holidays, but it sure doesn't feel like the drudgery of everyday life around here. This is homeschooling at its most relaxed, and we are at our happiest.

In Vicswim lessons, children are placed into classes according to their current ability. On enrolment, parents select a class based on the skills they believe their child has already attained. At the end of first class, the instructor shuffles the kids around to ensure that they are in the right grade for their experience. It works very well.

This year I placed Jemimah in Class Level D:
  • Swim 15 metres of backstroke and freestyle using efficient technique.
  • Be comfortable in deep water.
  • Tread water for 15 seconds.
  • Float comfortably without assistance.
  • Submerge and recover an object from chest depth water.
The main difference between Level D and E is that in the higher level the child swims 25 metres with an efficient technique, and in Level F the child swims continuously for 200 metres. Now Jemimah can swim both of those distances, and she has, in the past, been taken from Level D and placed by Vicswim in both those levels. The problem is, that as the level increases, the focus of the instructor moves from efficient correct swimming technique to distance swimming. Jemimah can swim the longer distances, but her endurance is not great enough, and the longer she swims, the poorer her stroke becomes. A couple of years back when Jemimah was enrolled in Level F, she developed a style fault that we referred to as a 'broken wing', and it took several months of one-on-one lessons to relearn something that until then she had been doing naturally.

I was reflecting upon this today as I watched my daughter swim. I noticed that she was one of the younger kids in a class made up of a large age range. Each of the children was swimming at a similar level. The instructor was able to spend time with each child to iron out any minor issues he or she might be having, without having to focus too hard on a weakest link, and without having to hold any child back. Nobody was made feel stupid because of their age or size.

I observed that at the distance she was swimming, her stroke was excellent. I noticed her eager, happy open face. I love watching Jemimah at swimming because she enjoys it so much. The smile rarely leaves her face. She is interested and ready to please her instructor. She listens attentively. She has fun with the other kids and easily makes friends (Phew, she is socialised after all). I am entirely glad that Jemimah is in Level D, a level that she has been in for the past four years, because each year her swimming improves, her enjoyment of the sport increases, and she has a wonderful time.

Which made me wonder why we get so hung up with levels in education. Nobody seemed to care that there were children of eight and others of thirteen in Level D today. They swam at about the same level, and so that's where they should be. By concentrating on the essentials, like stroke development, distance will come naturally as endurance develops and the child gets stronger. By keeping a child at the correct level he will enjoy swimming more, and will hopefully end up with a sport that will keep him fit well into adulthood. I swam regularly until I moved to the country where the pool was only open during summer and wasn't heated. Brrrrr. Parents may have many reasons for wanting their children to be able to swim, but surely two of the main ones must be water safety, and training for a possible future sport when the child is grown. A child who is forced into a level that is too hard will not enjoy that lesson. They won't develop good techniques, and they probably won't continue on with something they regard as little short of torture any longer than they have to.

Which brought me to education.

Now I can understand why a school teacher of a class of 25 students has to teach to an average level, but homeschoolers don't. Our kids get individual tuition. Mostly there is only one or at the most two children in any grade level. So why do we force them to conform to the same restrictions placed on that teacher of 25 students? Why do we teach to a level that is not ideally suited to each individual child? Why are we so keen to have our kids read more difficult books each year? To be above grade level at spelling? To excel at spelling or grammar or French? Why can't we be more like the swimming class, and realise that a child who is learning at the right level is likely to spend much of each day with an eager, happy open face like Jemimah's at swimming today. Some children learn to read by themselves before they begin kindergarten. Others, particularly some boys, find reading takes them much longer, and that they're still struggling at ten or eleven. Now provided there is not an underlying problem that needs to be addressed here, I suspect that by the time that child is grown, it won't matter one whit whether he learned to read at 3 or 13. What matters is that he reads at 30. It's a bit like swimming really, isn't it?

Today, the swimming 'lesson' fresh in my mind, I checked myself when I felt myself tense up at Jemimah's punctuation during dictation. I cut her some slack. She was frankly amazed. For art I encouraged her to work on her 'toilet roll family' rather than telling her that she must begin the Artistic Pursuits book that I thought she should do. At this, she was almost apoplectic. We only did half the maths questions, and ditched the rest. I think here she began to wonder if I might be ill. It was worth doing for the smile alone.

I try really hard not to get hung up about Jemimah's spelling. Really I do. Mostly I fail. Today though, I recognise that the likelihood is that by the time she is grown, she will probably be able to spell commandment and neighbour without writing them out five times first. If she can't, there's always spell checker, right?

I will never be the relaxed unschooler. It doesn't suit my personality or my family. My swimming 'lesson' from today, though, has prompted me to relax a bit and accept Jemimah as she is. I will continue trying to teach her to spell, but if she doesn't learn, then no doubt she will develop the skills to get around it. If she chooses to always draw the horizontal stroke of her 't' before the downstroke, then that's how she'll write. It doesn't really matter one way or the other in the big scheme of things.

Often I think I spend an inordinate amount of time correcting the same problem over and over and over. And it has all been one great big waste of time, for the problem is still there as big and ugly as if I had never tackled it in the first place. Maybe sometimes I need to accept that no matter what I do, that problem will never go away until one day it becomes a problem to Jemimah too, and she decides to change herself. And maybe it never will.

Maybe now I will try harder to accept Jemimah at the level she is at. She does exceedingly well at some things, less well at others, much the same way as she swims backstroke and freestyle beautifully but is hilarious at the backwards scull.

My swimming 'lesson' this year is that every child has his or her own level. And whatever it is, whether it be above or below grade level, or right on average, that's okay. As homeschoolers we have the privilege of meeting each and every child exactly where he is at. We can chose the level that we enrol our children in. And that can be Level F for reading and maths and Level B for spelling.

Sometimes parents ask me what level Jemimah is in at Vicswim. I am not ashamed when I say Jemimah is in Level D, because I know that when they see her swim they'll realise that she swims beautifully. I'm going to do my best to be the same way the next time someone asks about my child's level at school.

Jemimah is in exactly the level she needs to be in.

That's my swimming 'lesson' for 2012.


  1. These have been my thoughts with all of my children , Jeanne. However, when we registered with a school of DE (primarly for help with learning problems and to meet legal requirements) you sort of have to accept the graded thing. Schools have to have an average.
    Our learning support teachers have been wonderful in allowing the boys to work at their own pace and speed but the government requirement still sets them in an age appropriate grade.
    Oh, for the days when we did our own thing!

  2. "Maybe sometimes I need to accept that no matter what I do, that problem will never go away until one day it becomes a problem to Jemimah too, and she decides to change herself."
    Jeanne, there is alot of truth in this. My ds16 is only spelling better this year because he finally cares. every day he emails in gmail chat with some interstate hsers and he wants to spell correctly. Not to say all those years of work haven't helped, but huge inroads now because he cares.

  3. This has been one part of my homeschooling journey which I have enjoyed the most (and I am not a 'relaxed unschooler'. For my peace of mind I have had to have my children working at *about* the same level as their peers. Key word - ABOUT). And currently, the most scary part of my journey awaits... my eldest is off back to school this year (Yr 7, New Zealand) and I'm very, very anxious about the teaching to the average level, and the requirement for him to conform. Math speed tests anyone? I feel like I'm setting him up to fail. But he's looking forward to school. I must breathe through this.

  4. I love the way you've found a lesson for yourself in each year's experience with swimming lessons! What you've said also matches my experience. I love that we can teach our kids to their own level without labels like remedial, accelerated, failed or graduated.

    The computer is in demand today ... I just wanted to say I enjoyed your article :) Enjoy the rest of your time in Melbourne.

  5. Beautiful post that made me start crying. Sigh. I so needed to hear this today.

  6. sounds like you've just found a little bit of unschooler in yourself there Jeanne :-)

  7. Nope. Charlotte Mason for me, every time! If it works in unschooling as well then that is good, though. Actually, I know next to nothing about unschooling to be honest. I learned about CM, decided it worked for me, and researched no more.

  8. How did I miss this post? The battle is in the mind, living in a world that bases everything on levels and grades and not actually accepting the child's learning ability! I have been asked a few times already in this new year - 'what grade are your children in'? My stomach still turns in knots when people ask this question! I remind myself that people are just people and most lack the knowledge of why we choose to home school in the first place and unfortunately do not even want to hear my reasons! So I look up to the hills, whence my help comes from, my help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth...and the maker of my unique children! There are no levels in Gods eyes, and He reminds me how He chose David the shepherd boy, He did not look on the outside but at the heart. I LOVE YOUR SWIMMING LESSONS! Thank you!


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