Tuesday, November 8, 2011
About half-way between Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts, a few miles south of the Interstate and Route 6, the Westport River winds about eight miles inland until it narrows to not much more than the length of a kayak. Beside it is a small, weathered-shingle building, flanked by racks of kayaks. Early on Saturday morning, Nate and I went in and met Todd Wright, who had taught our Instructor Development Workshop in June, and Carl Ladd, the owner, with his wife Samantha, of Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures. We were there, along with Mike, a college student from Vermont, to be assessed as ACA Level 3 Instructors.
Soon, our assessors told us, our six practice students would arrive and the three of us would take turns teaching on the upper Westport River. We would be assessed on our personal skills, group management and teaching ability. The students would be real, with varying levels of experience, lured there for a free lesson. There was no set agenda- the three of us instructor candidates would need to figure things out on the fly, according to what we could observe as our student’s needs and abilities.
I’d like to say I wasn’t a bit nervous. For all the work we’d been putting into this, I should have felt confident, but we were responsible for a lot of material. As we’d driven down from Maine on Friday, Nate and I quizzed each other on everything from weather forecasting and navigation, to teaching theory and the history of the American Canoe Association. We had been doing some teaching at Old Quarry, and sometimes a practice session with friends, but we knew that we still needed more practice. In recent weeks, most of my paddling was aimed at getting ready for this weekend. Maybe you saw me- out among the islands talking to myself, demonstrating the components of strokes to invisible students.
Visible students are way better. Instead of just explaining and demonstrating, for instance, the sculling draw, you can look at what the student is doing and think of several ideas that might make the stroke actually work: loosen your grip, face your work... and think about how that shaft angle works. When the boat suddenly begins moving sideways toward yours, it’s an “Aha” moment and you both feel like you’ve accomplished something.
The tough thing is figuring out how to get students to discover something on their own. And as instructor candidates, we were no different in that respect; we keep learning a bit more about teaching. We’ve seen our students’ eyes go blank when we know we’ve talked too much. And I think we’ve figured-out that the forward stroke is better coached in bits and pieces than taught all at once. We’ve learned that beginner students can be easier to teach than the ones who have been picking-up habits from their friends for years, and that one of the biggest obstacles to learning is believing that there is nothing to learn.
On Sunday we went down to the mouth of the Westport River, where we could introduce current, rocks and surf. It was a logical progression, taking those skills we’d worked on the previous day and applying them to more demanding conditions. At one point, our students climbed up into the grandstand seats- a big hump of rock called The Knubble- to watch us demonstrate our rescues and rolls in the waves and wind. My favorite part came at Horseneck Beach as we- the instructor candidates- waded out into the breaking waves to hand-launch our paddle-less students into the surf, finally letting them graduate to paddles to do it on their own.
At the end of the day, our students were our first assessors, telling us what worked and what didn’t (and their reactions were overwhelmingly positive) and then Todd and Carl gave us individual feedback- what we’re doing well, what we need to work on, and the news that we had passed. This was a great relief. For the six-hour drive home, Nate and I continued the feedback, as well as our ideas for teaching at Old Quarry. In the back of my mind though, I looked forward to getting out for a paddle that wasn't work, in which I could think about none of these things, only the feeling of moving my kayak through the water as well as I could.