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Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Learning To Snowboard

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Learning To Snowboard

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Though I had planned to leave my work behind, I begin to notice my instructor as teacher.

Our instructor looks little more than 20 years old, with a sinewy build and keen eyes. He smiles at us as we trudge toward him and drop an awkward pile of gear at his feet. "First time snowboarding?" he asks. We nod. We have paid $30 for gear, $30 for lessons, and $30 for a lift pass. We hope that in the next two hours he can help make this new sport fun. "All right then, let me start with the basics."

His style sets me at ease. He looks straight at us when he speaks, and his voice lilts with a clear playfulness: I can tell that he likes what he does. His name tag says "James"; underneath boasts the ski area's staff catch phrase, "Here to help." I hope he can.

James asks our names and remembers them immediately. I wonder how many students he has each day. He asks what we do for work. My partner Thom says, "Her work is easier to explain than mine," and I add, "I teach." But both Thom and I are eager to leave our workweek behind, preferring just to recreate and enjoy the blue sky and white snow.

James quickly has us done up in our front binding, learning how to walk with the awkward apparatus on our feet, and then to spin in circles clockwise and counter-clockwise to get a feel for the board. I feel coordinated with this first step, though my toes and right knee jut out at improbable angles from my body. Having skied for many years gives me confidence in my body on snow; for Thom, having skateboarded and surfed gives him a sense of the balance and footing.

"All right. Now that you have the hang of how to move, I need to teach you the basic stance. Legs bent slightly at the knee. Head up. Arms straight out in front of you, parallel to each other, pointing the direction you're facing. Body leaned slightly forward." James demonstrates. "Imagine you drank Super-Glue for breakfast. It filled up your whole torso so it moves as a unit. Like a robot." He turns his head, arms, and torso in one motion to point toward three o'clock. The analogy works. And, though I had planned to leave my work behind, I begin to notice him as teacher: what he says, how he says it, how it feels. He seems a natural: supportive, encouraging, clear. He repeats the points of the basic stance, and demonstrates again. I appreciate the repetition.

"Good. Now that you have the basic stance, we'll go up the slope a bit to learn a basic toe turn. Face up the fall line--I usually explain it by rolling an orange down the slope; where the orange rolls is the natural fall line." We both nod, familiar with the concept. I like the visual trick, though.

"Now that we're up, we're going to learn a basic toe turn. It has three steps. So when you're doing it, you can just say 'one,' 'two,' 'three.' " He sets up a structure in our mind. "You already know the first step: the basic stance. Legs bent, head up, arms out, body forward." Reviewing again: I don't feel patronized, only cradled in clarity. "Step two initiates the turn. You straighten your legs and lean forward more." He demonstrates. "Step three completes the turn. You turn your arms to face where you want to go, bringing your torso with it, and rebend the knees. So: one, two, three." Somehow, he makes one fluid gesture, while still making each of the three components distinct. I think about the many times I've tried to show that one coherent essay has introduction, body, and conclusion. "Let me show you again: one, two, three. It helps to have simple phrases in your head when you're learning the moves."

How many times, in my own teaching, have I skipped over an essential step, assuming my students would know? Too many.

We and the others in our group practice. James calls out "one, two, three" as each of us goes. "Good!" Then one piece of feedback: "look up" for one of us; "keep those arms parallel in front of you" for another; "lean forward more" for me. Just one: enough for now.

We practice these three simple steps for almost an hour. We are on the learners' hill, or "bunny" slope: a part of a ski area on which I haven't been since I was 4 years old. Were I on downhill skis, this slope would seem almost flat; surely not enough to provide a full morning's challenge. Yet now even the rope tow--no more than 50 meters long--is daunting: I have a hard time balancing, and fall several times, once actually catching my knee painfully in the cable. Nothing is simple.

"Now it's time to learn the heel turn. But first, we need to learn how to roll over. I hold my left leg with my left hand, and set my right shoulder on the ground. Then I lean to the right, putting weight on that shoulder, and swing my board over." He demonstrates. How many times, in my own teaching, have I just skipped over an essential step like this, assuming my students would know? Too many. "You may find an easier way," he says, "and that's fine; this is just what works for me."

He instructs in the same clear manner for the heel turn. And then, before I know it, our lesson is over. "I'd like each of you to go down one more time. I'm going to watch from the bottom. When you get down, I'll give you one thing to go away with. It always helps to know what to work on next." How much better could schools serve if each student got that type of feedback each day? How much better could I teach if I found time to give it?

The lesson has ended. We thank him, and practice on our own until lunch. "One, two, three." I hear his voice in my head. Down, up, down; I see his motions superimposed over mine. "Good!" I hear his praise. "Lean forward even more." I hear his reminders.

Unfortunately, the afternoon doesn't go as well. We move to the poma lift--steeper, and a new tow-mechanism to master with this board on my foot--and I fall three times before I even manage to ride all the way up. Then I am up, and want down: This slope is too steep for my skills, and the run is four times as long as the one on which we practiced. My body is tired from all the new motions; I fall often, badly, jarring my back and pounding my wrists as I brace myself for each landing. My sunglasses go flying several times, and even the foam padding I'd tucked under my pants doesn't shield me from the impact of the hard ground.

Thom progresses more quickly than I do, which adds to my frustration. Fatigue, frustration, and falls all feed on each other, the antithesis of the morning's clear "one," "two," "three." By four o'clock, I am on the verge of tears. I know I'll be too stiff to move the next day.

Still, the day has not been a waste. I have learned a new skill, or at least the baby beginnings. And, more importantly, I have gained tremendous empathy for my students: After all, I paid for this experience, chose to come, and wanted to learn. And still, by day's end, I am frustrated and sore.

I try to imagine what it must feel like to be a learner all day, every day: to be somewhere you may not want to be--at a desk with a teacher up front saying "one, two, three." And even worse, the teacher might not be as good as James: The teacher might skip important steps, make assumptions, give too much feedback too soon, fail to give any feedback, or become impatient with the very nature of being a beginner.

They say the best way to learn is to teach: In order to express knowledge to another, one must first fully understand it oneself. Today, I have been reminded that the reciprocal relationship also holds true: The best way to teach is to learn--to remember that vulnerable point of knowing nothing, and to experience the frustration that necessarily precedes fragile new growth.


Suzanne Plaut has taught high school English at Colorado Academy, a K-12 independent school in Denver. She is currently pursuing a master's degree at Harvard University's graduate school of education.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Page 53

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