The Simpsons Did it First

…and by “The Simpsons,” I mean “Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy

One weekday night, in a (futile? hopeless? naive?) attempt to get my house into shape the other day, I opened my podcast app for the first time in months (don’t judge) and caught up on a few favorites while I did some light housework disaster remediation.

I worked my way back to this podcast, titled 4 Things I’ve Learned About Teaching from CrossFit. I immediately swore upon hearing the title.

No, I’m not a CrossFit hater. It’s not for me for various reasons, but I appreciate what I perceive to be a welcoming, empowering fitness community. I swore because, gollygoshdarnit*, I had a blog post all written out in my mind** about how starting an athletic endeavor as an adult  has made me a better and more empathetic teacher.

It’s probably for the best that she got to it first. She has, like, an audience and stuff. Still, I have thoughts in my brain… thoughts that echo a whole bunch of what said, and a few that go off in my own direction.

Without further adieu, then, allow me to present the post I was going to write, but never got around to writing because *insert excuses valid reasons here*:

What Roller Derby Taught Me About Teaching English as a Second Language

A Post I Swear I Didn’t Rip Off from Cult of Pedagogy

Roller derby has become a thing lately. More and more people are discovering the rebirth and resurgence of women’s flat-track roller derby. I am one of those people.

Teaching? Teaching has been a thing for a long time. I am one of those people, too.

In more than one way, these Things overlap. One Thing makes me better at the other Thing. In some very weird ways, roller derby has made me a better ESL teacher.

Pull-Out, Inclusion, and Fresh Meat

In most leagues (at least small-market, non-big-city leagues like mine), when you take the plunge and decide you’re going to give roller derby a try, you’re brought into a category called, no joke, Fresh Meat.

For a while, you can’t do much. Leagues have pretty specific rules on what skill level you have to achieve before you’re allowed to actually make intentional contact with other human beings. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (the major sactioning organization for the sport) has standards for skater skill levels in game play.

Fresh Meat are not (at least not in reputable leagues) simply chucked onto the track with experienced skaters to learn the hard way. They (should) often get rink time separate from bout-eligible skaters to work on their basic skills. They also (should) often have the opportunity to skate with more experienced skaters, while working on a tiered/scaled version of whatever it is everyone’s working on.

I’m guessing you can see where I’m going with this.

Lower-language-level ELLs should, like Fresh Meat, be integrated to the greatest extent possible into age-appropriate, grade-level classes. However, as with Fresh Meat, there often exists a need for these students to get pull-out time with an ESL teacher… if for no other reason than to experiment and make mistakes in a more controlled, less stressful environment.

Valence Electrons and Backwards Blocking

I had a student for three years, and while she has aged up out of my school, we keep in contact. She’s an amazing, hard-working, curious individual… and an ELL. School doesn’t always come easily to her.

My first year as an active skater also happened to be the first year she had to learn the basics of junior high chemistry. The concept of valence electrons eluded her for some reason. One day, when she got back a less-than-desirable test score, she banged her fists down on the table and yelled, “Why is this easy for everyone except me?!”

I had not one, tiny, earthly clue how to answer that. I couldn’t figure out why electron configurations were so tough for her, honestly. I’m not some kind of genius, but chemistry didn’t much challenge me until college.

I’m pretty sure I mumbled something about everyone being good at different things, and gently guided her back to work. Yeah, not helpful.

That night, at practice, our trainer guided us through what was, for me at that time, a pretty arduous task: backwards blocking. Funnily enough, backwards blocking is when you block another skater while skating backwards.

I was terrible at it. I had passed my basic skills, which involved skating backwards, but I was not particularly comfortable doing so for some reason that I’m sure says something profound about my psyche. Add to that some hard-hitting contact and I was sprawled on the ground in short order.

As my fists hit the rink floor in a fairly spectacular adult temper tantrum, I had a flashback to my classroom that morning. Duh, MacShibby. Connections, I made them.

Backwards blocking was WAY beyond my Zone of Proximal Development. I pulled our trainer aside and asked if she’d just push on me gently while I skated backwards, so I could get used to more unexpected contact. I experienced some success; while I didn’t end that practice taking full-on hits to the chest, I was able to maintain my balance and confidence in the face of significantly harder pushing.

The next day, my student and I tackled electron levels again. We started with a small first-step kind of goal, and over a few days, moved back up to where she needed to be.

Eventually, I got the hang of backwards blocking, too.

*that’s not what I really said
**that’s not as helpful as written out on a computer, piece of paper, or bar napkin
***also not what I really said

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