On spinning and the importance of modelling

This summer I started doing something quite extraordinary (for me): spinning. For those of you who have managed to miss this fitness phenomenon let me just briefly explain what spinning is. Spinning is a merry kind of torture. The instructor will play a medley of cheery tunes whilst 25+ adults sprint, climb and ‘jump’ through 60 minutes of sweatiness on a static exercise bike. I invariably look up hopefully at the clock to find that a mere 5 minutes have passed when it’s felt more like 20 (the same kind of time trick that also seems to happen whenever I take my children to soft play).

It was in one of these spinning lessons, probably during a ‘climb’, that I started to draft this post as I realised several parallels between being in a spin class and being a student in a classroom (the most obvious parallel being that there were about 30 of us packed into a room all facing the same way). Here I was, a novice spinner, cast in the role of learner; at the front there was a lycra clad, heavenly-bodied, instructor cast in the role of teacher. Around me were a mixture of other learners in a differentiated class ranging from the new or inept (me) to the expert. There was no seating plan but you can spot the ‘less able’ and the ‘more able’. The former tend to position themselves toward the back of the room whilst the latter don’t shy away from the mirrors at the front and also bedeck themselves with all sorts of fancy kit (I can only think of cleats right now but you get the idea).

Despite our differing starting points, this is clearly an ‘options’ subject in my analogy: we have all chosen to be here. Furthermore, we’re a motivated bunch. There’s no terminal exam or assessment but we all have our own personal goals. Mine is more immediate, making it to the end of the class without dying, whilst others, I assume, have visions of bikini bodes or healthy hearts or some such.

As a novice, my eyes are regularly drawn to the instructor. I watch how fast his legs are rotating, I pay attention to the position of his hands on the handlebar and I try to copy. He’s modelling what I’m meant to be doing and I’m struck by how powerful modelling is. Not only can I see exactly what I’m aiming for but I can also see how hard it is. I can see the sweat dripping off of my instructor’s brow; I can see him panting for breath. When we reach a climb and he tells us to ‘add more on’ I can see him grimace as he pushes his legs down and my expression matches his. This is hard work!* He’ll also tell me what I’m meant to be feeling or how I can adjust the exercise to my ability (invariably this means I adjust it to make it easier but there are those in the room that actually want to make it even more of a challenge) and he’ll warn me when it’s going to get really difficult.

As an English teacher, except in the heady 30+ degrees days of summer, I rarely break a sweat in the classroom. In the past this has especially been the case when I’ve been modelling writing for students because I’ve tended to prepare something in advance and then I’ve pretended that I’m writing it for real. I did this in the interest of producing a half decent model for my class but also, perhaps, because I was worried about making myself look like a tit. I was valuing a polished performance over proper modelling. However, I think this was a mistake. Firstly it was a mistake because it suggested to my students that the writing I was doing was easy and involved little effort – if they then found it hard themselves to write their own then they might have thought they just weren’t good at English (instead of thinking they needed to keep working at it). Secondly it was a mistake because it kept the implicit process of writing implicit. My job as an English teacher is to make the implicit explicit.

Like my spin instructor I’m now spending more time in lessons modelling live for students with no preparation on my part. If I’m struggling for ideas I’ll think aloud and show students how I work through that challenge – in a real exam I would have to come up with something and so will they. If I make a bad start I’ll explain why I now think it’s not the best way to start and talk through how to start again – I might even ask the students for a better idea. I’ll read back over what I’ve written and edit my vocabulary and I’ll pick up where my sentence structure can be more fluent. The best kind of modelling is messy and sometimes it can be a real struggle but if the students see my metaphorical sweaty brow, I feel I’m in a stronger position to expect to see their furrowed brows as they attempt to have a go themselves.

Being back in the role of learner gave me a very vivid idea of how powerful modelling is and it’s a lesson I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

* Confession: sometimes I pretend to ‘add more on’ and I mimic the ‘this is hard work’ expression.

Post 1 of #WeeklyBlogChallenge17

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