How I Joined the World of Whitewater Rafters and Learned That We’re All Just Between Swims

One of the best things about summer institute season for my colleagues and I is that we get to travel the country and see places we might have otherwise never been. This summer, for instance, I got to tour a peach orchard in Houston County, Georgia, walk the boardwalk at the Jersey Shore, and shop for jewelry in Mystic, Connecticut.

Most recently, I got to do something super cool that I had never done before, in the company of some spectacular colleagues – whitewater rafting! We drove up to Idaho Springs, CO and were thrust surprisingly quickly from professional outfits and presenter mindsets to wetsuits and total newbie status. Trevor, our guide, taught us the basics of paddling before we hoisted the raft into Clear Creek and set off.


There were so many things that were amazing about this adventure – including the fact that none of us fell out! And of course, since I was traveling with a posse of staff developers, when we stopped for post-rafting burgers at Tommyknockers, the conversation drifted into teaching and teamwork and what we might bring back into classrooms from the rapids.

Despite the fact that we were all beginners, Trevor inducted us into the language and the community of whitewater rafters. He did this mostly by using the terminology of rafting, over and over again, in context. If we asked, he explained a word. Sometimes he’d offer up an explanation of why a particular rapid got its name (one was named after the highway exit you could see as you paddled by), or what adventure was about to come up (going over a hole) but most of the vocabulary I learned, I learned because he said it so often!

Some were terms I knew but had to learn in a new context – forward two, back two, lean in, booties – simple enough. Some were terms I could figure out pretty well – like “paddle high five”, “throw-rope” “put in” and “swim” (as in “If you swim, you have to buy beer for everyone” and Trevor’s philosophical musing that “We’re all just between swims”). One he explained outright – “Beaver Slap” (slapping the water with your paddle) but left it to us to make the beaver tail connection. And one of my favorite terms – “yard sale” – we had to figure out on our own. Trevor started talking about one time when he “yard saled” – it seemed to work equally well as a noun or a verb – and the various consequences for yard saling back at the house with the other guides. We pretty quickly figured out that yard saling was something bad, and something similar to falling in the water. We mused (and the internet later confirmed!) that it probably had to do with all of your stuff ending up in the water – like a yard sale. (And as I continued to follow the trail of my etymological research, my colleague Mary Ehrenworth told me that this is actually a skiing term that Trevor migrated into the water.)

When I think about our kids growing as writers, readers, mathematicians, historians, scientists, artists, athletes, and even rafters, one of the things that always seems to distinguish a rookie from a pro is their command of the vocabulary (including slang and idioms) of their craft. Sometimes, as teachers, it feels like we have a massive job on our hands – how are we supposed to teach kids ALL this specialized vocabulary, on top of teaching them to actually DO the things the vocabulary suggests? It’s easy to throw up your hands and ignore the vocabulary, or to over-emphasize learning terms in isolation – I’ve certainly been guilty of both at times!

But my experience with Trevor on the raft is making me think that looking to other types of teachers and other fields could be a good way to figure out how people really learn to talk like a pro in their field. Rafting day trips, weekend sports clubs, first days at new jobs, music lessons…all of these kinds of places require people to take on a role and act like experts before they really are. Acting like experts helps rookies gain confidence and eventually gain expertise. And a big part of acting expert is sounding expert – talking with the right lingo.

So maybe when we think about teaching kids, say, the vocabulary of writing, we can think about how we joyfully immerse kids in sounding like an expert and help them talk like experts even before they are (and this seems like it would help our conversations with writers, too). In, say, a fiction writing unit, think of the difference between saying:

A: “Stories, narratives, are made up of smaller scenes. And in all of those shorter scenes, you want to show your reader what’s happening, make us feel like we’re really there in the setting, experiencing what your protagonist is experiencing in that scene, instead of just telling us or just listing events. Writers call this “show, not tell.” Let me show you an example.


B: “Here’s some vocabulary you’ll need in this part of the unit – narrative, scene, show don’t tell, protagonist, setting…Let’s talk about these words before we get into our work.”


C: “You will want to make your story happen in little bits. All those parts need to happen to a person in a place, and you need to describe that place so we can imagine it.”

I’m thinking that planning for more of A, and less of B or C, might be a way to help our kids talk like experts, without feeling like we’re just talking over their heads. Specifically, option A does a couple of things:

  • Repeats phrases in different contexts
  • Speaks in synonyms (“stories, narratives”)
  • Explicitly names not just words but phrases that feel like lingo or jargon (“show, not tell”) with enough words to make the jargon feel well-explained.
  • Uses words in context that is deliberately crafted to be helpful rather than missing or misdirective
  • Sounds excited about writing – like an invitation to the writing world is a really cool invitation to receive and is a field that’s worth learning the lingo of.

Trevor, in coaching us through our whitewater rafting adventure, did a lot of A, and we left the water pumped up about what we had learned, confident in our ability to try again (soon!) and tossing around words like “yard sale” left and right. He harnessed the power of language to make us feel welcome in the “club” of rafting, just as we want our kids to feel like insiders in the club of literacy. And he made me think about the power of trying new adventures in our lives, so we can experience part of what our kids experience when they are diving into new worlds, new fields, and of course, new talk.

P.S. — If you want to read my favorite vocabulary-related book, check out Bringing Words to Life, and if you want to go white water rafting near Denver, check out Clear Creek Rafting!

2 thoughts on “How I Joined the World of Whitewater Rafters and Learned That We’re All Just Between Swims

  1. Pingback: What I learned when I did the work I gave my students | Reflection Wall

  2. Pingback: When students do the thinking work | Reflection Wall

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s