Capturing Teachable Moments

“Hey, what are we doing today?” one of my eighth grade boys asked as he flew through the door. His question out-trumped the usual “Are we doing ANYTHING today?” so I answered quickly.

“A grammar lesson.”

He skidded on his Nikes, widened his big brown eyes, and slowly asked, “A gramma lesson???”

Because I’ve taught middle schoolers forever, because I know the value of a hook, and because winging it is the only athletic skill where I meet or exceed the standards, I said yes, today we’d be studying famous grandmothers. At which point I presented a pretty impressive grandma grammar lesson. (Think Grandma Moses or the Big Bad Wolf.)

I’m betting Common Core purists and others who’ve been sold the tale that curriculum, instruction and assessment should be strictly standards-based, highly structured, and rubric-driven would be less-than-impressed with my instant lesson. But I’m here to say that a) my kids loved it and b) they learned a little something from it.

Capturing and building on teachable moments is a critical teaching skill, but it’s increasingly undervalued and even frowned upon in the current educational environment.

A few years ago, I happened upon a Vanity Fair magazine excerpt from Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s award-winning book featuring Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner and WWII bombardier and prisoner of war. I knew this story would captivate my predominantly all-male class of then seventh graders, so the next afternoon, I read the excerpt aloud to them. They loved every heart-pounding bit of it, and the day we returned from Christmas break, they met me at my classroom door, a copy of Unbroken held high in one boy’s hand. They begged me to read the entire book to them, and I couldn’t resist, so every day for the next eight weeks, my class and I shared what turned out to be an unprecedented reading adventure. None of us — including me — could wait to get to school and discover what would happen next to our beloved Louie, and for a time it was pretty much all we could talk about, because by then, Louie “lived” among us. (For those of you who’ve read Unbroken you know that Louie’s personality and antics can be found in any middle school classroom.) Along this exhilarating reading journey, we discussed Laura Hillenbrand’s writing style, characterization, firsthand sources, and, of course all things World War II, so, yes, we learned a lot. But mostly we learned that reading can be an unforgettable and unparalleled pleasure.

Louie’s been on my mind a lot lately. As I conduct my second round of district mandated reading assessments, with their artificial topics and constraints, and their focus on automaticity, fluency, and quick, efficient comprehension, and as I peruse the boring sample reading questions for Maine’s latest iteration of standardized testing, I can’t help thinking about all the Louies in my classroom. Exuberant, curious, energized, these kind of learners often cannot demonstrate their learning in a rigid, one-dimensional format, such as a multiple choice comprehension test or a timed reading maze. Instead, they best express themselves orally, collaboratively, or quietly one-on-one. Much of the time they can’t sit still or focus or find a quiet space in their heads or in their homes to hone their academic skills. And while many of them share Louie’s stalwart determination, too often, because of the way schools are designed, these students lack opportunities to excel in a personalized way — which means motivation wanes and interest dissipates.
My little school provides a supportive environment for teachers and generally gives us a wide berth to do what we feel is in our students’ best interests. Still, there’s an increasing expectation that all our classes make “appropriate” gains and fare well on tests, so as we move towards this spring’s statewide testing window, I’m struggling to simultaneously engage my students, meet mandated standards, and prepare for the tests.

In the midst of all this, I must confess that I’m longing for another fantastic teachable moment to land in my lap, spark my kids’ interests, and send all of us on another fine adventure.

Lynn Bonsey

About Lynn Bonsey

Who knew that in my sixties, I’d be simultaneously dealing with adolescent angst, adult children, and elder care? Days, I teach middle level students to read and write. Nights and weekends, I often spend with my father and mother who live in separate facilities in separate towns. My two siblings and I collaborate to ensure our parents’ quality care, which requires patience, vigilance, and constant advocacy. In the midst of all this, I lean on my husband, a retired educator, to keep me sane and happy.