Today’s adventure was going to be “Dance Class With a Bum Knee”. That’s still happening, but something else happened today that was way cooler.
In teacher’s college, they talk about teachable moments -those magical points in time when a kid’s need to hear overlaps with their ability to hear and your own ability to speak. It might be a question you ask or a question the kid asks, or something that happens that everyone needs to process together somehow, or a simple observation. It’s almost always a chance to teach something more important than whatever the actual lesson is.
We live for teachable moments, us teachers. We pour ourselves into creating lessons that will be relevant and meaningful, knowing full well that about 80% of what we are trying to teach will be lost on our students, either immediately, or as time passes and memories fade. We hope the really important stuff will stick, but the problem is that saying, “This is really important, so pay attention,” is not likely to produce any more learning than not saying it. It’s a difficult truth to accept.
Today, I got my shot at a teachable moment. It was just a moment, and let me acknowledge that it probably made more of an impact on me than on the student. You never really know what’s going to stick.
The class I covered this afternoon was an English 11 class. The students were working (and I say “working” lightly) through a lesson on thesis statements. Very English class. There was one student in the class whom I’d noticed earlier in the day -he was energetic and friendly and totally unfocused. The kind of kid who’s always disturbing the peace, but it’s hard to get angry at him. It was taking him some time to settle into the worksheet. Suddenly, he challenged me to freestyle (as in, rapping off the cuff), instructing another student to drop a beat. Luckily, the other student wasn’t feeling it, or I would have tried to comply. I’m a people pleaser, what can I say.
When it was clear I wasn’t going to cooperate, the student then freestyled on my behalf, expressing that I was going to break some limbs if the work didn’t get done. I asked him to include thesis statements in his next attempt, and he did. I was impressed.
Later in the class, the same student was struggling through the worksheet, which required students to write thesis statements for a variety of topics. I asked him to tell me in his own words what his opinion on the topic was, and he froze. He actually looked nervous as he explained, “I have an opinion, but I don’t have the right words for it, so it sounds stupid.” I asked him to try to explain it to me, not worrying how it might sound, and he looked for all the world the way I would have looked trying to freestyle -wanting to give it a shot, but certain it would sound ridiculous.
So today, I got to tell a kid that his ideas aren’t stupid. That his words aren’t stupid either. I got to tell him that I know he’s got language because I saw him freestyle, and it was good. I asked if that had always come easy to him, and he said no, it was hard at first. I got to loosely paraphrase that thing I heard Ira Glass say once -that artists have good taste, so when they’re just starting out, it’s frustrating because they can tell that something isn’t as good as they want it to be -you just have to get over that hump, and you’ll be great because of that good taste that’s getting in your way right now.
Today, this was my adventure: I got to tell a kid that I believed wholeheartedly in his abilities. I don’t know if it will stick. I think it helped in the moment. And I’m aware that it made me feel at least as good as it might have made him feel. Because I do love these kids who I only see once in awhile, when their regular teacher is away, even if we only get a moment here and there to connect. Even if that moment comes at the expense of a few thesis statements.