To Mrs. V., With Love…
There are rare moments during the school year when teachers have the opportunity to completely diverge from their set plans without losing a day of learning. These moments go beyond what any teacher could have planned and leave students and teachers alike with a greater understanding and appreciation of the things that were not intended to be taught in the classroom that day. While teachers often talk about the importance of these magical moments, it seems few actually take the time to put aside their lesson plans given the atmosphere of today’s standardized test-driven classroom. However, it is in these scarce teachable moments that teachers learn the true depths of their students’ thinking.
In my experience, teachable moments usually stem from a traumatic event that occurs within the classroom, an individual child’s life, or the world at large. I most recently had the privilege of partaking in one of these teachable moments while guest teaching in my colleague Lynn’s classroom; but I remember lying awake the night after the September 11th attacks and wondering how I was going to deal with the likely discussions that would take place the next day with my second graders. I hadn’t even known these children a week and here was the biggest teachable moment of a lifetime. I fell asleep willing to let my students lead the discussion the next morning and see where it would take us.
The funny thing about teachable moments is that they can’t be planned, they just happen. As it would turn out, the next day in my classroom’s morning meeting the hot news was the big black bear at one of the bus stops. Just like that, the plans changed and we were all over black bears; what they eat (not 2nd graders) and sharing what we knew about them and what to do if you ever did meet up face to face with a bear. We took out books, looked up facts, and then the children wrote all about bears. We were so happily engrossed in research and writing bears, that it was lunchtime before anyone mentioned anything about airplanes hitting buildings. Those lessons would be learned over many teachable moments in the coming weeks.
So, it wasn’t in the plans when I walked into Lynn’s second grade inclusion class and was told that the teacher I was replacing for the day was out because her beloved Golden Retriever had died. Lynn explained how the children all knew that this dog was Mrs. V.’s best friend and companion as she had been sharing Jack stories with the children all year. Lynn looked at me and said, “Oh, well, throw the lesson plans out the window! We’re just going to go with it. I’m looking for my Dog Heaven book by Cynthia Rylant and we’ll discuss it and have them write letters to Mrs. V. The writing we were going to do can wait.”
With great sensitivity, Mrs. T. (Lynn) explained the situation to the children and why I was in their classroom that day and not Mrs. V. The gasps were immediate and genuine as the students offered their thoughts and expressed concerns.
“Jack was a golden retriever, I have a golden retriever.”
“She told him everything.”
“I know how she feels, I had a bunny once.”
We read Dog Heaven and Hans Wilhem’s I’ll Love You Always and the discussion continued.
“Jack was like a child to her.”
“They did everything together.”
“She must feel so sad, I feel sad for her.”
There were some tears throughout the classroom before we were done and the discussion took up most of the class period; but we saved time for writing heartfelt notes to Mrs V. We knew these letters would be special so we decided to make them little pop-up books and we told the class we would construct them together after they finished their letters. With little more direction than to write Mrs. V. a letter and draw a picture to make her feel better, the children enthusiastically and quickly got right to the task and started writing. Their words came right from their hearts and poured from their souls like the gentle rain outside the window.
Teachable moments are often magical. No, they might not be in the plan for the day, but when they happen, it’s like a gift from the teacher gods and you just have to let them keep happening. The results are often bigger than any lesson planned. This particular classroom is a learning community the teacher has been growing since the first day of school. The students and teachers knew each other well, they cared about one another and it was obvious from their letters filled with compassion and oozing with empathy.
It was an amazing day and I’m glad I had the opportunity to share it with this class of exceptional learners. Maybe if more time was spent addressing these teachable moments, we really could bring about the social change this world so desperately needs. Sometimes you just need to throw out the test-driven lessons and teach to a “higher standard”.