A few weeks ago, as my class was walking in from recess, we saw a large brownish-black bug crawling across a desk in the hallway. Of course, everyone wanted to look at it. It was so cool! But, as a hundred children began to cram through the recess door, I reluctantly urged my class along.
Once my students were back in the room, I made a quick decision. I dashed out into the hall with a bug box, hoping the little guy was still there. He was — looking dazed — so I scooped him up, and brought him back to my room.
I had planned to do a read aloud about the rainforest that afternoon, but I knew my plans could wait. The bug couldn’t, and neither could my students. So I put the bug on the document camera where everyone could see, and we began a science talk.
Kids observed the bug’s features: “He has six legs. That means he’s an insect.” “Look at his antennae! They’re bent like elbows.” “I think he has wings on his back. I think that’s what those markings are.”
They asked questions: “Why’s he rubbing his legs together?” “Is he a kind of cricket?” “Why’s he crawling up the sides of the box?” “Can he breathe? Mrs. Fox, you gave him air, right?”
And they came up with hypotheses: “Yeah, it’s a cricket.” “I think he’s using his antennae to explore the container.” “I think he’s trying to get free.” “I think he needs air. Mrs. Fox, can you give him more air?”
I sent students to my colleague’s room to get a bug identification guide. We have been studying nonfiction text features in reading — perfect timing! — so we practiced using the index to find crickets. Nope, not a cricket. Not a stink bug. But, there — on the next page — there he was! Our bug was a squash bug. To confirm our friend’s identity, we decided to compare his measurements to those in the book. We got out a ruler — a perfect opportunity for reviewing measurement — and worked quickly to find the length of our fast-moving friend.
It wasn’t the lesson I’d planned on, but in those twenty-odd minutes, we asked questions, made observations, collected data, did research, and practiced scientific classification. We must have hit on half a dozen Common Core standards. And, more important, because of the kids’ curiosity about the bug, we were able to create a deeply engaging and memorable learning experience.
If I abandoned my science lesson everyday to look at bugs, we’d be in trouble. But once in a while, an opportunity is too good to pass up. These are teachable moments. And while good teaching requires careful planning and organization, it also rises out of spontaneity, out of embracing unexpected opportunities.
Unexpected weather is another perfect opportunity. When hail falls, or lightning strikes, or the first snow flakes drift down, we stop what we’re doing and run to the windows to watch. Sometimes, we talk and think like scientists, just like when we observed the bug. Sometimes, we get our sketchbooks and do observational drawings. Other times, we write poems.
Teachable moments also arise out of mistakes. I remember when I was a teaching intern, at the start of my career, in the hall with our third graders during dismissal time. Suddenly, one of them spilled an entire bottle of water on the floor. I was in the midst of giving the students directions — “Okay, Christina, go get the paper t–” — when the Head of the Lower School, who happened to be walking by, stopped me. “Girls, what could you do to solve this problem?” she asked. Our third graders looked at each other. “Um, I could go get paper towels,” said Christina. “I’ll help,” said her friend. And off they went.
I smiled at the Head. What an elegant teaching move. Walking down the hall, she spotted the perfect moment to teach two third graders to be self-reliant and to teach me, a young intern, to empower kids to rely on themselves.
These moments abound in all of our classrooms. Sometimes, they require big changes in plans. But usually, they’re as small as the right word at the right moment. The essential thing is being aware in these moments, and seeing them for the precious opportunities they are, before they pass us by.