Vanishing moments

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In concrete terms, if a student asks me, “What really started the World War I? Why was Franz Ferdinand so important?” I might have a teachable moment. A lot of history is in play here. These are not small questions. I may look out and see that the whole class is focused on me, waiting for this answer. There’s a romantic marriage in this story, the whole concept of monarchy, the concept of unbreakable vows, among other big ideas. The story’s not exactly in the curriculum, though, and will easily require the rest of my class and some of the next class to tell with the right amount of drama, especially since a story as good as this one is likely to inspire lots of questions.

Can I break from my planned lesson to tell this story? Before No Child Left Behind and the ensuing test-preparation mania, I could have taken those couple of hours, with the understanding that student interest would be high and many concepts in the social studies curriculum might be reinforced. Now, I often don’t have that choice. Not enough of the material in this story is on the test. In terms of the state standardized test, I’m not getting a lot of bang for my buck. In terms of creating student interest in social studies, the First World War and school in general, I have potential here to do awesome job – but I can’t quantify that and I can’t justify it through higher test scores.

In schools requiring matching lesson plans, when a teacher encounters a teachable moment, she has to consult with colleagues to add any new material to her lesson, unless she decides to try to cram that extra moment on top of required material. Teachable moments can’t always be delivered in a crammed sound bite, though. Teachable moments are also fleeting. By the time that a teacher’s colleagues sign off on the new lesson addition, any brief, inspired spark of student interest may have passed.

If a school requires that all teachers in a subject area give exactly the same tests (more schools do this all the time and we are now doing this in regular classes in both of my last two districts), a teacher can’t skip parts of a lesson to go off on a side topic of interest without risking her students not being ready for the test. She may do her best teaching for the whole year and yet end up getting in trouble with the administration because of her lower test scores.

We need to find a method to deal with the loss of these moments. The train schedule needs the flexibility to make a few unscheduled stops. Kids deserve those inspired hours created by their own questions or interests.