Thinking through a typical teaching day backwards is like planning a good lesson, although I rarely follow either those excellent strategies for reflective teaching. When teachers look carefully at where they want to end up, crafting the steps to lead to a successful lesson or satisfactory school day, the small adjustments made quickly in response to the receptivity of the students can make a huge difference. In less graceful words, I mean that teachers should never be afraid to stop midstream and try a new approach.
A particularly rowdy afternoon influenced by the Giants’ baseball team win to qualify for an important play off souped up the strong and vocal boys in my class to a frenzy of good cheer that made focus on anything else virtually impossible. The mood carried over into the next day, and I abandoned the sedate and thoughtful writing exercise I had planned, and instead rounded up a bag full of small toys and desk items. Every child was allowed to quickly study one of the items in secret, and then had to describe the object without using its name. Every item became, instead, a “zaplonk.”
After each child had completed writing a description in detail (the object of the lesson, after all) I arranged all the toys on a table top, and added in a few distractors. One by one, children selected another child’s descriptive paragraph and, based on its author’s use of detail, attempted to select the correct item out of the bunch.
This was a useful activity for many reasons: a) it had a novelty factor, so all children were immediately engaged. b) It was a short lesson with an immediate outcome. c) it involved interaction with other children and gave each writer and each reader a moment to have the full attention of the crowd; and, the lesson goal, d) the activity highlighted the need to use accurate description and legible handwriting and reasonable spelling!
In a lesson like this, I did two things I never advise: silently cursed myself for not planning ahead, as I groped and groveled around in drawers and bins for enough objects to describe; and worried tremendously that more than one child would be humiliated by another child for poor spelling or messy handwriting. But these are the usual risks that occur daily in the classroom. It’s what makes teaching endlessly interesting. Like a science investigation, the teacher tries valiantly to control all the variables, but in the end, it really will be the student who either learns something or doesn’t. And no one can control that outcome. Even if all the student learns is that he should tie his shoes before walking up to the front of the room, lest he trip and embarrass himself, there will be something learned, just not always what the teacher intended at the outset of the lesson. Cheers!