The Benefit in Digressing from the Point in the Classroom

One of my favorite things to do when I was younger was to try and take advantage of substitute teachers.  I used to love asking random questions to lead the sub astray.  If we were talking about WWII in history class, for example, I might have asked the substitute, “Was WWII necessary?”  This would then lead into all sorts of other questions and discussions about issues regarding the war.  By the time the discussion was done, the class would be over and nothing important would have been accomplished.  It was quite a feat.

As a classroom teacher now, I find myself going astray while talking or teaching without being prompted by my students.  I love to dig into interesting topics or thoughts I have while introducing a new concept or covering some aspect of the curriculum.  I just can’t help myself.  The problem is, I usually run out of time to cover the “real” meat of the lesson because I end up getting so distracted by the thoughts I share with the students.  The question is though, is that a problem?  If I get the students interested and engaged in a topic that is loosely connected to what I’m teaching, is it okay to hold off on other content, skills, or topics?

As today was the first STEM class of the year for the sixth grade, I spent a bit of time at the start of the class explaining and describing what STEM class is all about and the purpose it serves our sixth graders.  I want the students to see how the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math curricula fit together.  I provided the students with several examples and engaged them in conversation.  I discussed the idea of allowing students to see the relevance in the math skills learned.

At first, my discussion was focused and on track.  Then, for some reason, I started thinking about empowering the students.  I want the boys to see problems in the world and try to fix them.  I want them to be angry about certain things in the world so that they are motivated to bring about change.  I cited the Climate Change crisis in our world to help make my point.  I passionately explained the issue and impact of it all.  I explained to the students how they are our future and they are the ones who will need to solve this problem.  They need to find solutions and foster big changes before it’s too late.  The students seemed very excited and engaged.  Lots of questions were brought up.  It was quite a cool little discussion, but not really at all related to what I had planned on covering today.  As I realized I was derailing my own class, I quickly tried to right the train so that I would have time to begin the gummy bear lab.  But then, the unexpected happened.

I called on one final student to share his thoughts on climate change before moving on.  He said, “Mr. Holt, I wish we had recorded everything you just said about climate change and had a way to play it on televisions for everyone in the world to see because then everyone would change the way they live to prevent the climate from changing so quickly.”  I was blown away.  The students were listening and realized how important an issue this really is.  This one student was so moved by my words that he thought all people should hear it.  For a split second I thought about running for president.  Hey, if I can convince sixth grade students that climate change is a problem in need of fixing, then perhaps I could rally the country around me in other ways too.  Then I realized I hate the sordid world of politics and love teaching too much to leave.

After that one student’s kind words, I was a bit stumped.  Do I move on anyway or keep going?  Clearly, I’m getting through to them about climate change now so maybe I should just continue.  I know I had planned to cover it later in the year, but if they are engaged now, I should keep going.  So, I did.  I allowed the conversation to continue a bit longer.  I can’t stop genius from happening.  The discussion continued on for a while and probably could have lasted the rest of the period, but I did want to start the gummy bear lab before tomorrow.

Normally, when class discussions veer from the central point, I worry that I’m losing the students or adversely impacting them but not sticking to the curriculum.  However, today’s comment and the engagement and excitement I saw in my students tells a very different story.  Getting off-track helps to motivate and engage students.  By trying to help my students see that one of the benefits of our STEM class is to empower them to see problems and solve them, I fostered curiosity and excitement.  The boys could have talked about climate change for hours because it’s relevant and meaningful to them.  Instead of keeping to a lesson plan or curriculum, great teachers need to know how to take the road less travelled from time to time.  Some of the best learning and most memorable experiences come from happy accidents like talking about something not related to the topic at hand.


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