How Should Educators Effectively Utilize Teachable Moments in the Classroom?

Although my fourth favorite holiday in the entire universe of holidays falls on a Sunday this year, which means that school will not be in session, I did not allow disappointment or frustration to wash over me.  Instead, I took advantage of the opportunity with which I was provided to recognize and celebrate Ground Hog Day in the classroom.  Thursday morning, as an insightful and educational way to begin Social Studies class, we watched a short, yet informative video on this most delightful holiday that recognizes the weather prognostication abilities of a small, furry creature.  While most students had heard of this fabulous day, they did not really understand what all the glory and wonder was about.  So, I used five minutes in class to spread some ground hog joy and educate my students on one of the greatest cultural holidays in our Gregorian calendar.  My students were impressed with the power that the Inner Circle folks have to communicate with the clearly immortal Punxsutawney Phil.  The leader of the Inner Circle has to learn Ground Hog-ese in order to understand what the all-knowing Phil has to say about whether or not he sees his shadow on February second.  How cool is that?  My students were also quite smitten with the idea of a wonderful elixir of life that Phil drinks in order to never die.  How can we get our hands on some of that sweet nectar, we all wondered aloud.  So, while I will be unable to celebrate Ground Hog Day with my students on the actual day of the Ground Hog, I made sure that my students were aware of this most special of holidays.  I grabbed that teachable moment by the furry brown hair of a Ground Hog and let my knowledge and wisdom of this most magical day flow into the minds of my fifth graders.  It was epic to say the least; however, not quite as amazing as Sunday, February second will be.  If you happen to see a grown man prancing around in a ground hog costume chanting gibberish today, don’t be alarmed, and please don’t call the authorities, as it’s just me celebrating one of my favorite holidays.

Ahh yes, teachable moments.  While my previous story was meant to bring a chuckle, I do take my holidays seriously.  I also love taking advantage of opportunities for growth and learning in the classroom.  This past week, I noticed that several of my students were struggling to use kind and compassionate language when communicating with one another.  During Science, one group of students argued and debated for almost the entire 40-minute work period.  They could not come to an agreement or find any sort of common ground.  All three students seemed very stuck and fixed in their thinking.  Each of them thought that their ideas on the project were the only correct ones.  They couldn’t see outside of their tiny little bubbles.  While some of this selfishness is developmental, I wonder how much was the result of not having the skills and strategies to compromise with others.  As I’ve heard this sort of unkind communication from other students in my class in the past, I decided to make the most of my time in the classroom.  Rather than ignore this issue or breeze over it as though it’s not a big deal, I decided to attack the problem face on.

Following our mindful meditation on Wednesday afternoon, I spent some time introducing my students to the concept of compromise.  We discussed what it means to compromise and why that can be a very beneficial strategy to utilize when working in a team.  The students then shared ways that they could compromise and be better team members.  One student mentioned effective listening as a crucial component to compromise.  “You can’t know how to best compromise with your partner if you are not fully engaged in what they are telling you.  You need to be a good listener,” she shared with the class.  Wow, was she spot on.  Listening is so important.  I then reminded the students of a story we heard from one of our chaperones during our trip to the Sargent Center in October.  Ask yourself, “Are you really listening or are you just waiting to talk?”  How true is that statement.  We then spent some time discussing how to show that we are actively listening and respecting the person who is speaking.  While this mini-lesson only took about eight minutes, it was a great springboard into the activity that we completed in class on Thursday morning.  It also provided me the chance to help my students learn to be better, more effective listeners.  The rest of the afternoon, went quite well, as the students practiced their active listening skills at various points.

Knowing that one discussion was not truly enough to allow my students to fully grasp and understand the value in compromise, respect, and being an active listener, I spent a few minutes during our Morning Meeting the next day digging into these concepts and skills a bit more.  We began by reviewing what was discussed in class on Wednesday regarding compromise and listening.  I then had the students partner with a peer and practice the skill of effective listening by asking their partner a question and reflecting their partner’s response back to them.  The skill of reflection is the next level of listening and really shows your partner or speaker that they have been heard.  Following this brief activity, I asked one student to share her experience with the group.  “It felt good to know that my partner really heard me.  I felt listened to and that felt really great,” she shared with the class.  Okay, I thought, this is all good stuff.  They are starting to understand and see the value in these skills.  But, I didn’t stop there, oh no.

I make use of a group positive reinforcement strategy in the classroom that I refer to as the Marble Jar.  When the class, as a whole, exceeds my expectations or totally rocks the house in some awesome manner during the class day, they earn a handful of marbles.  When the In Jar is filled with marbles and the Out Jar is empty, the class earns a Marble Party.  As a group, they decide and choose the organization and format of that Marble Party.  We’ve had Glow Parties, Movie Parties, Circus Parties, Outdoor Parties.  You name it, and we’ve tried it as a theme.  The students are in charge of designing and voting upon the Marble Party.  They own the reward that they work so hard to earn.  On Thursday, the students had one small handful of marbles left in the Out Jar before earning a Marble Party.  Normally, the scope of behavior or actions I look for in terms of being marble-worthy is quite wide and vast; however, as listening and compromise are the ideas I really wanted to hit home with them this past week, I decided to call an audible and switch things up a bit.  “Today, the Marble Meter will be looking for acts of compromise and examples of effective listening in order to move us one step closer to filling the Marble Jar.  So, think about how you can be a great listener and compromise with your peers in class today,” I said to the students before we moved onto our first lesson of the morning.  That was it.

Throughout the morning, I saw a few great examples of students working together, compromising, or showing effective listening skills.  When one student politely asked another to move his chair over a bit so that she could get her chair under the table as well, he quickly obliged in a positive manner and apologized for not being more self-aware of where his chair was.  Wow, talk about compromise and compassion.  At one point, I did notice two students struggling to communicate with each other in a positive manner.  Instead of compromising and doing the right thing, they both refused to admit that the piece of trash on the floor belonged to one of them.  After this incident happened, I spoke to the group about it and then had other students share their thoughts on how the situation should have played out.  My hope in spending all of this time helping my students understand the benefits of learning to compromise is that they will grow into kind and thoughtful young men and women.  The world is already littered with too many stubborn curmudgeons.  We need more compassion and respect in this world.  We need more of a growth mindset approach to life.  I want my students to see that being kind and compromising is the right thing to do.  After spending much time throughout the day focusing on listening skills and the act of compromising, we were so close to earning the final handful of marbles.  Then came the end of the day, which can be the most chaotic part of our day, as the students clean the classroom, prepare their space for the end of the day, and get ready for Closing Circle.  I played some positive music as we worked together as a family to clean the room and prepare for the end of our school day.  While things went well, I didn’t notice any specific acts of compromise or listening.  However, although I’d like to admit that I am omnipotent, I am not.  I do not hear or see everything that happens in the classroom.  Some very important things go unnoticed in the classroom on a daily basis, except for today.

As I read through the various acts of kindness that the students committed throughout the day and placed into each other’s bucket filling posters at the front of the classroom, I read something that almost made me tear up.  One of the students who had been arguing with another student earlier in the day had apparently saved a bean bag in the Closing Circle area for that same student.  Wait, what, I thought.  One of the students who had been so fixed in her mindset earlier in the day regarding this other student was now saving a bean bag for this same student.  What was happening?  Is it a full moon tonight?  No, it turns out that these two students had finally found some common ground and a way to compromise and work together.  When I read that note of kindness, I stopped and verified the facts of the case.  “Did she really save a bean bag for you,” I asked the other student, and indeed she had.  The two girls smiled at each other.  What was going on?  Did my mini-lessons help?  Did the power of the ground hog inspire my students?  Did they finally learn the value in compromising?  Did my use of teachable moments really pay off?  Had my students listened to me?  Who knows exactly what happened that afternoon, but whatever the cause, it was quite a special and magical moment.  Prior to ending our Closing Circle that day, I informed the students that they had indeed earned that final handful or Marbles.  Applause and much screaming rang out as excitement and compassion filled the fifth grade classroom Thursday afternoon.

Taking advantage of opportunities in the classroom to help our students learn to be kind, compassionate, and caring individuals is so important in our world today.  We need to help our students see that tiny little acts of kindness or simple phrases can really go a long way.  What we say and how we act towards others can greatly impact and influence them.  I took advantage of the opportunity to help my students learn to be better listeners while seeing the power in compromising.  It was a simple thing, but resulted in something very special and wonderful.  It doesn’t take much to make a difference.  One spark can truly start a fire of positivity.  Much like the ground hog spreads his joy and love for the world on February second, my students shared kindness and love with each other in the classroom on Thursday.

 

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