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Teachable Moments

Teachable Moments
By Suzanne Malakoff

I experienced a small epiphany one morning in spring as I sunned myself on a stump of an old cedar tree while my children waded in mud puddles up to their knees. The mud was oozy and sticky at the bottom of the puddle; they decided to make it oozier and deeper and began adding handfuls of dirt from the track the puddles lay in. Finding that their hands weren’t the most efficient tools, they switched to curled pieces of bark to transport more dirt at one time. They managed increase the mud to knee level, then added grass and more dirt and mixed it all in with their feet and rubbed mud all over their arms.

Teaching opportunities came to mind as I watched them: cob building, adobe bricks, the bricks used to build the pyramids. I thought about looking at how different cultures used the natural materials around them to make tools as my children were now doing with the curved bark. I ran down a check list of animals that use mud to keep cool and to keep the flies off. We could check out library books, find videos on mud-loving animals and the building of adobe villages, and maybe even visit a local archaeological dig. I was sure I was looking at a “teachable moment,” and should act on it. After all, not long before this sunny, muddy spring day, I had gone after the local schools in a letter to editor, accusing the education system of letting teachable moments go by in favor of preparing for standardized tests.

We had had an incredible “teachable moment” when Mt. St. Helens (in Washington State, USA) began acting up again – rebuilding her dome and verging on a fresh eruption. My children were fascinated, as was my husband who comes from the sea-level topography of the Netherlands. I dragged out my memories, my newspaper clippings, a little bottle of ash that I scrapped off the hood of my truck after the first eruption in 1980, and a picture of me at around the age of five sitting in a meadow in the shadow of St. Helens in her former, snow-capped glory.

We followed the stories in the newspaper and made good use of the library to learn more about geology and natural phenomena and time. Given the thousands of years of dormancy by of all the peaks in the Cascade Range, we were amazed (and yes, a little frightened) to see our corner of the world reshape itself so dramatically in our lifetime.

Our local newspaper asked area teachers if they were making use of this “teachable moment” in their classrooms. Every educator interviewed responded in the negative, saying that they were too busy preparing for our state’s mandatory assessment of learning test. Any creative and energetic teacher must feel as strangled by standardized testing as their students do. And as cramped by that process as their students feel by being in a class room all day – unlike my children who spend many days in the woods across the street from our house getting dirty. In my letter to the editor, I called this missed opportunity “a crime.”

Now, I wondered, as I sunned myself on that cedar stump, had I been guilty of similar crimes because I hadn’t gone as far as I could go when one of my kids asked a question or showed an interest in something or when a current event captured their attention and imagination? Did I let busy schedules and chores get in the way of the education of my children? Am I a good enough listener and judge of my children to know when an interest is fleeting or when more information is needed and wanted?

The first time I heard about teachable moments, I was inspired and my course for teaching my children was set, I believed.

When my kids were approaching school age, I attended a homeschooling conference, and my first workshop of the day was Homeschooling 101. The woman who taught the class had started out with her children in desks in a room in the basement, following boxed curriculum. She soon gave that up as the effort exhausted her and reduced her children to tears, and began to pay more attention to her children’s individual learning styles and develop a faith in their ability to learn without the aid of a prescribed program. She told us a story of being out with another homeschooling mom and her kids, who when asked by one of her children to identify something she had found in pond said, “It’s a polliwog, but don’t worry about that right now, we’re going to study pond life next month.”

“People,” said our teacher with the fervor of a preacher, “this was teachable moment. That mother should have embraced that moment and her child and taken her down a path of learning.” We all nodded and whispered amen. That mother should have answered that child’s question, should have showed her pictures with more information in a book when they got home, maybe found a video or an appropriate field trip to go on, at the very least headed for a library ASAP. That child’s mind was ripe for information.

Outside the workshop, in the main hall, there were vendors with tables loaded down with resources for aiding teachable moments. I could be ready for anything. But standing among all the sellers of educational goods, I became bewildered. How could I possibly be ready for every question? What would be basic to teaching and could I realistically be prepared for the future interests of my children? My confusion and my pocket book stopped me from buying anything but a wall map of the world. It has proved to be good investment; we use it all of the time. Our home reference library consists largely of maps, the dictionary and nature field guides.

The 90-acre wood across from our house where I was sunning myself had provided us with a multitude of teachable moments. We and many of our neighbors use the remnant of a road and deer tracks here and there to go for walks and ride bicycles and horses. We pick blackberries and salal berries and gather boughs for winter decorations.

But it’s a planted forest, and the owners decided it was time to harvest the cedars toward the back of the woods. We watched heavy machinery go in and trucks come out with the most amazing logs. We were sad when we passed the clearings and stumps where the great trees, some bordering on 90 years old, had stood. One of my kids brought home stacks of books on earth-ripping heavy machinery – he found them fascinating.

The ruts left by the tires of the big trucks became mud holes and deep puddles that froze in the winter and were sometimes frozen enough to slide around on. In the spring wild blackberry vines covered the stumps, and the road, widened by the trucks, became narrower as the undergrowth responded to new levels of sunlight. By summer there were flowers where there had been trees. A part of our world was reshaped by the hands of man and the power of nature.

Both our state and Oregon had been dealing with the question of mandated preservation on private property. Not an easy issue and no easy answers, though my children couldn’t see why someone wouldn’t want to preserve a patch of woods or wetland that they were lucky enough to have on their property. We relaxed about our son’s interest in heavy machinery. We discussed property rights and stewardship and what we would do if we owned such a forest. We will mourn the woods when they are finally gone, and it’s inevitable that they will be.

In retrospect, I realized I had never viewed St. Helen’s or the evolution of our woods as teachable moments. While St. Helens was a dramatic happening that sent us to the library, it was an effortless and enriching learning experience. We didn’t consciously plan any of the steps we took toward discovering more. The changes to our woods had us in a constant state of observation; we read the newspapers, mad use of our field guides, took lots of walks and constantly talked about how what was happening across the street made us feel. We talked around the dinner table, and to our neighbors, many whom we met for the first time after the logging trucks showed up.

There on my log I decided that we have moments of learning that may or may not require a mountain of resources or trips to anywhere but our front yard or into the woods to see what had changed due to our actions or simply the seasons. Seems to me the kids I know who are learning at home and in their communities are in a constant state of discovery, some moments more intense than others.

So, people, what appear to be teachable moments will get away from you because life is full of obligations that sometimes get in the way of spontaneity, and your children may lose interest in something by the time you get around to gathering all the resources or coordinating the field trips. Really, learning and discovery are organic processes that happen best when we are in the thick of it with our kids, giving them space to grow, but not standing apart from them trying to plan their lives.

When a child asks a question, should we answer then and there? Yes, to the best of our ability. Should we gather all available resources to place in front of them like a smorgasbord? Well, if that’s what your kid wants, if they’re not satisfied with as much as you know. Really, if your child wants to know more, they will tell you. Maybe not directly and in no uncertain terms, so you have to listen and watch for signs. And try to make time when a child specifically requests a trip to the library or the local archaeological dig or even that construction site full of earth-ripping, heavy machinery. Even if you do raid the library and coordinate field trips, interest may wane or interests might change, or you may discover your child isn’t quite ready for more. Best to depend on libraries rather than curriculum fairs.

Sometimes, often, kids want an answer to an immediate question – maybe two or three answers beyond that – and that’s all. And if they don’t ask questions, why interfere with whatever path they are following or even abandoning? Why not simply follow your children and learn alongside them?

Back on my post on the cedar stump in the 90-acre wood, I realized I was faced with a relaxed and decidedly rich moment that didn’t need to be taught. My kids were playing in the mud. What a wonderful, simple, child-like thing to do. And I was relaxing in the sun with my thoughts. What a wonderful, simple thing for a mom to get to do. We were making all sorts of discoveries just by being there.

Maybe it’s best to leave the teachable moments be.

Suzanne Malakoff and her husband raised three incredible kids who always learned at home in their community in the Pacific Northwest. She earns her living working as a communications specialist for a non-profit research and advocacy group focused on a clean energy future, and feels lucky to have wandered into to such important work. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, gardening, spending time with her kids and animals, and getting outside whatever the weather. She has published several articles and essays on a variety of topics that include natural learning and parenting and is currently working on pieces of fiction.

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