Wednesday, July 25, 2018


If you're a podcast person, I presume you've found This American Life.  They recently aired a fascinating one called, “Unteachable Moment.”  I’m summarizing extensively here, but the episode was about lessons taught vs. lessons learned, and how the two aren’t necessarily symbiotic.  Which is a fancy way of saying this:  Just because we think we’re teaching something doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is learning anything.  

Or: Our students aren’t learning what we intended for them to learn.

Being a teacher—of any kind—opens us up to a unique kind of vulnerability.  In making a plan for teaching, we pour enthusiasm into a lot of talk about goals, outcomes, objectives, and targets.  We know keeping an eye on the end makes good sense. Ahhh, yes, we know this.  But still—still!—we sometimes flop and flail our way through, only sort-of realizing that what they’re learning is not at all what we’d hoped.  

Just out of college, I landed a short gig teaching Creative Movement to 3- and 4- year-olds at the art center in my hometown.  The regular teacher had quit unexpectedly, and the director was just glad I was willing to do it.  I mean, I had a pulse and everything.  I was desperate for money, and figured it was pretty do-able:  Any monkey could teach kids how to dance and move around. Right?

For six weeks, every Saturday morning, I led what amounted to a 45-minute cheerleading session, where I whooped and whirled around and frantically hoped the kids would follow along, doing something.  I was a train, a snake, a ballerina, a leapfrog, a bunny, and a bird.  We played 4,765 versions of “Follow the Leader” and even more “Simon Says,” though I was the only one who played Simon:  The little people mostly stood there and watched me, marveling at my incessant noise and sky-high pitch.  When class was over, they ran into their mothers’ bewildered fetch-arms and looked over their shoulders at me, in a sort of “Let’s go before she blows” kind of way.

I don’t think I ever stopped to think about the actual intent of the class, much less how to reach for it.  Instead, I just barreled through, hoping—assuming?—something good would come out of it for the students. 


It’s the intentionof our instruction that will bridge the chasm between teaching and learning.  When we seek to first establish intention, thenwe can work on our targets, goals, outcomes.  

In “Unteachable Moment,” the podcast host takes a close look at the recent Starbucks broo-ha-ha, in which the company shut down all its stores for sensitivity training in light of one manager’s decision in a store in Philadelphia.  It asks some hard questions about intention, about taking the easy way “out,” about how sometimes the easy way is better if the harder, more complicated way will bugger up the intention to the point that there’s longer a point at all.

That’s what I’m thinking about today, on the eve of another school year.  I’m going in with a lot of intention that I’ve mulled through this summer. It won’t be just “Follow the Leader” and it certainly won't be "Simon Says."  Nope.  I'm hoping it will be much better. 

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...