Each day, the bell beckons my somewhat reluctant grade 11 crew of boys and one lone female to roll into my classroom like beads of mercury from a broken thermometer. Through the door, the pool of liquid silver breaks and splits into shiny, irresistible balls of energy, moving constantly in all directions—their chemical makeup fighting against containment and working as one. I like these kids; I struggle with this class.
And so it began—like any other day. I had taken a deep breath and was preparing myself to herd cats. That afternoon, before a long weekend, a group of my boys rushed my desk, simultaneously and enthusiastically rambling about some YouTube video that “we had to watch.” All I knew was that it had to do with 911, and a poem by a child. We had been doing a unit on Identity; the clip sounded safe, and I hesitantly let them run with it. It was more a surrender than a decision when I allowed them to take over my computer. A teacher needs some trustful daring (some may say stupidity) to let a group of 16-year-old boys share an unscreened video—boys whose barometer of appropriate does not read the same as mine. I observed.
To my surprise, it was not what I had imagined.
It was about 911. It was about loss. It was about a child struggling with the things her father would never know. It was about her identity—how it was and will be shaped by that event. The choice couldn’t have been more perfect if I had chosen it with this unit in mind. However, that was not what resonated. It was what came next.
It was holding my breath and taking a back seat to be a part of—but not lead— the conversation that followed. The conversation revealed more in fifteen minutes than I had pulled out in the previous two weeks. The class was engaged. They felt; they shared; they supported each other. Boys talked about their fathers leaving before they were born, divorce, the challenges of feeling like parents cared more for their new spouses than their children. There were tears, a few curses, some laughing, and a lot of boys hugging.
That day, the class was immersed in an experience they would think about for hours and days. Perhaps it will be one of those moments—one dares to hope— they will carry with them always. I believed in a process that became one of those “affirming moments.” It was golden and, as a teacher, such moments make my heart sing.
We call them lesson plans, and that day included a lesson—but not one for students. It was a lesson for me, and a reminder that some of our best interactions with children can be wonderful surprises. Moments emerge, simply born from conversations, situations or happy accidents. These moments are seldom the ones we plan assiduously and specifically into our lessons, unit and year plans.
I don’t mean to ignore the importance of careful planning. We teachers bear a weighty responsibility to students, parents and ourselves. We must be cognizant of covering provincial outcomes and required material when we prepare for our assigned courses. We know it is essential to make everyday learning experiences as meaningful as possible. Yet, sometimes the things I plan best, believe will make the most impact, and be most engaging fall disappointingly short. They miss the mark—despite my best intentions and efforts.
Sometimes successes reveal themselves, a bit like stumbling upon a wild thing in a forest. Part of me knows that the magic is created because I have not scouted the terrain too hard, or made my foreign presence too known. I know how fragile moments spring from accidental engagement—fortuitous combinations of events that allow authentic connections and true learning to unfold.
That lesson spoke to me of the importance of having a compass that sets direction, but reminded me that wonderful mysteries reside off the path, valuable and worthwhile. It takes a willingness to be flexible— open-minded enough to embrace opportunities as they arise. It takes trust and a willingness to scoop up the pieces. That lesson could have gone off the rails. It could have been irrelevant, a waste of time, or a colossal failure even. But it wasn’t. And it made me trust that it is worth taking the gamble. Even a few misses would be worth the chance to spark that accidental engagement again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicole Day is an ELA teacher and learning coach at David Thompson High School in Condor, Alberta. She is currently enrolled in the Masters of Educational Studies program through the University of Alberta.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2011 issue.