437. Spontaneity

Teachers do lots of planning, and paradoxically, that planning sometimes allows teachers to be spontaneous. I recently saw a good example. Pam Szczesny, one of the teachers with whom I volunteer, came to class either having just seen tracks in the snow near her home or at least telling the children
she had seen some. If she’d made the whole thing up, she’d done so expertly. It wasn’t until I got home that I even thought about whether the tracks had really been there.
The children had already been studying animals, and here was a great opportunity to apply what they’d learned. As the children stood around a table, Pam drew the tracks on a piece of paper. She spoke as she drew, and her words and tone of voice told everyone that she really wanted to know what kind of animal had made those tracks.
By expressing sincere enthusiasm and curiosity, Pam brought out the children’s enthusiasm and curiosity. They wanted to know what kind of animal had made the tracks. Like me, they didn’t seem to give a thought to whether those tracks had really been there; they were now detectives. Even one child who tends not to get enthusiastic about lessons – prefers to be “cool” – was quickly drawn into the mystery.
I listened to the children, and listened to Pam. The ground was covered with snow, and they talked about the possible effects of the snow on the shape of the tracks. Tracks in snow may sometimes be a little clearer than tracks in dirt, sand, or mud, but snow melts. It was freezing out, but sunny. Could the sun have melted the snow enough to change the shape of the tracks?
What followed was about half an hour of research. The children loved the role in which they’d been cast. Pam hadn’t started the lesson by saying, “Now, children, we are going to study animal tracks.” She had come into class the way children often come in – eager to let people know what was on her mind. She didn’t seem to be following some dry curriculum guidelines or relying on some detailed planbook.
The lesson was a smashing success. I suspect, but don’t know, that Pam had put a lot of thought into the lesson. Maybe she is experienced enough or has enough spontaneous creativity and charisma not to need to put a lot of thought into such a lesson; maybe she knew it was time to be spontaneous, and knew it would work.
I’ve seen Pam respond to children’s enthusiasm and curiosity; she’s not the only one she allows to be spontaneous. I’ve already written about her flexibility. It’s not that she ignores the prescribed curriculum; she teaches children what they need to know to be ready for their futures in and out of school, and she avoids delving too deeply into curriculum that’s already been claimed by later grades. But sometimes she does seem to teach spontaneously. Only Pam knows how spontaneous her teaching really is, but no matter. It works.

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