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Teachable Moments: A derailed lesson

  • Teachable Moments: A derailed lesson

The following blog post was written by Dara MacKay, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. 

Roll with it.  Student-centered teaching is about taking into account the learners’ needs and moving along with them at their pace.  It takes flexibility, the ability to think on one’s feet, and patience.  I am a planner.  I spend a great deal of time on lesson plans that walk me through each detail of my class.  If I don’t write it down, the likelihood is high that I will forget to do it.  So, my lesson plans look really nice before I go to class.  I separate them into chunks depending on time, theme and type of activity.  I have space for my learning outcomes, materials and assessment strategies.  They are neatly typed, in a table format, laid out so I can easily see what I’m supposed to be teaching.  After class is a whole other story.  They are all marked up; things are crossed off, circled items have arrows indicating “try again tomorrow”, and some things are scribbled out furiously (which means utter fail, never ever try again).  Such is life as a teacher.  Our best laid plans don’t often go as we want.  The days that actually do go as planned are few and far between.  Some days in my class, we go through it all so fast that I have to think on my feet and find activities to fill up the time that still count as learning.  Some days we don’t even cover what is on my lesson plan and my students completely derail my plans.  What I find is that these are the days when true, authentic learning tends to take place. 

Roll with it.  Why on earth would I teach if my job was simply to push curriculum?  I may as well work in a factory, pumping our carbon copies of English speaking people with prefabricated answers.  No thanks.  Curriculum is an important guideline, and our jobs would be so much harder without it, but what I truly get passionate about is that I am teaching people.  I am teaching life skills.  I am teaching people how to communicate and express themselves.  Wow.  That is so much more than my pretty lesson plans.  We change lives.  That is why, when needs arise in my classroom, I have no choice but to go with it.  I allow the needs of my students to lead my teaching.  I do my best every single day to meet them where they are.  My plans always reflect this, but sometimes things pop up in class that I hadn’t thought of before. 

Last week, my class was doing a listening activity.  They were listening to a story I dictated in the lab, and had to answer questions I also dictated.  It was a simple story.  I asked three simple questions.  Or so I thought.  The last question was:  What was getting on his nerves?  Every one of my students thought the question was asking about a man being nervous.  They hadn’t heard this phrase.  What stemmed from this simple misunderstanding was a half hour discussion on common idioms that they had heard but didn’t understand.  I could see lights go on in their eyes as I took questions and gave explanations.  Understanding!  I really think every one of my students learned something valuable that day.  They were armed with a greater depth of understanding and communication they hadn’t had 30 minutes before.  I could have simply explained the phrase in the question and moved along with my lesson plan, but something as small as opening a discussion opened the door to understanding.  This is just a small example of what happens when we allow our learners’ needs to guide us through this thing called Language Learning.  We want our learners to actually acquire the language, not just memorize it.  There is a huge difference.  Acquiring language requires authentic connections between the language learned in the classroom and the lives lived outside of it. 

So, when my students completely derail my lesson plans with the stuff that makes up real life, that makes their lives easier to manage, and allows them to grow,I roll with it.  After all, doesn’t that just make it so much more interesting?  I don’t want to teach out of a book.  Life isn’t written in a book. 

How do you incorporate student-centered approaches into your classroom?  I’d love to hear some stories about profound learning that took place outside of lesson plans.  

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