A Teachable Moment

One of the axioms of teaching is that one should wait for right moment to make an important point — that is, you choose the “teachable moment” to get across an important, emotionally- laden or difficult concept. Otherwise, it turns into a lecture. It’s an old idea; after all, Socrates used it. But now it’s been gussied up in this new term.

Yesterday, I was talking to a teenager who is having a hard time in his school in Li’l Kumquat. Some of it is the environment of the school itself — too large, too burdened with bureaucratic impositions (federal, state, and local) — and some of the problem is the child’s poor choices. When both factors are involved, the kid can end up in a bureaucratic grinder of detentions, reprimands, etc. which begins to resemble one of Dante’s infernal circles.

In the case of his latest detention, I’d already talked to his teacher, so I knew the story from the point of view of the frustrated adult. The only surprise there was how utterly clueless any of the teachers or administrators were about the child’s home life. It’s amazing that a child can be acting like this one has, and no one — NOT ONE PERSON — had inquired about things at home in the two years he’s been there. Also amazing — and discouraging — was the fact that it has taken me seven months and a large crowbar to get his guidance counselor to return a single phone call.

Anyway, with the teacher’s frustration in mind, I tried to figure out how to segue into some conversation with this boy about the possible motivations for his behavior (you never ask a kid “why” he did something. He hasn’t a clue). So we began circling the issue, talking about what had worked for him and what hadn’t. I brought up the word “motivation” and explained I was asking what the payoff was for him: what did he think he got out of making outrageous statements that disrupted the class? A disruption so thorough that the only way to restore order was to send him — once again — down to the principal’s office. I mentioned two possible scenarios I’d thought of: that either he disliked the teacher and was out to show him he couldn’t tell this boy what to do, or that being the class clown was a good way to impress his friends. However, I said there might be other reasons.

He admitted he’d enjoyed being the class clown, and that he was playing to his audience. He liked this teacher and didn’t want to cause him trouble, but impressing his friends with his brazen behavior had become something his classmates expected. Yeah, he knew he’d get detention, but sometimes — and more and more lately — he found it hard to resist the temptation to blurt something out of the blue to draw attention to himself and gain an audience.

As we were talking, the local TV station was running a news clip on a demonstration that had happened in town at our local congressional representative’s office. I suggested we watch the story and see what happened. It was a stereotypical “peace” demonstration of about a dozen people, complete with recycled anti-war songs and arrests and an excitable anchorman trying to build at least a modest mound out of a very small anthill. See for yourself — part of the film we watched is here.

Goode demoI asked the teenager if he could see the point of the protest. He said, “Yeah, they don’t like the war and they want us to get out of Iraq.” I gave him an A for paying close attention and then pointed out to him the fact that their demonstration would do nothing to help their cause. I explained that the Congressman for this district, Virgil Goode, was widely admired except by voters in Li’l Kumquat. They’d been trying to get him out of office for years.

Then I gave my friend a little background on Goode’s politics — that he switched from being a Democrat to being a Republican (I had to explain those, too). I didn’t have a map of the Fifth District, but I told him about the people in it: the university people in Li’l Kumquat versus the country people in the largely rural areas in the rest of the district. The fact that he knew his own dad thought of himself as a country person piqued his interest.

Li’l Kumquat hates Virgil Goode, and has been trying to get him out of office for years — even though he was a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School and was very smart, he didn’t agree with what they wanted or believed.Rep. Goode, I said, believed in supporting the troops and in protecting the border between the US and Mexico… something else Li’l Kumquat doesn’t like.

I asked him to look at what the demonstrators were doing; reminding him that Congressman Goode was probably in Washington, and that the demonstrators had known he would not be there. They were free to demonstrate if they had gotten a permit to do so, but they had broken the law by refusing to leave his office when it was time for the secretary to close for the day.

Then I pointed out that the TV cameras weren’t there because they happened to wander by and see what was going on. Instead, the leader of the demonstrators had called ahead and requested that this TV station show up and cover the story.

“So it’s not real news?” he asked.

I congratulated him for his observation, and said that much of what passes for “news” on TV is not real, but manufactured, like this story.

“Then how do you know what’s true?” he asked.
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“Well,” I said, “you’ve just figured out in two minutes the question some grown ups never even think to ask.”

We continued to watch this bit of “news” all the way through. My teenage friend commented on how excited the TV anchor person seemed. I asked him what he thought of it.

“Dumb,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because a couple of people holding signs and singing and getting arrested wasn’t going to change anything. The war is going to go on anyway.”

“So,” I asked, “do you think they might have done it to get on TV and impress their friends? Don’t they look brave being led away by the police? I mean, it’s kind of cool to see the old lady in handcuffs, grinning.”

He snorted. “I get in trouble for grinning when I’m scared. Grown-ups think I’m not serious. She’s just scared and trying not to show it. Look at her. She’s in handcuffs. I’d be grinning, too, but it wouldn’t be fun.”

“Well, I asked, “what do you think they proved by standing up to the man and protesting the war like that? Will they get what they want?”

He thought for a moment. “They didn’t get much,” he said. “But maybe they’re like me: they need to impress their friends even if they end up in jail for it.”

“Hmmm… do you think going to jail will achieve anything beyond impressing their friends?”

“Heck, no,” he said. “Yeah, their friends think will think they’re cool and all, but the war will still be there. If they really want it to end, they ought to think of a better way to end it than by standing around in the cold singing songs.” He snorted, but whether in sympathy or derision, I don’t know.

Nor did I ask. I was just planting a seed, one about short-term behavior and long-term results. I am hoping it will grow into a tree, a tree of wisdom.

Next time he’s tempted to disrupt his class, maybe he’ll recall our conversation. And maybe not. Maybe we need to have a whole lot more conversations.

Guess what? I finally found a use for television! It’s not useful enough to actually have one, but you never can tell what will turn up at someone else’s house.

Goode demoIn searching for the image of yesterday’s (monthly) demonstration in front of Rep. Goode’s office, I came across a tableau we’d encountered last summer. The Baron and I were in Li’l Kumquat attending the art opening of a friend. While there, we saw this group make its slow way down the pedestrian mall — it must be difficult to walk in the late summer heat with a heavy papier maché puppet head covering a third of your body. Evidently their vision was limited as these puppets had to be led along the walkway by others, who held on to them.

The sight was startling — and disturbing. We went back on several other weekends, camera in hand, to capture this picture for the blog, but the puppet heads were never in evidence while we were there.

Of course this moonbat theatre is dated now that Rumsfeld — he with the blood running out of his mouth — is no longer around. I bet they miss using his head. But I’ll also wager that the Department of Defense misses his real head even more.

2 thoughts on “A Teachable Moment

  1. Good job, Dymphna. Great post.

    As a teacher, and an adult who respects the humanity and intelligence of the children you are attempting to help, you have greater influence than you might imagine.

    When I think back to my childhood, the adults who helped me were all people who respected the fact that, as a child, I was still a thinking human being. If they talked to me as an idiotic child, I ignored them. If they spoke to me with respect, I gave respect back to them and to their thoughts and words.

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