I think good teaching is messy. Highly structured teacher-driven classes are actually easier to teach, but they're not that engaging for students. The best teachers I know are the ones that are responsive to what's happening in the classroom and are willing to go with a "teachable moment" when it strikes. These moments can be scary, however, especially if they aren't part of the lesson plan. Today in math class, I had one of those days.
My math class has been working on unit conversions and just started a unit on ratios and unit rates. The worksheet I had assigned for last night's homework reviewed the concept of ratios in possibly one of the most boring ways--showing pictures of random items and asking kids to write the ratios in simplest form. While it certainly helped them practice the concept, I couldn't help putting myself in their shoes thinking, "when would I ever need to know the ratio of flowers to pliers?"
To counter the worksheet, I decided to make sure we had some real world applications in class today. Using a "Dan Meyer-style" format (See this link for more information--Dan Meyer--Ted Talk), I told the kids to watch as I ran back and forth across the classroom. I then asked them to figure out what the question was I wanted them to answer. Hands shot up (high level of engagement). This is always the scary part for me as a teacher. You never quite know what will come out of the mouths of 12 year-old boys. The first questions were somewhat lame. I was a little nervous. I started writing their questions on the board. As they progressed, the questions got more detailed and more sophisticated until finally someone asked "How fast am I going?" Bingo!
Now that we had established the question, I asked what would we need to know to answer the question. Lots of hands went up. We easily established that the distance traveled was required to solve the problem. One student suggested how important it was for us to know how many steps I took. And many agreed. But several students insisted it wasn't. Now came the great unplanned debate. We spent a huge amount of time as students argued their cases passionately. While much of their logic was flawed, I got to sit back and watch my boys argue about math. Everyone got in on it. It was one of those moments. With a little help from me as a class we finally agreed that only the distance and time was needed to solve the problem.
I couldn't have planned this better if I had tried. Seeing students so engaged, forming arguments and debating math was a little slice of heaven for this math teacher. It would have been so much easier to simply teach a lesson on unit rates and then give them a worksheet, but tonight they have one problem--figuring out how fast I was going. As I passed kids in the hallway heading down to lunch, I heard some of them still talking excitedly about how to solve it. I can't wait to hear our discussion tomorrow!