Math had just started when a student noticed that there was a rectangle of light that was on the board. "Where's that coming from?" she asked. I had a choice to make: should I re-direct us back to the partial products multiplication lesson or should I foray out a little and see where it might lead us. It was an easy choice to make. The richness of following a student's observation can be so much productive than "sticking to the book." I think this is partly because of the unexpected nature of the event (everyone loves a surprise) and also because of the sense of "forbidden knowledge." After all, weren't we supposed to learn partial products (don't worry, we did get to it.)
I looked at the rectangle of light and asked the students to hypothesize what was making it. They quickly figured out that the sun was coming through the gap between our shade and the window. I drew an outline around where the light rectangle was on the whiteboard and went back to the lesson. Four minutes later, "It's moving!" Sure enough, the rectangle of light had slid sideways and down a bit. I put an outline around this as well. Soon, like clock work, I was putting outlines around light rectangles every four minutes. We stopped our math lesson with about five minutes to talk. Why was it moving? Why was it moving down our board instead of up? What else did this remind you of? ("Stonehenge!" "A sundial!") I asked the students to hypothesize if they thought that the first rectangle would be in the same place at the same time tomorrow. Some said it would be lower, some higher. They left the room chattering about their reasoning. My exploration group came in and asked what was with all the rectangles and were equally amazed as we continued to mark the light's progression down the board.
The next day we waited anxiously for 9:07 to arrive. It was cloudy, though, and we didn't have any rectangles on the board. Finally, ten minutes later, the clouds parted and we got one reading. The rectangle was slightly higher than the day before. The group exploded in hypotheses. We are keeping (a portion) of the rectangles on the board to watch how they change as we approach winter solstice.
At the heart of progressive teaching is watching children carefully for the moments you can nurture into full blown learning experiences. We stock our classroom with flotsam and jetsam, constantly tempting students to take a closer look and wonder. I've had a postcard collection for years in the Herons. This past week a student was hanging up a postcard he had sent us when he saw several intriguing postcards on the wall. "Where is this?" "Which one is from farthest away?" "Which one is from closest?" A few other students had come over to look at what had interested him. I glanced at the schedule. This time I had no wiggle room. "Take down all the postcards from the board - let's sort them out tomorrow when we have time to look at them."
The next day, we brainstormed ways to sort the cards (which was actually a disguised math lesson - sorting algorithms are a central part of computer science.) The Herons decided to sort by continent, then country, then city. I handed each child 4-5 postcards and they began to put them on the tables we had designated for each continent. Some students quickly became our quality control agents - quietly moving postcards that had landed on the wrong continent table. Other students came to a table to work with a teacher and a globe or atlas. I found a group of children who had "finished" busily trying to sort out the postcards in North America. They were all using the clues that were written in the caption, shared by the postcard writer, or even in the postmark.
As our time neared an end, we weren't done with everything we had set out to do. Some students had put pins into a map of Europe but were looking for a place to hang it so they could attach strings and postcards to each pin. Other students had hung up our North America map on a board, ready for their sorted postcards. One child was trying to figure out if we could hang the postcards on string from a globe like a mobile.
I began to describe this as "a brief detour" from our planned learning, but I think that may be misleading. The river just had many tributaries - without which the enterprise of learning would dry up.