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Billy Ray Cyrus and the Lunch Bunch

Susan, a friend who teaches fourth grade in an urban district, shared this story with me last week. I am publishing it with her permission, but she asks not to be identified. Going "off-script" is verboten in this district, even when an entire class of fourth grade smart cookies is on a mission to learn. Is it ever OK to deviate from rigid requirements when a teachable moment occurs?

Just a Fluke?

It was the last Friday before a week-long break and I was feeling super nice, or maybe just slightly insane. I decided to let any student who wanted return to the classroom to eat lunch today. Usually I select only a few students who need additional time to work, time away from their peers, or just reward time to come back to the classroom to eat lunch. Of course today the entire class chose to come back. (What was I thinking?)

Settling in and starting to eat their lunches, they noticed writing on the "SMART Cookies" they had for dessert. Each cookie has a president's portrait stamped on it along with his name and which number president he was. The kids were reading about the different presidents and asking each other questions about their cookies. Thus ensued the following discussion:

Kid 1: Why wasn't Martin Luther King, Jr. ever president?
Kid 2: 'Cause he was shot by Billy Ray.
Kid 1 (with incredibly big eyes): Cyrus? Miley's dad?
Me: No, no, kids, Billy Ray Cyrus did NOT kill Martin Luther King, Jr.
Kid 3: Who did?
Me: James Earl Ray.
Kid 4: Is he still alive?

At this point, I glanced at the clock. We had about 5 minutes of lunchtime left. Then I spied the netbook cart sitting at the front of the room. There seemed to be a spotlight on it and a heavenly chorus singing in the background. Netbooks or Math? Which to choose?

Me: I don't know. (I totally do know, but they don't know that.) How could we look that up using our netbooks?

Suddenly the whole "lunch bunch" is looking up information and discussing James Earl Ray. They discussed how he had a previous criminal record and how he might have already done other crimes. "Ooh! Look at this. It says he...." prefaced almost every utterance.

Twenty minutes later the little angel teacher on my right shoulder says, "It's Math time!" The little devil teacher on my left shoulder says, "To hell with Math! This is learning!" Or maybe I have the little teachers on my shoulders mixed up. Who knows? Either way, this one fact-based question turned into a full-fledged discussion about what could cause someone to kill another man for his beliefs (thus laying the foundation for future discussions on hate crimes or terrorism). In the end, all I know is that reviewing long division could wait until after we get back from break and the entire class now KNOWS that Billy Ray Cyrus did not kill Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I reflected on this day, I couldn't help but ponder the following questions:
• What if I hadn't kept my kids at lunch?
• What if we didn't have "SMART Cookies" for lunch?
• What if the netbook cart wasn't in the classroom?
• What if I had been strictly adhering "with fidelity" to the highly structured scripted commercial curriculum I am mandated to teach?
• In this day and age, can I afford to deviate from mandates to pursue interesting junkets into authentic learning?
• Are authentic and engaging educational experiences really just some fluke to be left to chance at a random lunchtime?

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