Chasing Sparks


“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” — William Butler Yeats

On our worst homeschool days, hairstyling attempts with glue, fights over blocks, and a busted toilet sabotage all semblance of curriculum. Evening finds me slumped forward at the kitchen table, holding my head in my hands and begging my husband for Tylenol.

On our best days, spontaneous learning deliciously, vibrantly hijacks any teaching agenda.

In medical education, entire seminars focus on “teachable moments,” or unplanned learning encounters that occur during the hospital workday. In such moments, physician-teachers strive to highlight clinical principles to their students amid the hustle of patient care. They note opportunities in real time to instruct learners in physical exam findings, or in the physiology behind a monitor tracing. They seize these moments, and then hurry on to the next task of the day, the next patient, the next procedure.

As anticipated when education and medicine collide, myriad challenges arise. Doctors must be flexible enough to teach without advance preparation. The heavy demands, intensity, and time constraints of clinical care can discourage physicians from capitalizing upon teachable moments. In emergent or emotionally-charged scenarios, pausing to teach a student may be inappropriate, even unprofessional.

Despite the challenges, teachable moments enhance learning with a richness that textbooks cannot even approximate. Sight and sound, emotion, warmth and breath adorn points of wisdom. Such details integrate learning with other thought processes, embedding newfound knowledge in a learner’s memory with unique vividness.

On our best days, homeschooling reveals the world in a montage of teachable moments. Freed from the confines of lesson plans, sparks flicker from the imagination and fly toward the undiscovered.

One recent morning, our day was careening in the wrong direction. Things began lovely enough: the winter sunlight streamed into our kitchen. Snow laced the stark tree branches in the backyard, and squirrels ducked in and out of the drifts. My son P requested Tchaikovsky on the stereo, and as notes from The Nutcracker Suite filled our home, I dared to dream about sugarplums, waltzing flowers, and a morning without bickering among siblings.

Then, midway through our devotions, my toddler combed her hair with her oatmeal-smeared spoon. This elicited wild laughter from her brother, who despite my protests, then goaded her to stand upright in her chair. As I bolted to prevent a fall, I knocked over her milk cup, and its contents doused everything within a three foot radius. My son then whacked his funny bone and screamed. I kissed him, scrambled for paper towels to stem the deluge of milk, and whirled about in time to witness my daughter mining her ear with a pair of plastic toy pliers (they were supposed to be banished from her reach?!). I snatched the torture instrument with one hand, mopped milk with the other, and then felt a splat on the back of my neck.

I froze. With gritted teeth, I turned to see my son grinning ear to ear, his spoon perched on the rim of his oatmeal bowl like a catapult.

The next moment was not my finest. I yelled. Their mouths fell agape, and I instantly regretted my response. Lord, I prayed, please help me to model grace.

I slid into a chair. “Bubs,” I told P gently. “If you want to play with your spoon and bowl, I’ll happily give you clean ones after breakfast. Just please don’t do it now, and hurl food around the kitchen.”

The morning grew late, and I felt pressured to get on with our agenda for the school day. I fought my impatience, and after breakfast I gave P the clean spoon and fork I’d promised him. I hoped he would purge the impulse from his system, and we could start our lessons.

P balanced the spoon on the bowl at different positions, and slid the fulcrum to different lengths. The effect of each adjustment on the trajectory of a scrap of paper elicited giggles from him.

Suddenly, I saw it. There in his eyes, as he positioned the spoon once again — the spark. We had stumbled into a teachable moment.

“You know, you’ve created a lever there,” I said. He looked up, intrigued. “Let’s read more about it.”

We read Simple Machines from the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out-Science series, and talked about levers, pulleys, axles and ramps. Then we unearthed The Berenstain Bears Big Book of Science and Nature, a tattered book P had read at least fifty times independently. Despite his familiarity with the book, the adventures of the morning freshened the pages. We read again about levers, wedges, and wheels. He marveled at a 2-page spread featuring a “chain reaction alarm clock,” a convoluted contraption featuring pulleys, gears, levers, and a chicken.

“Mum Mum….can we make this?”

Okay, so we had no chicken. But twine, wood scraps, chopsticks, and cardboard tubes soon littered our floor. The kids tugged each other back and forth across the kitchen with a makeshift pulley designed from a chopstick, twine, and an empty ribbon wheel. P hauled out a box of magnet tile blocks to build ramps. Then he built a bridge to span the room.

Two triangle magnet tiles in hand, he apposed them on the dishwasher and declared, “Mum, I made a rhombus!” Recognizing another moment, I pulled Stuart Murphy’s Captain Invicible and the Space Shapes from the shelf. P cheered each time he saved the universe through his constructions of cubes, cylinders, and rectangular prisms. Then he turned his attention back to the dishwasher, and began to manipulate the letter magnets plastered there. Without prompting, he spelled rhombus, “ROMBIS.” I helped him add an “H.”

When my husband ventured downstairs for lunch, he tripped over piles of simple machinery, blocks, books, and two kids still engrossed in how things work.

The day diverged drastically from the carefully crafted lessons I had planned. It unfolded in movements so natural, so delight-driven, that hours of preparation could not have orchestrated a richer learning experience. The morning evolved into one fluid, spirited, raucous teachable moment. We chased after sparks, and fanned them into flames.

Charlotte Mason wrote, “Our aim in education is to give a full life. . . Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passage of time. . . we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest.”

Learning does not begin or end with a lesson plan. It moves and breathes within every wisp of Creation. The Lord infuses every moment of the day with possibility and wonder. He ignites sparks within us, and invites us to chase after them. He welcomes us to grasp at embers, to praise Him as they crackle, glow, and set our minds afire.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. So true! All of that! I wish that adults would take to heart, too, the Charlotte Mason quote! I had to giggle about your morning. Classic! If I can keep myself in check, learning happens!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. shauna says:

    Your description of that morning’s scenario sounded so familiar and frustrating. Scenes like this were the main reason I decided to NOT homeschool–along with the fact that I am terrible in math. I would have missed the rhombus connection for sure!
    That said, you make a very valid point: we miss our own teachable moments by becoming too engrossed in our plans. I feel like I have the attention span of a squirrel most days in my current job (an RN in a transfer center of one of our local hospitals…conference calls, bed assignments for three hospitals in our system, and fielding all the phone calls that filter into our system whether they fit my job description or not!)

    I found you in the link in your CT article…there was a reason God led me to read instead of taking a nap today!


  3. Katie Butler says:

    Thank you so much for your kind words! And thank you for the work you do — crucial, but I imagine harried and frustrating at times!


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