It was a typical day in Dan Sakota's ninth-grade algebra class in Rexburg, Idaho, until a student casually used an ethnic slur. Sakota's mind raced, debating whether to let it pass or change the lesson from mathematics to tolerance.
Sakota knew that altering his plans would put his 35 students behind in the curriculum, but he opted to discuss the power of words and the meaning of race and ethnicity. It was a lesson that would not appear on an upcoming standardized test but one he felt was more important, at that minute, than any algebraic equation.
For Sakota, it was a classic "teachable moment," an invaluable chance to go beyond the daily script and fuse different strands of thought into a powerful lesson. Such moments, which take longer than they sound, are among the most satisfying in the teaching profession, magical enough to sustain many educators through the growing pressures of their jobs.
But some teachers say they fear these impromptu openings to broaden their teaching may be in jeopardy in an era of accountability in public schools, as lesson plans get more scripted and teachers face pressure to stay on task to produce ever-higher student test scores.
"I'm sorry to say I don't take advantage of these moments as much as I'd like to anymore," Sakota said. "With the testing, the standards, the accountability, it's hard to take the time. As a math teacher, I know I have to cover certain topics within the school year. . . . When you have a teachable moment, you do think: What is this going to do to me for the rest of the day, or the rest of the week, or the rest of the year?"
Teachers define these moments in different ways, but they generally occur when something happens unexpectedly that is important enough for regular class activity to stop so it can be addressed.
The moments can result from student questions, world events, situations at school, science experiments that don't work, the lunch menu, tragedies and celebrations, said Deb Van Dalen, a sixth-grade teacher in Hortonville, Wis.
Kindergarten teachers seize on them; college professors do, too.
"I guess, like pornography, you know one when you see it," said Jessica Young, a high school history teacher in Oak Park, Ill.
Today's chaotic world offers many opportunities for such moments, teachers say. The looming conflict in Iraq is sparking conversations about war and peace; the Columbia disaster prompted discussions about loss. Discipline problems become moments for discussion about kindness and respect.
Michael Marks, a high school drama and debate teacher in Hattiesburg, Miss., realized last month while producing Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorius that his students did not understand the hardships of the sharecropping days, so he gave his students a history lesson along with stage direction.
For high school student-teacher Kristen Phillips in San Antonio, Texas, the spark came from the film Dead Poets Society. After teaching poetry to blank stares of her students, Phillips jumped on a question from a student who asked about the Walt Whitman poem O Captain, My Captain in the movie.
"This teachable moment screamed at me to act upon it," she said.
What followed was a fine discussion of the irony that though the North won the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln did not live to see the results.
Students have mixed reactions to these moments. Sometimes, they admit to zoning out, knowing they won't be tested on the material. Jaime Sasso, a ninth-grader at Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami, said some kids even try to provoke talkative teachers into such lessons to take a break from the curriculum.
But, she said, when a teacher seems impassioned about a subject and uses vivid detail, students listen. After a comment by a student about a party, her math teacher discussed the dangers of drinking and driving with some real-life examples.
"Everybody listened to every word," Sasso said. "It stayed with me, and I think with other kids, too."
Barbara P. Sirvis, president of Southern Vermont College and an expert on K-12 education, said the value of being flexible and using teachable moments is to give relevance to learning. But, she said, it is a tricky art for teachers to master.
"Teachable moments are really about awareness and willingness to see beyond the standards-based climate that we find ourselves in," said Gail Buranford, director of undergraduate teacher education at Northwestern University. "For teachers trained and required to do "scripted instruction,' teachable moments are often lost."
David Berliner, an educational researcher and professor at Arizona State University's College of Education, said he is concerned about how new teachers think about teaching.
New teachers "are coming in with this load of "get the kids ready for the test,' and they come in without the sustenance of these teachable moments," he said. "It's the master teachers who know how to weave a story and take it where they want. The younger teachers don't understand how beautiful these moments can be, when a light goes on in a kid's eye or a class' eye. And if they don't have that to sustain them, what will they have?"