Teachable Moments

(This article was written while the weather was still mild in Iowa!)

One school day a couple of weeks ago, I was trying to run an errand with all three of my kids in tow. We had been out to a morning activity, and I didn’t want to travel all the way home before accomplishing some things “out in the world!” To maintain morale and energy, we grabbed some fast food and settled down picnic-style to eat it in a park. The boys all seemed relaxed and content, and I thought I would try to capture what seemed to be a teachable moment as we sat there on our blanket. What could we work on with no books, no paper, no pencils? In truth, there would be a great many things (skip counting, math facts, dates in history, names of states, etc.), but the subject that plagues me personally (and I do mean plagues me) for attention is German. I have said many times to many people that I can, I must, I will teach German to my children, but I haven’t done it yet. So on that sunny, errand-running day, sitting on a picnic blanket, I tried to teach my children to say, “Ich bin x Jahre alt,” substituting the proper age for each one of them. On road trips, we had already listened to a teaching CD of basic German in song format, so they have some familiarity with German numbers. I just thought I could add in the surrounding verbage so they could tell their Dad their ages in German.

We tried, we rehearsed, I pleaded. Our 4-year-old linguist (a self-taught reader) refused to even participate. Our middle child, who is happiest when he can be verbally funny, gave some effort, but grew easily bored. Thankfully, we have a dutiful oldest child (you know, that firstborn syndrome), who worked very hard at saying over and over again, “Ich bin zehn Jahre alt,” at least after I told him how happy it would make his Dad! At the end of the picnic, my success rate as a teacher was thus 1/3, and most of that could be attributed to someone other than myself (as I said, the firstborn-ness and the Daddy motivator kicking in!). The relaxed children on the blanket turned out to be not-so-teachable after all.

Looking back at that day and using my best Mom Hindsight, I would guess that my children had other plans, other thoughts, other wishes which interfered with their ability or desire to learn a little German while on a picnic. We had been to the park’s playground area; they wanted to go back, if we could spare the time. They had driven around town with me, and now I was trying to confine them again — albeit in a different kind of space than a motor vehicle — when they just wanted to be kids and play. And the value of learning German — the face value of it to American kids — is not very high. Whatever kind of use could it ever have? I think it’s hard enough for kids — my kids, your kids — to understand what they’re going to do with language arts and math skills until or unless someone or something shows them that those skills are relevant. At our house, we have played “M & M Math” since we started homeschooling, and even now, any time one of my kids struggles with a math problem or concept, I try to explain it with M & Ms. Candy they understand! So for German I need a hook, too, in order to create the teachable moments rather than just waiting for or forcing them to happen: an inducement to approach the subject, a tool to transmit the subject knowledge, a reward for assimilating the knowledge — all of these things in one package!

Hmm, sounds like M & Ms!

Wer moechte M & Ms? Ich habe viele fuer euch. Kommt doch und setzt euch zu mir am Tisch, und wir zaehlen sie zuerst: eins, zwei, drei…


“M & M Math”: At our house, we use dice and candy-coated chocolate pieces (yes, usually the name-brand M & Ms) to practice math facts and even other math concepts (graphing, for example). Only after we started this practice did I discover that the author/illustrator team McGrath and Glass have written books explaining math concepts using M & M’s brand chocolate candies, and they have permission of the brand owner Mars Inc. to use the name, characters, and images in their books. So “M & M Math” is also a real, “official” thing! You may wish to look up these books for ideas in using candy to teach math. Of course, you may also use raisins, bite-sized crackers, other small candies, etc. as motivational tools for teaching math… or maybe a foreign language!

Translation for the final German sentences: Who wants M & Ms? I have a lot for you. Come and sit down with me at the table, and we will count them first: one, two, three…


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