December 6, 2011

Unlocking the little things

I had an interesting experience today, when I taught a student how to open her combination lock. It sounds strange that four months into a school year, a 13-year-old is still struggling with a basic motor skill, but if you've ever taught middle school, you know it happens.

She had asked me to help her before, and I have always just opened the lock and returned to my classroom (you see, she's not my student, so it wasn't worth my time to do much more than open the lock).

Today, I decided to pause for a moment to see what was wrong. I asked her to attempt to open the lock, and I watched. "Your technique is flawed," I said. She looked puzzled. She was attempting to open the lock, while holding it in one hand and using the thumb on that same hand; she wasn't using her other hand at all. I asked her to hold the lock in her strong hand (the right). "Now, with your left hand, turn the knob on the lock, rather than trying to use just your thumb on the flat part of the lock."

I modeled the practice and opened the lock. Then I relocked it. She sighed. "You try," I said. "You have to do it, if you are going to learn it."

Three turns later, the lock sprang open. "You'll never need my help again," I called, as I  headed back to my empty classroom. She smiled and scurried away.

In a day filled with research, web-based tools, cooperative groups, reading and many more one-on-one conversations with students, it hit me that this might have been one of the best moments of the day.