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Sue Bruns' PrimeTime column: Teachable moments provide summer lessons

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On my way to work one morning, I was driving along the Fern Lake Road when a large brownish lump hobbled across the road -- a snapping turtle on its way to lay eggs.

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I was glad the pick-up truck ahead of me was not being driven by a snapper vigilante. A little farther down the road, two more snappers, about the same size, with backs like over-turned mixing bowls, were already at work, laying eggs in the soft shoulder of the road.

I smiled, remembering back to the summer of 1998, when snapping turtles burying their eggs along the Schoolcraft River, just a mile from our home, provided a summer lesson in biology and mythology for me and my son.

Eric, then 10 years old, and I were on our way into town when we stopped to watch a snapper lay her eggs. This was a common occurrence for us - pulling over to observe nature at work. On this June day in 1998, we stood by the side of the road watching the turtle, her head tucked into her wrinkly neck, three legs visible and the fourth stretched down into the hole she'd dug, lowering the eggs gently into place.

Having watched the process on two previous occasions that early summer, we knew that when she was done, she would use her legs to move the loose, moist sand over the precious eggs and would pack it down with her body.

"Remember that time we stopped to watch another turtle, and then two other cars stopped to watch, too?" Eric said.

Yes, I remembered. Actually that had happened on more than one occasion. People would slow down to see what's going on, size up the situation, pull over, and stop to watch. Other parents with their kids - previously unknown to us - would stop to share this teachable moment, in awe of this homely beast's maternal side, amazed at the process, and delighted at the opportunity to be sidetracked for a moment to witness this act.

I was pleased with myself for stopping to provide this learning opportunity for my son, but I was even more pleased when he became the teacher.

"Have you ever seen the book 'Thirteen Moons on a Turtle's Back?'" he asked.

"No," I said, half listening, still intent on the mother turtle's business.

"There are 13 moons in a year and there are 13 sections on the shell of every turtle's back. Each one stands for a moon. They all have different names - like the Strawberry Moon and the Moon of the Popping Trees - and there's a different legend about each one," he said.

I stared at the back of Mother Turtle and absently counted the sections on her shell.

"Hey, there really ARE 13 sections!" I said.

"Yeah, the 13 moons," said Eric, glad to be the teacher. He went on to tell me about the Frost Giants hitting the trees with their clubs and Coyote howling to drive them away. I wanted to know more about the legends. He told me as much as he could remember, which was, amazingly, quite a bit.

"You don't just learn school work in school," he said. "You learn legends and stuff, too."

"You'd be a good teacher," I told him.

"Nah, too much homework," he said.

"But you have one of the most important qualities - the excitement about what you know and the desire to share it with someone else. That's what makes a good teacher."

Teachable moments are everywhere in the summer time. All of us have the opportunities to teach when we see things worth stopping for, worth exploring, worth talking about, worth listening to. As parents, we not only teach our children things, we can explore and learn with them - and from them!

Enjoy the summer and watch for teachable moments. Oh, and if you get a chance, you might want to read "Thirteen Moons on a Turtle's Back" by Joseph Bruchac and Jonathan London.

Sue Bruns is a retired teacher and assistant principal with Bemidji Area Schools.

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