• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


In Praise of Passing Periods

That time between classes means more than I long thought.

February 25, 2015

I stumbled onto one of my favorite teaching tools by accident.

A few semesters ago, on a Tu/Th teaching schedule, I was assigned four class periods back to back to back to back all in the same classroom. At first, I thought about asking to have it changed since I was afraid of running out of steam teaching so many classes in a row[1], but I decided to give it a try and I’m glad I did.

It allowed me to discover the magical time of the “passing period.”

Previously, I would arrive a couple minutes prior to the start of class, leaving enough time to set up any technology or materials I might need. Often, some students were already present, absorbed in the things students are absorbed by, usually something on their phones. I’d tend not to bother them until it was time for class to officially start, seeing that time as rightfully theirs, not something to be intruded upon by their instructor.

But in teaching back to back,  I’m always the first one in the room and because it seemed weird to stay silent, I started doing things differently.

I now try to greet students as they come in, channeling my inner Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island “Smiles, everyone,” and “Welcome, welcome to English 110,” references none of them get, but crack me up anyway.

I started to play music, focusing on stuff they’ve likely never heard, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa as well as music that was popular when I was their age, the grunge of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I learned this year that Nirvana is now classic rock. I take requests, but reserve the right to veto anything not up to my personal/idiosyncratic standards.

I have been introduced to Vulfpeck and Snarky Puppy. I was at first dismissive of these silly band names, but then again…Pearl Jam. Red Hot Chili Peppers.

For the early arrivals, I try small talk, the weather, how school is going, what’s happening on campus. This often segues into substantive talk, questions about why they have to take a foreign language or calculus. This time of year it's about whether or not they should sign a lease and live off campus.

Sometimes the questions about a current assignment come immediately and I can either answer or reassure them that we’ll cover everything during class.

Someone who knows more than me can probably tell me what’s going on from a theory perspective, but from a practical one, I can testify that it all just feels better. Maybe it hearkens back to grade school homerooms with their collective decorations and class pets.

Perhaps I should look into getting a hamster.

There’s something about inhabiting the space as though we own it that seems to make things just a little better. This semester’s classroom overlooks Cougar Mall, a major pedestrian thoroughfare at College of Charleston and I’ll sometimes comment on or ask questions about what we’re seeing, like last Tuesday, the coldest day of the year, and some poor soul wearing flip-flops.

There’s times where I lose track of the start of class, the music plays in the background as we converse as a group, sometimes about substantive things, but often not, or at least not obviously.

Those are the best days, when the space between regular life and learning is seamless.


[1] I pack my lunch and eat parts of it in between each class, a yogurt, some pretzels, a sandwich, etc.





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