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The Opening Moments

November 5, 2013

In this, my first essay of many to come on the art of teaching, I would like to reflect on the opening moments of a class and share a

Professor James Maddox receives an honorary degree from Middlebury College's Breadloaf School of English

Professor James Maddox receives an honorary degree from Middlebury College’s Breadloaf School of English

few observations about the importance of this transition for our students and teachers.  All of us in the world of education know that our schedules are imperfect; with our current understanding of teaching and learning, most of us would prefer daily schedules that provide long, sustained periods of teaching, coaching, and working.  The forty, forty-five, and fifty minute classes provide good opportunities for the kind of teaching and learning we want to explore, but the students each day at our schools make too many transitions from subject to subject and class to class.

With this challenge in mind, great teachers use the opening moments of each class to do a number of subtle and important things.  We want to greet each student and gain a preliminary sense of the readiness of the class to do good work in the coming period.  If the energy is high, low, or moderate, teachers will react and adjust accordingly – all in pursuit of the ultimate goal of each class:  that it serve as a work of art; that it develop crucial intellectual skills; that it give students the opportunity to move specifically towards the exhibition of mastery at the end of the year.

The best classes capture the attention of the students immediately, perhaps with a compelling, essential question that is good enough, complex enough, and powerful enough to bring the students right into the very essence of the day and course’s work.  We as teachers can also open the class with a quiz or challenge that gives the students an immediate opportunity to work, to do the work of scientists, mathematicians, and historians.

Ultimately, our classes introduce students to the scholarly conversations that have fascinated writers and thinkers in our fields.  This week, for example, as I teach Hamlet, I try to make sure my students understand that the questions we explore and discuss in class are ones that critics and scholars have pursued for hundreds of years.  These scholarly conversations are compelling, authentic, and available for our students, and these questions help ignite student attention and learning.

The opening of class, then, has to be sharp, compelling, welcoming, focused, and ambitious.  Every moment counts:  the stakes for teaching and learning are high.  The opening moments set the tone, pace, and direction of all that follows.

Perhaps my most memorable opening of class experience as a student came when Will Speers and I studied together under the brilliant leadership of Professor James Maddox.  We were studying James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Professor Maddox was not happy with his teaching the day before.  He, therefore, opened the class with the admission that “he had not been at his best yesterday” when he introduced Leopold Bloom in his lecture.  He then proceeded to deliver a fascinating and compelling and inspiring lecture on the novel, perhaps the best teaching I ever experienced in my life.

Maddox used the opening to remind us that he was deeply committed to Joyce, to the novel, to the privilege of teaching us.  He sent the unmistakable message that he would never be satisfied with a class, a lecture, a seminar that was less than his best work.  In that opening, we immediately sensed that something amazing was about to occur.  It did.

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