Moments of Classroom Grace

My friend and colleague, Lisa Rivero, posted on the topic of “Classroom Grace” last week over on her blog.  I’ve been thinking about her remarks ever since.

Lisa was talking about those magical moments that happen in classrooms, especially in humanities and social science classrooms, where an ordinary class period suddenly turns electric and students make exciting connections between the discussion topic and their own lives.  It’s funny how unexpected those moments are.  You can’t really plan for them; you can only be “prepared” so that when you recognize them, you can respond to them appropriately.

There is a word in rhetoric and politics that seems to fit here: kairos, a term from ancient Greece meaning the right or opportune moment.   When the time for speaking or acting is ripe, you have to seize the moment.  For teachers, kairos means the “teachable moment.”

The epiphany, that moment of insight (whether teacher or student) that comes with “getting” a concept, is almost a divine experience.  “Grace” captures its essence pretty well.  Suddenly you see clearly what was previously opaque, sort of like the scales falling from Saul’s eyes (Acts 9:18).

The moment of classroom grace I remember most clearly in my own experience, occurred about ten years ago.  Ironically, it happened in the same freshman humanities course that Lisa describes teaching in her blog.  I was the new program director for our technical communication degree, and learning that job was eating into time that should have been going into course prep.  Walking down the hall to my class one day, I was panicking.  Caught up in program matters, I hadn’t even thought about what I was going to do in the classroom until that very moment.  Now I had about ten seconds to come up with something, anything that could fill up the next fifty minutes.  HELP!

And suddenly an idea came to me, like a little intuitive miracle.  My class was studying “time,” just as Lisa’s class is studying “freedom.”  My idea was a perfect 50-minute time-filler: I’d put people into six groups, give them time-related topics to discuss, and then have them report to the class what they’d come up with.  Boom, done.

Three of the groups were easy to think of topics for: one could argue that the “past” was the most important aspect of time, another could argue that the “present” was the most important, and the third could argue that the “future” was the most important.  Okay, I just needed three more time-related groups.  One group would list every association they could think of to do with calendars; another would do the same thing with clocks and watches.  Finally, the last group could list every time-related expression they could think of (“wasting time,” “time is money,” etc.) and talk about what those expressions revealed about our culture’s concept of time.

Whew, just in time.  I walked into class, organized my groups, and set them to work.  It was a GREAT class period.  At the end of the quarter, my teaching evaluations were full of praise for this discussion.  “I had never thought of time that way before,” was the gist of the comments.

Ironic, right?  It was nothing more than a throwaway class exercise, just something I was grateful to have pulled out of thin air to fill fifty minutes in an emergency.  Sometimes that’s how teaching works.  Moments of classroom grace happen when you least expect them.  Sometimes when you don’t even deserve them.

And they are almost always more about your students’ learning than about your teaching.  Knowing this keeps you humble.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. My blog is a space for playing with ideas about creativity, innovation, lifelong learning, and the nature of "insight."
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13 Responses to Moments of Classroom Grace

  1. “The epiphany, that moment of insight (whether teacher or student) that comes with “getting” a concept, is almost a divine experience.” – that moment when connection happens, i guess. when we’re able to connect the dots, so to speak… 🙂

    doc kath, i read Fanny Howe’s bio recently. in it, she said that time is a societal construct of sort, something that we acquire and are able to formulate as we age, as we interact in society. that there is only one time, actually, but to make it (and living) more manageable, we divide it into past, present and future. what do you think? hoho… 😉

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  2. What a good post! I have to remind myself that those kinds of in-class group activities can be both enjoyable and useful for students. They really are a good example of how it’s not really about us as teachers at all, in the end. It’s something bigger.

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    • Thank you, Lisa! Your post triggered my memory, and you’re right. It’s something bigger than us.

      It is hard to explain sometimes, too, that our job as humanities professors is not to inform students of facts but to ask questions that help them discover the answers for themselves. Yet talking about that as a job skill (“What do you do?” “I ask good questions.”) is difficult.

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  3. mworfolk says:

    I had to laugh in recognition…it’s true that some of my most successful classes were the ones I prepped for 5 minutes before class. I always marvel when that happens–it can be so unpredictable!

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  4. mworfolk says:

    Hmm, that is a great question. I have tried to figure this out too…the only thing I can put my finger on is that sometimes when I do thorough lesson planning/prep, it leads me to micromanage the students’ learning experience. When I have only prepared the bare bones of a lesson, I’m not as certain of how I want it to end up, so I give them more space to experiment and to work with each other. Without my well-meaning interference, they often come up with really great insights on their own.

    For the last few years, I’ve really been working on stepping back, biting my tongue, and removing myself from their discussions and group work as much as possible. (It’s not easy!)

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  5. Pingback: Random thoughts on time, nostalgia and the human experience | Katherine Wikoff

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