Pre-Class Chit-Chat

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I spend the first three or four minutes of every class meeting discussing things I know very little about with my students. When I read the Sunday newspaper I purposely look for articles that might provide some tidbit of information to make me appear knowledgeable about the things that my students care about. To me this is a small but important part of class preparation. At the start of the semester the majority of students don’t know what to think when I engage them in this pre-class banter. And yet, I persist for this reason: if they will not talk to me about LeBron James, the World Series, or “The Walking Dead,” how can I expect to interest them in discussion of topics that really matter in my classroom?

   I never gave much thought to the five minutes before class starts until I started teaching at a community college. At the four-year residential colleges where I taught previously, the students came to class in small groups from the dining halls or the dorms. At a non-residential college, however, teaching faculty are the direct link between the students and the college. Sure students visit the bursar’s and registrar’s offices at various times in the semester. They use the library and computing center services, and work with academic tutors. But the people they see regularly are us: their professors.  

   The concept of making small-talk with students so that they will be more engaged during class time may sound simplistic and, to some, even silly. It goes without saying that I did not invent this “strategy,” if I may call it one. I am simply stating the obvious: if our students believe we are interested in who they are, they are more likely to be interested in what we are teaching. Further, my hope always is that the students will come to me for academic assistance because they believe I care about them as people and because they have connected to me and their classmates in a meaningful way.

   And so it is that the five minutes before my classes begin consists of me setting up classroom technology while also purposely engaging whoever is in the room at the moment in conversation. I’m not going to lie: the first couple weeks of chit-chat with a new group of students can at times feel like a trip to the dentist’s office. More than a few times I’ve seen students look around as if I cannot possibly be talking to them or reach for something in their backpack to avoid eye contact with me during these painful few minutes. In time, however, students warm to the pre-class, non-academic discussion and even initiate it.  

   After a few weeks of a new semester I have a pretty good feel for my students’ interests: hockey or football fans, television-junkies, or weekend movie-goers. We’ve talked about topics that range from favorite pizza toppings (argued heatedly, for example, whether lettuce belongs in the “toppings” category) to professional sports preferences to national and international news stories. Somehow, we’ve transitioned every random subject into that day’s academic focus – not seamlessly, but successfully. It’s my job, of course, to make sure that we do transition and often this requires ending a lively discussion about pop culture for the sake of starting class.

   Often I will overhear students resuming the pre-class discussion when our time expires. It’s in these five minutes before class that students realize what they have in common with each other and start to make the social connections that are sometimes difficult for non-residential students to forge but that are significant for students to be successful in college. Maybe they don’t have a dorm assignment in common, but they might quickly realize that they work retail in the same shopping mall, or that there are other waiters taking the class, or that they share the same television or sports interests. These strangers become the classmates that students turn to when they miss class notes or if they need to do group study for exams.

   What strategies could you share that have enabled you to forge more meaningful connections with your students?

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.