The Power of Five Minutes

Having taught in a middle school for 40 years, I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that my students needed time to regroup between classes.

A few years ago, my classroom was across the hall from Joel Harms’s geometry class. I would hear familiar phrases from my high school days, like “opposite interior angles” or “side angle side” wafting across the hall. My days of geometry—the only mathematics I could do—came back to me. Solving a geometric problem was like doing a puzzle: I could picture the end result and create a way to get there. When looking at an algebraic equation, I didn’t have a clue about where I was going.

Finding my way around a sentence came much more naturally.

Each school day, the boys I teach would cross the 8 feet from Joel Harms’s door to mine, the land of English class. To make every minute count, I would quickly launch into a wonderful discussion on gerund phrases or the uses of dependent clauses. One day, I remember looking at the class and realizing that these guys were still digesting “side angle side.” They hadn’t even begun to think about gerund phrases.

It would take a few minutes for the dendrites and neurons in their brains to let go of geometry and start to connect with some facets of English grammar. They needed a “buffer zone,” or down time, to clear their minds between their geometry class and my English class.

I had read in many “effective teacher” books that I should give my students a problem to solve as they came into the classroom, sort of a warm-up exercise. Pick out a gerund phrase from a sentence written on the board, for example. This would keep them busy before the great lecture started. I thought that there had to be a more fruitful way to use this time.

One evening, I was watching Giant, the great Texas epic starring James Dean. In one scene, he is carrying a rope with a small ball attached at the end. After he tells all the big shots that he won’t sell them his small piece of land, he walks out. But before he goes out the door, he turns back to face the gentlemen and flips the ball up. When it comes down, it has magically made a knot in the rope. A day or two later, I was in a toy store and saw the same ball and rope trick and bought it. I couldn’t make the knot, so I took it to my classroom to see if any of my students could duplicate James Dean’s magic.

Some figured it out quickly and some, like me, were hopeless. I soon started making my own version of the game, with a yard of nylon line and a small rubber ball at the end, and took it to my classroom. As soon as the boys came in the room from their geometry class, they would head straight to the ball and rope. They soon started keeping track of how many knots they could make in a row.

The ball and rope was such a success that I thought of another game I had had as a child: the swing-ring game. The game consists of a brass ring on a string on one post and a small hook on another post. The posts are connected, epoxied at right angles. The goal is to swing the ring so that it lands on the hook. I made one of these games out of two pieces of 15-inch PVC pipe connected at right angles with a small wooden base, and I took it to school. This, too, became extremely popular.

The five minutes I allotted my students to play these games as they entered gave them plenty of time to get “side angle side” off their minds and made the next 35 minutes more productive than ever. I now use the first five minutes for these games in all my classes.

I still can’t make the knot with the ball and rope, but one of my students did 100 in a row. He could have kept going, but we had dependent clauses to tackle. 
Wim Hart

Wim Hart is an English teacher at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, New Hampshire. This article originally appeared in the school’s weekly newsletter.