Looking back to 2015, getting ahead in 2016 (part 1)

Holy crap, that went fast! I feel like it was just yesterday that I was ending my term’s teaching, giving my lone mid-year final exam, and falling exhausted onto the living room floor. But here we are: New Years Day, and on Tuesday I head back into the classroom until early April.

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Truth be told, I did manage to take a proper break this holiday season, somewhat against the odds (though in keeping with my New Years resolutions about working less and living more). As a result, I found myself late last week recharged enough to reflect on what went well last semester, and on what needs work as we head into Winter 2016.

First, the best parts.

1. Peer evaluations are improving!

Back in May, in a series of linked posts, I reflected on things that went poorly, things that went well, and things I’d like to try in future, all based on my 2014-15 teaching year-that-was. Of all of the stuff I wrote about in those posts, the bits that were most important to me had to do with peer evaluation processes. I needed to figure out how to set them up better so that students could feel more at ease with actually critiquing one another, because I really half-assed them in 2014-15 and it showed. Students were frustrated, unsure how to “grade” each other, and they struggled to speak honestly about challenges they had faced with one another. Not good.

This past semester, in my 20th Century Theatre class, I worked to rectify some of these issues, and so far, so good. The key: lots of forward planning on my part. Not just for the actual peer-evaluation exercises, mind, but ALSO for the bumps we’d inevitably hit along the way.

I made a mental list of the things students had found hardest last year, and tried to build in a variety of ways to work through those challenges. So:

  • We spent time at the beginning of this past semester, as we normally do, getting to know our group members and working to build a sense of classroom community. This go round, though, I asked the students to use some of this time to reflect directly on their past group experiences and then to create a tentative “group profile”. (For example: “the leaders”; “the introverts”; “the apathetics”; etc. We tried to keep it fun and light – it was week two, after all! No stakes yet.) My excellent TA, Meghan O’Hara, and I asked the students to come up with one-line descriptions of their group, and we added those to our course blog so we could use them in group reflection exercises later.
  • At mid-term, we did a mock peer evaluation; the goal for this task was for students to learn to say something nice, AS WELL AS something constructively critical, about each of their fellow group members. Needless to say, most students did really well at the first task, and rather less well at the second. EVERYONE realised that grading one another is hard! (Score one for the teachers!) Meghan and I collected the reflections we had each group create via email, and put them on file for the end of term evaluation process.
  • When the last day of term rolled around we did our first “formal” peer evaluation exercise, worth 5% of each student’s mark. First, I posed a series of group work-related prompts on our blog and asked each student to reflect at the start of class, in writing, on those prompts. (The prompts asked the students to measure their group’s success in five categories: attendance and punctuality; communication; attention to detail; equitable sharing of group tasks; commitment to shared work.) Second, the students got together with their group mates and shared their writing; based on the majority feeling, AND on a clear rubric I’d created to go with the prompts the students had written about, they had to suggest a group grade for themselves for the semester. Finally, I asked them to fill out a form – for my and Meghan’s eyes only – indicating if any of their peers deserved extra marks, or marks off, for extraordinary or problem group behaviour. (There are a large number of sample peer evaluation tools on the web; I did a google search and skimmed until I found one that met our class’s needs best. I’ve attached my edited version of it here, for anyone who wants to use/improve it. [If you improve it, please let me know!])
  • On the day after term ended, and before exams began, each group met with me and Meghan individually in my office. We talked about their peer evaluation writing, compared their mid-term goals as a group with their final reflections, and invited discussion around any hard-to-confront issues that might be easier to talk about in a semi-private setting.

Although I don’t have data to evaluate how the students found this process, my anecdotal sense is that it largely worked and resulted in generally fair grades for all. It also, in one case, resulted in a group realising that, although on the surface they seemed totally in sync, in fact they needed to have a heart-to-heart about leadership and expectations. They have a whole semester to work on this, and Meghan and I have offered assistance as needed. Feels like a result so far!

2. Field trips – so worth it.

In autumn 2014 I took my performance studies class to Toronto’s Nuit Blanche all-night art festival, and I wrote about how that experience awakened me to the incredible learning benefits that come from leaving campus (and sometimes traveling hundreds of kilometres) with students. This past autumn I ran three field trips with students – all proved a terrific way to help the gang bond and build community one among another, in addition to giving us the chance to see some world-class live performance in Stratford, Ontario, in Toronto, and in London, England.

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(Right and below: Lucia Cervoni and Stephen Ouimette in promotional photos for Julie and The Alchemist)

 

 

My performance theory class attended two shows off campus: The Alchemist at the Stratford Festival of Canada, and Julie, a contemporary opera adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, by Philippe Boesmans, at Canadian Stage in Toronto. 20th Century Theatre came along for the latter – it was a cost savings for everyone to double this trip up, and thankfully Strindberg’s Miss Julie is important to modern theatre history for a host of reasons so, pedagogically, it also made sense.

I will say that The Alchemist ended up being an awkward fit for the performance theory crew, but in some ways it couldn’t be helped: it was one of the few shows continuing into late September at Stratford, which is principally a summer festival. (Next year I’ll plan to spend time in spring figuring out which shows from Stratford best fit our class needs, and I’ll see what magic I can spin over the summer in order to make the class-show match stronger.) Julie, on the other hand, turned out to be one of those rare shows that felt like a total failure… until we dug into it deeply in class and discovered its critical power. Love when that happens – the students taught me why it was important to their learning!

My performance theory and 20th Century classes comprised my full course load for the term, but I also supervised a one-student “dry-run” version of our planned study-abroad course, Destination Theatre, which will first be offered in January 2017. As part of that dry run, Caitlin Austin, a fourth-year Theatre Studies major, accompanied me and my colleague M.J. Kidnie to London for theatre-going, planning, and discovery, all in service of making the “real” course as pleasurable and effective as possible for our first full cohort. I reflected on that journey here, and Caity (for marks!) did so here.

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(Kim with Hamlet, and Caity with Falstaff, in Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K.)

I have to say that this journey abroad with a smart and committed student ranks as one of the top-5 teaching experiences I have ever had. (Thanks again, Caity!) I’m so excited to teach DT next academic year!

3. Why not just be honest?

I don’t lecture a lot. Why not? Rather than keeping my reasons a secret, and then getting a slow trickle of blow-back from lecture-loving students, this past term I decided to explain, in person and online, to my 20th Century Theatre class what a “flipped classroom” is and why I believe in it. I talked to them about the quiet class biases that live inside the popular college lecture format, as it caters to students already “good” at learning in traditional ways and familiar with the form. I explained that each week we’d balance class discussion with “pocket” lectures (max 15 minutes) from me and Meghan, because class discussion is when we learn from one another, and that learning is immensely valuable. In other words: I turned my choice not to lecture too much into a teachable moment, a chance to talk to the students about the process of learning itself.

Did it work? Again, I have no data (clearly I need a social scientist to spend time in class with me!) to correlate that talk directly to my students’ experiences of different learning formats in class last semester, but Meghan has just analysed our mid-term (anonymous) student surveys and more students have asked to see more group work, team exercises, and similar kinds of labour in class than have asked to see more lecturing – by a not insignificant margin. And, those who asked for more lectures specifically asked for more pocket lectures – as opposed to class-long talks. Again: feels like a win to me for mixed, active learning.

Happy new year’s day to you all! On Monday, look forward to part two of this post – I’ll look toward spring from a snowy Southwestern Ontario, and talk about what I’m aiming to improve this coming term.

Kim

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