Looking back, looking ahead – part 2

On New Year’s Day I posted a look back at last semester, with three things I felt had gone quite well September through December. Herewith, part two of that post:

Improvement city.

1. I need, finally, to make a proper commitment to actual, effective time management in the classroom.

I am, as a professional teacher, better than most at keeping to schedules. But the fact remains that I routinely run out of time in my classes to talk thoroughly (or at all!) about important stuff I excitedly put on the syllabus at the start of the year (or in the prep at the start of the week!). The primary culprit is over-prepping, which I’ve written about before on the blog, but it’s also true that I welcome discussion in class and do a lot of things to frame it – a lot of my prep is, therefore, exercise set-up, and exercises can usually be modified or thrown out on the fly with no real harm done to my headspace.

The way I foreground team-based exercises in class, however, also means that inevitably some content stuff just gets missed out: the post-exercise discussion takes on a life of its own and then before I know it we’re at time and I never got to the CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT pocket lecture with which I was supposed to end the class…

Accidentally ending up with a rollocking class discussion is, of course, no bad thing: it’s just a blessing that also happens to be a time management problem for a teacher who really needs to get this key piece of the puzzle out on the table, so that next day the course can move forward. Without torpedoing next week’s class, and the class schedule after that.

My first reaction to our first awesome class discussion/total time management fail in my larger class (20th Century Theatre) this past fall was predictable:


Then I took a deep breath. And I realised: hey! I could just put my pocket lecture online. So I posted the notes to the “in class tools” page of our course blog, started the next class with them on screen, said a few words about some of the key ideas they contained, and asked the students to have a full read on their own time. Then, we moved on.

As the semester progressed, I realised – obviously belatedly since lots of my fellow profs already know this stuff (duh!) – that the web is my friend when in-class time starts to run short. It’s easy to put things on my class’s (relatively sophisticated) course blog – as text, or even as audio or video. It’s easy to shoot the students an email alert telling them it’s up. It’s easy to remind them that this will take about 5/10/15 minutes of their time, sometime between now and next class. Which means it’s increasingly less stressful to prioritise class discussions that look like they might run long. No more half checking out as we talk, with one eye on the clock. No more trying desperately to pull the chat back toward the lecture piece coming up next, so as to svengali a cool segue. Less time stress in every way.

Now that winter 2016 is here, I’ve decided to turn this revelation about the power of blended learning into an experiment a bit radical. My colleague at Brock University, Natalie Alvarez, and I have decided to team-teach our upcoming performance studies classes virtually. We will be recording a fair amount of content for the web to be viewed by students on their own, so that when we get together physically we can just focus on discussion, full stop. We are giving the students one of three class contact hours “back” in order to do this work carefully and in an engaged way, at least until reading week. (This is a mark of true blended learning classes: some contact hours are online, some in person.) And students will be asked repeatedly to engage with one another online by looking at each other’s posted work across the 200km between us, offering feedback, reactions, questions for discussion, and collaborative critique via the website.

I have unsuitably high hopes for what is a total experiment and could well become an unmitigated disaster. More in April!

2. I have indeed given the students the task of creating the course reader. With mixed results.

Back in May I reflected, with my former TA Madison Bettle, on the challenge of creating and maintaining supplementary material on the web that students will actually use, but will not use passively. My solution was to task this year’s cohort with creating a version of the supplementary research archive that Madison had made on her own initiative last year.

So, as per the spec, my 20th Century Theatre students are this year building the reader: each week two or three of them are assigned topics from a list supplied by me, and each week they must send me their draft contributions by noon on Monday. I do a light edit, ask for a handful of minor changes (and sometimes a bit of fresh investigation), and then I invite them to upload their final contribution, with images and media, to our course blog on their own. Once that happens, I provide official comments and a grade. (I also provide, in some cases, some last-minute quality control.)

The good? Some contributions are just amazing, most are perfectly good, and the students have thrown themselves into this labour, on the whole, with gusto. I even have some evidence, thanks to our mid-year anonymous class survey, that they are reading one another’s work!

The ho-hum? I’ve found editing some of the draft material incredibly onerous – I’ve realised that this task basically asks the students to create public writing, even if the “public” is just our class, and it occurs to me that I might need to prepare them better for this (upsettingly rare) task before I throw them into it again next year. I offered a “model” supplementary reader contribution in the second week of class, and I invited Madison to come and speak about the logic and intentions behind the reader’s original creation. Regardless, students seemed, at least on their first passes through the task, confused more often than not: is it an essay? If not, what is it? (Part of this is because too many students are only ever asked to write essays, of course. “Essay” equals “writing” for them. Which is HORRIBLE.)

Finally, I’ve discovered on the fly how to grade these things, and I suspect the grading process is not at all transparent to students going into the task for the first time. I’ve now engineered a grading rubric, and have come to the realisation that it needs to be shared with the students ASAP, and not just on a case-by-case basis. This should have of course happened at the start of the semester, but I was overly preoccupied trying to help them understand the purpose behind what they were doing in the first place. Oh well: never too late to clarify, especially where marks are concerned!

3. I need to find some windows. NOW.

Last semester I taught in a windowless room. The same room. Both classes.


(This is not the exact room, but it’s a pretty reasonable facsimile. Nice, huh? Yup.)





It is shaped like a Greek auditorium. At first blush this seemed great – I teach in a theatre program, after all! The room can provide several lighting states, has about six white boards that can be shuffled up and down, and comes with a full tech setup and plenty of room for guests.

In fact, the room is an albatross. Because the chairs and tables don’t move. And there are NO WINDOWS in it.

World, I ask you. How can a classroom with no windows be permitted to exist in 2015? Quite apart from the fact that our days on this green and sunny earth may well be numbered, I just don’t understand the logic behind making any teaching or learning space light-tight. Whatever that logic is, it cannot, to my mind, make up for the sheer fatigue we all feel trooping in there at 9:30am on a sunny day, to be hit by fluorescent lights and projector beams. I know my students are tired at 9:30 because they are students, and thus not inclined to rise before 10; I also know they are tired because the fecking room is a nightmare of unnatural stimuli that, evidence suggests, negatively impacts student learning.

I don’t know how to solve this one, or if it’s solvable, short of moving the class, periodically, outside as the weather improves in spring. Which I am not at all opposed to doing – because this is the view beyond the walls:


And on that happy note, a good semester to you all!


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