Decolonizing the classroom: end of term edition (Pt 1)

(Or: What if they all get As?)

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Back in January, I wrote about my particular winter term in-class challenge: to begin the process of transforming my History of Performance Theory undergraduate class into something less knee-jerk colonial, and more respectful and supportive of students’ diverse needs. As I noted then, this process necessarily had to be a process; despite my best intentions, the in-the-way-getting of life had meant I’d not spent anywhere near enough time in the fall term planning course renovations. Thus, we’d make a beginning, and see how it goes.

It’s now April, finally the trees are budding, and all over campus the billboards are telling me it’s end of term.

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And me? I’m already missing my performance theory students – what an incredible, talented, thoughtful bunch. And I’m questioning whether or not we’d have had half as much fun, or learned half as much about the politics of theatrical representation, if I’d managed to spend all fall term fussing over the syllabus.

These 15 humans didn’t just make the term fun, compelling, surprising, a learning experience for one another and for me; they also all earned As. Yup, that’s right.

They. All. Got. As.

I realized this last Tuesday, when I hit the “course grade” button in our online learning system, and saw that the lowest mark in the class was 82%. The highest mark was 97%.

I had a brief minute of panic. I imagined my Undergraduate Chair rolling his eyes at the average. I heard my Dean’s voice reminding faculty to “always use the whole range” of marks available to us in the 0-100% system.

And then I thought about the work that the students and I had accomplished together, and about their powerful feedback on the experience of the class (one of the subjects of my next post – watch this space).

And I thought,

Why, exactly, shouldn’t they all get As?

I have a number of thoughts about this. I’ll get to them in a minute. But first, let’s back up a few weeks.

Back in my January post, I listed four things that I had decided I wanted the class to do as I/we attempted to craft a decolonized version of the “History of Performance Theory”:

  1. Empower the students;
  2. Not hierarchize the readings (White/Other);
  3. Not follow a normative temporal chronology;
  4. Be above all about learning to read theory, and to use it in fun and relevant ways.

I then wrote about three ways I’d developed for us to attempt to do these things. The class selected readings together, including a significant number from our fairly standard textbook, and opted for a pretty diverse range of voices; we worked through three central research questions, framed around the primary who or what is allowed to be represented, and why?; and I expanded my “Explain/Apply/Extend” framework from previous years to organize each week’s lessons and to prioritize, in the “apply” portion of weekly events, student responses to the theory, and in particular creative responses.

I’m very pleased to report that the momentum of the early weeks, which fuelled my optimism in that January post, held strongly throughout the term – even in those weeks when midterms were nigh and assignments were due and I had the stomach flu.

In fact, possibly my favourite class of the term coincided with the latter, though I admit it’s possible I was hallucinating slightly from dehydration at that point. We were set to talk about Brandi Wilkins Catanese’s introduction to her phenomenal The Problem of the Color(blind), a book about race and representation in the mythical land that styles itself as “post-race America”. Lots of students hadn’t read the full chapter, because March/assignments/fatigue/long and challenging stuff. So we read chunks together and peer-taught key ideas to each other, using the tools our fabulous new active-learning classroom put at our disposal. (More about the role that space played in the term, for me and the students, in my next post as well.)

By the end of that class, as we looked through some of the videos students had linked to online in response to the weekly, low-stakes “apply” task, we shared comments about race, history, and representation with a nuance I very rarely hear from undergraduates.

(Two of the “applies” students posted in response to Catanese’s work. Note that the first is a satire remarking on Barack Obama’s handling of the trope of black rage, while the second is a montage of historical images of blackface from the end of Spike Lee’s incredible 2000 film Bamboozled. The latter needs some context for naive viewers, although as an example of Brechtian montage it is unparalleled.)

That week on Catanese is representative of our term together for a number of reasons.

It was late March; it was a cold day; students were buried in assignments; many of them hadn’t done the reading, or done that much of it.

Yet fully half of them had read enough of the chapter to be able to apply at least one issue raised by it to a strong example online.

And all of them – every single one of them – showed up to class.

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HOLY COW!!!

By that point, we’d become a committed class community, and the students (who were already working toward their final group performances at this point) felt strong obligations to one another. Many students also reported in their final participation reflections that finding ways to make *some* time for the readings ahead of class had become a priority for them, because the weekly apply tasks held them to account, and dangled the important carrot of “free” marks. (More on this in a moment.)

Further, once a student had an “apply” up on the website, they clearly felt a certain ownership over the reading and/or a commitment to the emerging discussion about it, making coming to class and participating in the discussion actively that much more important. In only one instance did a student miss class on a day when they had also written an apply post for that day’s reading.

Which brings me, finally, back to the problem of all the As.

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The arse-kicking Siobhan McSweeney in Derry Girls. Another “bad teacher” who is by no means actually a bad teacher.

There are a number of reasons that this batch of students all received A-level grades. (And I should stress here that I have never had this happen before, in nearly 20 years of teaching. I always aim to use, if not the whole range of grades, then at least a good, broad range. I am an excellent subject of power.)

First of all, I’m a fairly generous marker. This is because I’m getting older, and see potential more than I see error. (I’m guessing here, but I think this is a common trajectory. My grad student assistants tend on average to mark harder than me, for example, and I know I marked hard as a TA. Over time you loosen up, and feel more empathy for the struggling ones. For another educated guess about this trajectory, click here.)

Secondly, this class featured a good range of assignments that tried as much as possible to set students up for success. For example, “Explain,” “Apply,” and “Extend” were each their own essay task for proper marks, as well as a framework I used consistently each week to organize lessons, so students had ample time to work out what good iterations of the task could look like.

The final group performance project was worth a lot, but the rubric I used to grade it we developed together in class, agreeing on which aspects of the work we wanted to emphasize (thought work, connections between play text and chosen theoretical model, creative ingenuity), and which we wanted to downplay (professional polish, exceptional acting, things less likely to emerge from a non-studio scene study). The students had a full month to work in groups on their projects; they self-selected into those groups based on their chosen play texts, and they benefited from an early workshop week that was designed to get them going at a time when ideas weren’t yet fixed and plans were still emergent.

Ultimately, the students excelled in their tripartite essays, and knocked it out of the park with their performances – which featured one of the genuinely best scene studies I have ever seen in the classroom, including those I’ve witnessed in studio-based practicum classes.

Thirdly – and I think this is the kicker – the low-stakes, online, weekly “apply” tasks were a not-complicated way for students to earn 100% on a task worth 10% of the term’s work. All students needed to do was read the week’s work in advance of our Thursday class, post a link to a video or article or other piece of robust interweb chatter that might constitute an application of the theory in question, and include a short paragraph about why they made their particular choice.

By the end of the term, 11 students had completed all five posts; two had completed four of five. (Two students, with health challenges, had accommodation for the task.) Most of them didn’t just post a video and write a short para, either; several crafted detailed, essay-like responses to their applications, which I then permitted them to hone and expand for the formal “apply” essay task. Students’ investment in the readings was visible in their thoughtful engagement with the theory-in-application online, and in the willingness many showed to take a stab, even if they might be wrong.

(The point of this task, as I reinforced at mid-term when I made some changes to the format to coax more participation, was just to give it a fair try; total failure was unlikely, but more importantly total failure could not preclude the reward for giving it a shot. What’s to lose?)

In the past, when I’ve used low-stakes prompts-for-points tools, I’ve folded the online cookie into the grade for participation: do so many online posts, earn 100% for participation, so long as you don’t miss more than three classes without accommodation for medical or compassionate reasons. This time around, the apply responses online constituted a separate grade point – but students still had the capacity to do really well in participation alongside, especially because, in our student-centred space-and-learning format, participation is the course’s bread and butter, and this crew really stepped up. (Their thoughtful and honest participation reflection papers were also key to many doing well on this separate grade point.)

As I pondered my sea of As Tuesday last, I thought hard about my decision to separate “online applies” from “participation”, giving each their own shot at perfection. Had it been a mistake to hand that much of the term’s grade over to, essentially, effort? Did I need to fold these markers of success back together, in order to prevent another tsunami of high-fives next year?

I thought maybe yes. Probably yes.

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Of course, Homer is rarely correct.

And then I remembered that I’m in the middle of the decolonization process with this class. How are the grading rubrics we use now a marker of the colonial scaffolds organizing our classroom practices? How do we shift these, decolonize our grading in a holistic way?

Of course, there are plenty of examples of pass/fail classes designed to level the field and remove grades entirely from the picture, though research continues to accumulate on the risks and benefits of this strategy. (Two of the major benefits emergent from this research are a) a focus on transparency alongside rigour in the classroom; b) a fresh or renewed focus by faculty on thinking carefully about criteria, assessment practices, and feedback – something we do not do nearly enough, in my experience. Read more here, and here.)

But most of us work inside a fairly rigid, large-ship university structure; we could try to drive systemic change around grading, but that sounds like a lot of work to me, and work that will take a lot of time and many hands.

In the meantime, perhaps we could learn from that strong second benefit of the pass/fail system: clear-eyed, focused, group and individual reflection on assessment practices, and on how the marks we give map onto student learning, instead of just student achievement.

When I think carefully about my students in HPT this past term, I remember that what they marked, time and again – with their in-class practice, their online practice, and their reflection practice (in the papers they produced for their participation grades) – was fulsome, strong, broad engagement. Across the board.

They told me on our last day together that they had learned “how to learn”; that they had found themselves surprised and excited to apply old, seemingly stuffy theories to contemporary, real-world situations and examples; that they had discovered the power of learning in teams, and of committing to each other as a team of learners; and that they had discovered the power that space (in our case, literal classroom space) holds to shape interaction and engagement among students and teachers on a learning journey.

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I know the donuts I brought as a last-class treat were not the only reason the gang turned up to reflect on our term together. I know because they voted 14-1 in favour of holding class when I gave them the option to cancel. Also, #donutmonster #hamont

They honoured me with these words, truly they did. And they honoured me over and over again with their excellent in-term work, for real, proper marks.

So why should they not all get As, then?

Did they not do – did we not do, as a team – exactly what undergraduates are supposed to do in a third-year class: advance their learning practice with concrete take-aways for the future? Build strong collaborative skills? Investigate, and invest in, some truly complex theoretical ideas?

Maybe it seems intimidating, to some, to think that all the students could hit the top achievement marker. Maybe it seems dishonest, to others.

To me, though, it seems like the exact right way to end a really remarkable term.

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See you next week! (…For more, on what space has to do with participation),

Kim

3 thoughts on “Decolonizing the classroom: end of term edition (Pt 1)

  1. Pingback: Pedagogy and Activism in Fall 2020 | The Activist Classroom

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