Isolating and Blogging: Interwoven Lessons

As I finish up my winter/spring “Writer-In-Residence” position with The Activist Classroom, Kim asked me to reflect on “what this online writing experience has taught me.” It is a trickier question than I at first thought. I applied for the position in the “Before Times”— pre-Covid-19. I thought it was going to be an engaging reflection on pedagogy during my Postdoctoral Fellowship. A low-key extra task I fit in between making regular trips to Concordia University, attending conferences, writing my book proposal, and forging ahead with my new research: making theatre with elderly people with dementia.

Everything has changed. My whole world, and everyone else’s, has changed.

So it is hard to separate what the online writing experience has taught me, from what the Pandemic experience has taught me or raised for me. So, I will reflect on a few things I have learned through writing online during a pandemic.

Is My Teaching Experience from the Before-Times Relevant?

I feel uncertain, curious, and a little insecure about whether my teaching experience pre-Covid still has relevance. So many conditions have changed for ourselves and our students. The one course I was involved in teaching last term ended early because of Covid-19 restrictions, thus I don’t have personal experience teaching during this time. I watch my children try to learn online, and I can tell you it is HARD. They hate it, in fact.

My most valued learning during the Pandemic has been through actively trying new things. Not sitting and thinking, but doing – engaging in private, domestic performances of sorts. I have hatched ducklings, baked bread, tried new instruments, drawn a series of portraits all for the first time.


I definitely jumped on the Pandemic Baking Bandwagon! (image of my baking products)

I wonder how this can apply to teaching as we move forward with the new world situation. Rather than adapting old ways of doing things, do we need to facilitate students trying things that are completely new? Certainly, we need to keep experimenting and searching for new pedagogical models.

Writing A Blog Post is Harder Than I Thought

I have learned that writing a 1500-word blog post is harder than I thought. Based on how quickly I can whip off an abstract, I thought I would be able to write a post in a day, no problem. But I have found I need longer to ponder. I don’t know if this is due to the challenges of working from home during a pandemic. I start a post and then I need to let the ideas percolate before I return to it another day. I also worry more than I expected about setting the right tone, providing relevant advice, selecting the best images, etc. I have realized that with academic writing (i.e. journal articles and conference papers) I am acclimatized to the expectations. I think about the ideas, but I just know the style. Taking on a new format has made me aware of the skill set I take for granted in more traditional academic writing, and it has given me new respect for authors writing in other formats. It has also made me excited about expanding my writing repertoire.   

Embracing Slowness

More and more during these times, I try to embrace slowness. My friend Ash McAskill, a disability theatre studies scholar and activist, is exploring Slow Theatre Practice and Snail Dramaturgies (see p. 22). I think I am more like a cat than a slow and steady snail. I am languorous for periods of time, then capable of quick bursts of frenzied energy – mostly docile and loving, with the occasional rising instinct to attack.

Meow! (me as a cat)

With no space to be alone, and constantly caring for children, husband, and pets, I simply cannot be fast for long. I’m too overwhelmed. There are too many distractions. Accepting that this is not a personal weakness is HARD. It has meant that I have felt anxious about turning around blog posts quickly (despite Kim’s reassurances). The inequities for women in academia have not only become more apparent than ever to me, they have been enhanced during this pandemic, especially for women who are mothers or caregivers. I am working to value and explore slowness as a theoretical approach and also as an access strategy.

I LOVE Visual Storytelling and Not Everyone Shares This Preference

I have realized that I favour visual storytelling much more than I knew. I LOVE selecting images for my Blog posts! I have spent Isolation producing my first visual art project (@frontline_faces_of_covid19). The current lack of live performances has made me keenly aware that I am drawn to the visual aspects of liveness and theatrical performance, and that I much prefer writing performance analyses to close readings of text. I also discovered (for the first time!!!!) during Isolation that other people literally hear their own voice talking to them inside their head (mind blown!!!). I don’t: I see pictures. I am intensely visual!

This has taught me two things:

First, in future I will explore other forms of “writing” that allow me to capitalize on my strong preference for visual images. This excites me a lot!

Second, I will strive to be more aware of my visual predilection: (a) in my use of metaphors in my writing (wow are they ever visual!); and (b) in my techniques used to convey material in teaching and other live presentations. I realize that I lean toward presenting material in ways that could disadvantage those who are less visual. For example, I need to audio-describe my images more often and better.

Teaching and Writing Help Me Process the World Around Me

I have also become more aware of how teaching and writing in conjunction help me process the world around me. While I theoretically have more time for writing when I am not preparing lessons and teaching, I find writing harder because I am not in conversation with as many people. In particular, without my students I do not have access to nearly as wide a range of generational, cultural, and socioeconomic perspectives. I feel this lack.

GIF of writer’s hand tapping a pencil, unsure what to write.

The Draw of Liveness

I am more certain than ever about the importance, the draw, the communal experience of liveness. I have been watching a fair amount of theatre online ( Canada’s National Arts Centre and Facebook Live, The National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre). Online theatre can supplement but, for me, it just does not replace live, in-person performance. Even live-streamed online theatre, in my experience, lacks the feeling of communitas or the moments of utopian performativity that live performance offers.

And yet at the same time, I want to stay close to home. I have no motivation to attend live performance in public spaces at the moment; it scares me. Live theatre has shifted, for me, to at-home performances. It is my children putting on skits, it is playing music as a family, it is my husband reading out loud, it is the opera man walking past my house singing, it is the 7pm communal applause for health care workers with its clapping, cheers, and banging of pots and pans. I am experiencing a return to parlour theatre and community ritual. How can this be incorporated into the theatre and performance studies classroom? I don’t have the answer, but it is something I am pondering.

7pm Applause for Frontliners – View and Soundscape on my Porch

Thanks to Kim for the opportunity to be a guest Writer-in-Residence. I hope some of what I have to say resonates or inspires new thoughts for others.

These are difficult times and will remain such for a while. However, they are also times that bring much potential for shifting gears, re-imagining performances, and learning new approaches to pedagogy. I will continue to try to focus on that. Warm wishes to everyone!

My ducklings hatched!!! (image of 3 black duckings snuggled together)

 

Pandemic Online Learning: Take-Away Lessons

By Julia Henderson:

Now in week five of isolation, my panic has eased slightly. Until recently, a goal for many of us was to finish up courses in progress by whatever means we could. Some of us have had some profound insights, some of us merely survived. Many of us feel saturated with “top tips” commentaries. So, I sit at my computer again, grappling with what to write that feels meaningful.

I have to admit I am struggling to keep up as my 5-year-old and my 13-year-old are tasked with learning online. They need assistance, support, guidance, and encouragement. It feels disorderly and haphazard. Sometimes this relates to their teachers’ efforts to deliver online curriculum. Other times it is due to our ability (or more accurately, inability) to uptake all the new requirements. How am I supposed to work full-time, revamp my postdoc research to be done without participants, and become the classroom aide to my two children?—never mind also take on the roles of house cleaner, pet keeper, and full-time cook—all jobs I had outside help with before. As I write this, my five-year-old has entered and asked, in tears, if I could PLEASE read him stories.I feel overwhelmed.

Can we just stick with baking and books?
(Photo Credit: Nancy Caldwell, Pandemic Porch Series, @nancy.w.caldwell)

So, in this state, I think ahead to the summer term which will need to be delivered fully online. Since these courses will be virtual from their outset, learners are likely to have higher expectations for slick course delivery. However, many instructors still lack experience teaching online. I keep returning to the question “how can we make teaching meaningful, achievable, as efficient as possible, and not overwhelming to our students and ourselves?” Below, I’d like to offer some thoughts I’ve had and some things I’ve learned from my family’s online experiences so far during lockdown. Thanks to my friend and colleague Ash McAskill, Postdoctoral Fellow at Guelph University, for talking through some of these ideas with me.

DON’T TEACH REQUIRED CONTENT IN REAL TIME

Unlike previous online courses which students opted to enroll in and instructors (usually) chose to teach, now students and teachers are forced to participate in online courses. This brings new considerations. In the past when students chose to take an online course, we could assume they had good online access. Now we cannot make that same assumption. Not everyone has a device available to them at any time of the day. Families are sharing, Wi-Fi is sometimes overloaded and sketchy, some students are trying to do their work on phones. If you want to include optional real-time check-in sessions with your students, by all means do so. One-on-one and small groups work best in my opinion. But for the love of god/goddess do not deliver required learning in real-time online lectures at this time! It causes undue stress for many students.

KEEP IT CHUNKY!

It is way easier to digest course content in smaller chunks. Instead of recording one-hour lectures, prepare 4 or 5 mini-lectures. Instead of assigning lengthy readings, choose shorter ones, or break the long ones into more manageable chunks. Perhaps assign summaries of certain readings instead of the originals. Find ways to design shorter assignments or divide longer ones into distinct tasks. We must keep in mind that many people are no longer able to find lengthy, uninterrupted work blocks.

THINK ABOUT ACCESSIBILITY

My older son is in 8th grade and as such has 8 different courses, and 8 different teachers. Looking at his course content and communications, it is abundantly clear that most of his teachers have little to no training in making online content accessible. First, there is just TOO MUCH TEXT crammed in. The fonts are too small. They often don’t use hyperlinks. Images do not have an alt-text description. The colour combinations of font on background are sometimes difficult to read. My son, who is a straight-A student, finds the online content overwhelming. So, for anyone not used to designing courses online, I would strongly advise two things. First, take a look at some tips on writing for the web. There are simple ways you can adapt your writing to make your materials more approachable/readable. Secondly, look into tips on accessible online course design. Some simple strategies make a big difference to many learners.

If only I could read this font!!!

TEST OUT YOUR TECHNOLOGY!!!

So, my son’s English teacher decided to have a real-time group session online. I’m not sure why, but she combined 4 classes in the one session (that’s A LOT of participants!!). She then asked some students to help her with the technology. Well, I don’t know if it was the boredom of isolation, or the general mischievousness of teenagers, but the students started posting comments and drawing pictures (you can imagine) on the online blackboard, and she didn’t know how to stop it. She eventually just left the session and we got an email the next day beginning with “Well I won’t be trying that again!!!” Although this whole episode was immensely amusing to my son and his classmates, it did not achieve learning of any course content, and I am sure it was humiliating to the teacher (who fortunately had a good sense of humour).

The moral of this story: test out your technologies before using them with your classes. In depth. For real.

HOLD SPACE

Another of my son’s assignments was for students to reflect on some of the things they had learned during isolation. My son came to me rather incensed because the teacher had commented to students that they should avoid being negative and come up with some positive things they had learned. I agree it’s important to think about some of the positive things we have learned during this pandemic (the extent of our over-consumption, how profoundly we affect the environment, how much we are typically over-scheduled, etc.). But insisting on positivity is not productive or healthy; we need to talk about our hurt and fear and dreariness, and we need to try to avoid toxic positivity. As my friend and University of Toronto PhD Candidate Rena Roussin writes,

“Optimism, positivity, and gratitude are all wonderful things. I’m striving to practice them as much as I can . . . But it’s okay to have moments when you just can’t. It’s okay to be sad for a while. It’s okay to take a moment or an hour or a day to grieve for whatever you’re missing right now.”

As instructors, we need to make real efforts to hold space for our students to talk about their experiences of difficulty, anxiety, pain, and grief. If we are going to ask students to reflect on how they feel, we must be prepared to give supportive, empathetic feedback, not simply advise them to be more positive. Experiencing a global pandemic is a form of trauma and it will affect people in different ways to different degrees. It is not our job (or within most of our skill sets!) to become counsellors, but we need to be able to deeply listen even though we are not physically present, and we should be prepared to refer students to counselling services as needed. For many students, remember, it is simply helpful to have a place to express their struggles right now.

DO WE NEED GRADES?

This may be an unpopular opinion but I think we really need to think about what we are grading, how we are grading, and whether we really need grades at this time. If people are showing up right now, that’s a lot. At the very least we need to re-evaluate our usual grading systems, and lighten the burden for ourselves and our students. We need to keep in mind what the real consequences of the grades will be. Are students trying to enter second year or grad school?

IN SUMMARY

Although we are settling into this New Normal, we have to remember that these are trying times with constant undercurrents of instability and stress. The following quote, which has been circulating on social media, spoke to me (the original source eludes me):

“You are not working from home; you are at home during a crisis trying to work.”

We must remain gentle with ourselves and each other, open to new ways of doing things, accepting of resistance, curious, and even sometimes frivolous – just because! In the spirit of frivolity, as an antidote to all the online learning, and at the risk of toxic positivity, to conclude I would like to share the duck eggs I am trying to hatch in my homemade incubator!

Hoping for some ducklings around the middle of May!!!

 

 

Teaching in the Times of COVID-19 Part Two: Tips for Adapting to Online Teaching

I have been sitting at my computer on and off for several days immobilized. Everyone is home, so we are searching for a new routine, a new sense of balance and ways to fend off the quiet panic we feel. As Spring Equinox passed yesterday, almost unnoticed, it was hard to see it a symbol of light and life, and new beginnings.

And yet, with social distancing, I already see creative changes in my children that give me hope. My 13-year-old has been teaching himself new songs on piano and guitar, baked dessert for everyone, and entertained the other children (we are a self-isolation pod with our next door neighbours) for hours – all self-initiated. While it is a time of worry and fear, I am thinking about ways to take this opportunity to nurture creativity and develop new ways of learning.

I have been sitting at my computer on and off for two days immobilized. Everyone is home, so we are searching for a new routine, a new sense of balance and ways to fend off the quiet panic we feel. As Spring Equinox passed yesterday, almost unnoticed, it was hard to see it a symbol of light and life, and new beginnings.

And yet, with social distancing, I already see creative changes in my children that give me hope. My 13-year-old has been teaching himself new songs on piano and guitar, baked dessert for everyone, and entertained the other children (we are a self-isolation pod with our next door neighbours) for hours – all self-initiated. While it is a time of worry and fear, I am thinking about ways to take this opportunity to nurture creativity and develop new ways of learning.

Kelsey’s previous post provided a great overview of resources for teaching in the times of COVID-19. As I drink coffee with my husband (https://adamhenderson.ca/) who is preparing to teach his classes online for Vancouver Film School and UBC’s BFA Theatre program, we ponder what more might be helpful to instructors of theatre and performance classrooms who are suddenly tasked with transferring face-to-face classes to online experiences. Here are our best thoughts:

1. Use this time as an opportunity to teach useful career skills.

  • how to record effective self-tapes (for auditions or otherwise)
  • how to record a voice demo
  • how to set up a home recording booth or video area
  • how to write a blog post
  • how to create a short promotional video
  • how to create a slick online slide presentation
  • how to effectively facilitate a group chat

2. Consider creating imaginative online activities.

Brainstorm with your classes. Here are some fun ideas:

  • Create collaborative work (writing, filming, podcasting, music). Have one person start a project and pass it on for others to add to. It does not have to be high tech! Here’s my friend and I learning harmonies to a song at a distance:

3. Make use of the many livestream broadcasts going on.

These include play readings, concerts, film festivals, dance classes etc. I don’t want to overload readers with examples, but a quick google search with produce many hits. While livestreams don’t replace face-to-face experiences, they may help achieve the elements of unpredictabiity, surprise, and perhaps even communion that are unique to liveness.

4. Make use of new and previously existing online databases

Many resources have now been made available for free. Here are a few theatre-related resources that might come in handy:

  • Journal Databases like JSTOR (https://www.jstor.org/) have expanded their public access sections which might be useful to acting schools without institutional subscriptions.

 5. Allow yourself to do what is reasonable and achievable to finish up courses           in progress.

We all want to deliver good value to our students, but it is not reasonable to adapt an entire course to a slick online format. Here’s a thoughtful resource by Rebecca Barrett-Fox (don’t be put off by the title): “Please do a bad job of putting your class online.”

We’ll get through this together with, I hope, with kindness and generosity. Now for another learning opportunity, here are a variety of 20 second selections of Shakespeare for hand washing: