New Year, Old Memories

Last November I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of the American Society for Theatre Research; while there I had the chance to catch up with one of the first students I ever taught in a classroom of my own.

Dr Colleen Kim Daniher, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, received her PhD from Northwestern University; before that, amongst many other things, she took  English 289E: Modern Drama (F/W 2005-06) with me at the University of Western Ontario, during my very first term on the tenure track.

Colleen Kim Daniher, in hands down the best prof headshot I’ve ever seen.

Colleen just completed her own first term on the tenure track, with a new baby to boot, and not long after we ate dinner together in D.C. she sent me a lovely, warm message telling me what my class had meant to her.

Any teacher knows what an honour it is to read such words; I was touched beyond measure. But I was also, slightly, amused – because that class was hands-down the hardest I’ve ever taught. It was trial by fire, mistake after mistake. To this day, Every Christmas I remember sitting in my bedroom in my rented flat in downtown London, Ontario on Boxing Day, holding the envelope full of anonymous midterm surveys I’d collected before the break, terrified (and I mean TERRIFIED: sweaty, heart racing, you name it) that they all read: YOU ARE A TERRIBLE TEACHER!!!

Not that kind. But you get it.

After reading Colleen’s note, and wiping the smile off my face, I had an idea. What if she and I did a reflection exercise about that class? Clearly it had an impact on her I didn’t readily recall, and clearly it took a toll on me she didn’t know about. Further, it’s obvious we both took major lessons from that year into our independent pedagogical futures. What were those lessons?

I decided to ask; Colleen was game. Herewith, the results.

1. What’s your strongest memory from English 289E: Modern Drama? What about this memory has stuck with you over all this time?

Colleen

My strongest memory from English 289E was the way it asked me and my fellow English literature classmates to harness performance practice as a mode of dramatic analysis. I remember being confused and yet very taken with the idea that performance could be a way of interrogating text, an idea implicit to the weekly small group scene studies that were assigned throughout the course. The basic premise was that each week, a group of about five or six students in our class of thirty would stage an excerpt from a text we were studying that week. This group was called “The Company.” The class met twice weekly (for one whole calendar year!), so we would have a more conventional professor-run lecture on Tuesdays, and then on Thursdays, we, the students, would essentially lead the day’s conversation. First, “The Company” would perform their interpretation of their chosen scene for the entire class, then another small group of students (called “The Colleague-Critics”) would have to respond, leading the rest of the class in a discussion of the staging just witnessed. The groups were randomly assigned and fixed through the run of the semester, so you would get to know your group-mates quite well and rotate several times as a unit through both Company and Colleague-Critic roles.

It was unlike any class activity I had ever been a part of. I remember prior to my first small group performance (a staging of Ubu Roi) reading and re-reading the syllabus instructions, trying to “figure out” what the assignment was actually about. In hindsight, the hardest part of the assignment was shedding my presuppositions around performance as a (finished, polished) product. I can’t speak for the other students in the class, but the invitation to perform in a drama class was one that I was personally hungering for: I was a theatre nerd in a university without a formal theatre department. I got my kicks in the music department as a Voice major and in the student-run, on-campus theatre organization [Theatre Western]. However, what we were being asked to do with performance in the class was completely different than what I was used to as a fairly experienced musician and actor. We had very little rehearsal time, scripts-in-hand, and the barest of production values. The point, I would learn, was not to “put on a performance” but to think through performance in the act of its doing. It was a bit opaque at the time, but utterly intoxicating. In fact, this first taste of the conjoining of performance as a critical-intellectual endeavor and performance as an embodied practice is what I live for today as a Performance Studies scholar!

Also: Brecht! So much Brecht. Everything I now know about Brecht I learned in this class.

The muppets: seriously epic.

Kim

The methodology Colleen describes above was a hybrid of stuff I learned from one of my undergraduate mentors, Nora Foster Stovel, at the University of Alberta (where I completed my BA), and from my postdoctoral mentor, Jill Dolan, at UT Austin. Looking back through Colleen’s description I realize that what I was asking the students to do was basic practice-as-research (PBR), but at the time, believe it or not, I didn’t have that language to share! (I was trained in Shakespeare, kids.) I didn’t actually realize until now that it was as opaque as it seemed to Colleen and her peers; that said, my experiences of performances up to this point in my career had been less polish, more muck. No wonder we struggled!

My strongest memory of the class, meanwhile, is that moment on my bedroom floor I describe above, and the problems that led to it. While Colleen recalls perfectly the shape of the class’s learning week as it finally settled, we began in a much less tidy place. In the first term, I held a two-hour lecture in our Tuesday block, and the student performances happened on a Thursday. Quickly I realized that the students were struggling to figure out what kinds of questions to ask about their peers’ performances, how to extend the knowledge those performances were making. We had trouble filling the hour and I was devastated; they were looking at me for direction and I felt like I was failing. This problem consumed my first term at Western and produced more than a few nights in tears.

Eventually, after reading the mid-term anonymous feedback (SPOILER ALERT: not a terrible teacher!), I decided on a change: we’d swap the second hour of Tuesday for the performances, then come back Thursday and extend our learning by bringing the performance and our readings for the week into fulsome conversation. This took the pressure off the students to figure out all the performance things, and it helped me to model what performance research really looks like in practice.

It was the best teaching decision I ever made. It reminded me 1) not to be afraid to admit difficulties and make changes; and 2) to trust the students to show me the way.

2. What aspects of the class have you found yourself thinking about as you’ve developed a research and teaching career? IE: was something “inspiring” and in what way? (NB: I know this may be another way of saying question 1.)
 
Colleen

I continue to teach and preach performance practice as a serious mode of intellectual engagement. As an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at San Francisco State University, I teach courses that follow a very similar two-part model of instruction as English 289E: lecture/discussion one day a week, and an applied performance lab on the second day. In my classes (“Performance and Identity” and “Performance Art”) my students respond to the course material through discussion, writing, and the actual doing of performance.

Integrating performance practice in the classroom is sometimes the hardest thing, especially as a recently arrived teacher at a new institution (the logistics of finding space! of scheduling performance assignments!). But my training, first, as an undergraduate student in Modern Drama, then as a graduate student in Northwestern’s Performance Studies department, instilled in me a strong sense of the value of integrating performance practice and theory. For me, it’s a matter of the politics of knowledge transmission: I want my students to see and to understand that performance is a legitimate site of knowledge inquiry and production, not (only) a specialized domain of artistic activity. It’s an expressive tool and an analytic lens that can help us understand the world around us. And looking back, I can see that Modern Drama gave me my first taste of that specific orientation towards performance.

Dear Kim,

Here it is! My responses are probably too long, but it turns out I had a lot to say. Also, so much fun remembering : )

My takeaway: it was more fun being a student than a teacher ; )

-C

Kim

Modern Drama in that first year on the tenure track was, for me, my first inkling that thinking seriously about the practice of teaching was going to become a central part of my academic career. Unlike Colleen at the time, I already had a sense of the importance of practice-based research creation (thank you, UofT and UT!), but what I didn’t have was the confidence of an experienced teacher.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it. After the winter break, when I explained to the students how things were going to shift in our schedule and why this shift was a good idea, I took the time to tell them (in aggregate, of course) about the things they had told me on their anonymous midterm surveys, and how their sharing had led me directly to tweaks I thought would benefit us all. Basically, I told them outright what I’d assumed they’d understood all along: that we were collaborators, a team, and their input was as crucial as mine to our shared learning success.

The hardest thing about that year was realizing that I was going to mess up, A LOT, and that I needed to figure out what to do about it.
-K

Since then, I work in every new classroom to name collaboration as the core of my teaching practice: I introduce myself as a team member as well as a guide, I work on building classroom community in the early weeks of term, and I explain my process meta-cognitively as much as possible, also building in meta-cognitive reflection practices for students along the way. In my Theatre Studies classes, I don’t always now use the lab model Modern Drama followed, but we always do active learning labour and then think about the “how” and the “why” of our shared practice.

3. What’s your memory of Kim as a teacher? (Here, please be honest. I love when everyone says how amazing I am *coughs bashfully*, but that term was SO HARD for me. I’d appreciate honest recollections from the other side of the desk!)

Colleen

Kim was easily one of the best undergraduate professors I had ever had. It was just so obvious how much she cared and how hard she was working for us as students. This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.

I remember the epic-long, publication-worthy performance responses she would give to The Company group members after our in-class performances; the incredibly detailed syllabus; her impassioned lectures on alienation effect and Elin Diamond’s “the true-real”; the thoughtfulness with which she worked with her graduate student TA. One thing that especially stands out to me is the informal course evaluation she offered to us at midterm; I can’t remember all the details now, but I think we answered three prompts: “what’s working, what’s not, and what would you change.” We came back from winter break, and then she actually went over our anonymized feedback with us, outlining how she would implement our feedback. And I remember the course (especially the scene study Thursdays) changing for the better from that point on.

This is something I try to remind myself of when I’m feeling down about my own teaching: how letting your students see you working hard for them can be just as effective as the mythic “perfectly-planned” course.
-C

Even then, I was so impressed that she cared to know what we thought before the course was over. Today, the informal midterm course evaluation is a key tool in my own pedagogical tool-kit! There are some semesters where I almost talk myself out of giving it, and then I think back to how seen and heard I felt in Kim’s class, and I am never disappointed with the results.

Kim

Oh my god the floundering! To this day I think of the crappiness of some of those classes, the epic time over-running, how I knew students must be so frustrated with how much I was very clearly overdoing it (#newteacher). Reading Colleen’s thoughts now – and about her memory of the midterm survey! Holy gosh! – honestly reminds me how valuable those early, overly earnest pedagogical tools were.

Many of them have morphed now, or fallen away from me; I rarely teach full-year classes anymore, so often talk myself out of surveying the students in mid-October or mid-February. Hearing Colleen’s take-away here – students need to feel seen and heard; they need to know they know things! That we are all learning together! – is a boost in the arm better than any flu jab. It’s a new lease on my own teaching.

Thanks, Colleen. Maybe from now on we can mentor each other.
-K

Teaching Transformation: Educating therapists in a relational context

When I went to school as a child and then as a young adult, I never thought of school as anything other than a place you learned things. I learned to do some chemistry, I learned about philosophy, I learned about feminism. Yet I didn’t become any of those things through my learning, at least not in a way I noticed.

After a few years of trying to be a lawyer after I learned how to do it, my great dissatisfaction with that process led me to a place where 1. I had a mental breakdown and 2. I needed to figure out what was next, because I clearly had not learned to be a lawyer, even though I knew how to do it.

Thanks to https://morguefile.com/creative/jim113/1/all for the photo

I wandered around in the wilderness for a year or so and then found something that looked promising. It was a tiny private psychotherapy training program and now, 19 years later, I’m a teacher in that program. In that school, I had a very alternative experience of learning a thing. I didn’t learn about it. I learned to become it and I did that through performing it, from the very first day.

So, when Kelsey approached me to contribute to this blog and I saw the blurbs meant to be the seeds of blossoming blog entries to come, I nearly jumped out of my skin to say yes to this project.

I am not an academic in the traditional sense. I have lots of education and more than a few degrees, none of which ever formally taught me to teach. I source my skill in the classroom from, amongst other things, my passionate belief in the power of the work I do.[1]

The ideas that I discuss here may or may not reside in the academic literature as a methodology or approach and I will freely admit I wouldn’t know. However, I also know there is value in the sort of “from the ground up” perspective I’m bringing here and I know that is one of the goals of bringing more voices into this forum.

37662c40222df7ead3aa82d53fd7b509

Professional learning can be a very passive experience. After all, the idea of professional education involves making sure that students acquire a set of knowledge and skill that meets a “universal standard” within some sort of regulatory frame. Universal standards are often codified by way of content or a practical skill and the way a student demonstrates them is through testing or performing a task.

Those elements are all present in my teaching. We ask students to read material and demonstrate the understanding of it through engagement in writing and discussion. We also ask them to practice in front of their teachers and peers through exercises and practice therapy dyads. Yet, I’m also aware that we do something else with these students in the way we are teaching them, something more profound than a knowledge and skill acquisition endeavour. It’s this element that I want to explore here.

My first question to myself is:

How do I even know this is different than other kinds of teaching or professional education?

I suppose I can answer that because I’ve done quite a bit of other kinds and nothing ever felt like this to me. I can also observe that I was asked to come teach this thing most profoundly on the basis that, in my every day work and life, I was the thing that I was being asked to teach. I want to highlight this simple language I’m using. I was asked because I “was the thing”, not because “I knew how to do the thing”.

Let me explain the “thing” a little more.

The approach we teach is a modality of psychotherapy but it isn’t really a technique, as narrowly understood. I like to tell my students that it’s a “sensibility” or a “way of being” in session that generates the conditions that allow for healing and growth.

Ideally, we create a therapeutic container in which a client feels safe, connected, emotionally regulated and profoundly understood. In that sort of relationship, stalled developmental processes reengage and all manner of things (symptoms, patterns, awareness, relational skill) improve.

So, I am tasked with somehow getting my students to a place where they can be the kind of person who can skillfully provide that kind of environment. Not only that, I want them to know how to handle what comes up when that environment is difficult for the client to create, maintain or tolerate. That is HARD. It would be extra hard if all we did was read books about it and write papers tests on it and then try to do it with only some vague notion of “active listening” and not a lot else.[2]

The question is: How do we do it? 

The answer? By “being the thing”.

Foundationally, we try engage all of our students as authentically connected and caring human beings. Our students are in a set of complex processes. These processes include not only the professional education they are engaged in but also their lives, relationships and histories outside school. We assume and invite them to impact and be impacted by our process.

Likewise, the facilitators are in process, impacted by the relationships within the teaching environment and our own lives and histories. We are constantly aware and mindful of how we leverage all of this into the transformative work of becoming a therapist. Becoming a therapist and being a client are parallel processes in this model.

For example, in a relational therapy, a client can eventually come to expect that their therapist will consistently provide feedback that evidences that therapist’s profound understanding of the client’s subjective state. This is the core experience that allows for the reactivation of developmental processes. Sometimes, the therapist doesn’t get it right and sometimes that results in a retraumatizing experience for the client, complete with a raft of negative emotions, angry outbursts and hurt feelings.

When this happens, it is the therapist’s job to untangle the interaction in a manner that conveys an understanding of how it happened, the therapist’s own role in the relational “miss” and also, if possible, to deepen the client’s understanding of how their implicit relational knowings (developed early in life) contribute to the intensity of hurt and dysregulation. This is a delicate dance that somehow conveys acceptance and understanding while encouraging re-evaluation of old ways of being and promoting affect integration and regulation.

Similarly, students have an expectation of being held in this program a certain way, even if it is only at the level of “teach me the things I need to know”. Inevitably, we fail them somehow and, in those moments, we are challenged to acknowledge, repair and deepen our understanding of the relational event that precipitated their disappointment.

Susan Tarhish

Susan Tarshis

We try very hard not to hide behind institutional systems of defense and deflection but rather invite the issues into process so that we can resolve them in a relationally sound way. By that I mean a way that promotes feelings of security, growth, deepening connection and community.

If all that sounds like a lot of work, well, you are darn right it is. Why would anyone ever agree to teach with those kinds of really intimate demands for relational engagement, with a student body of nearly 40 people?

My gut answer is that it is the most important job in the world because it’s teaching people to go out and do one of the most important jobs in this world. I am not even talking about the job of being a Registered Psychotherapist in the province of Ontario. I’m talking about going out in the world knowing how to skillfully navigate your relational environment in a way that feeds healthy community. I’m talking about “being the thing”.

Maybe this is sounding profoundly arrogant, that I not only teach people to be good therapists but also help them to be better people.

Yet, I’ll stand my ground on that one. I KNOW I am a better, more skilled, more able, more open, more resilient human in relationship because of the work I did in this program.

When our students graduate, most of them (certainly not all of them) speak to the profound change, including turmoil, that the training brought to their lives. They speak to the complicating of their emotional and relational landscape and their gratitude and wonder at the transition they have made.

It’s not perfect. It’s messy and sometimes it even hurts but teaching this way is one of the most impactful things I have done with my life thus far. I’m pretty sure that’s a definition of an “Activist Classroom”.

[1] The thoughts I’ve put together here are based on my experience and not meant to be the official position or methodology of the school.

[2] I will confess this may have been my experience in the more academically formal environment in which I got my University education in counselling.

What is experiential learning? Part two: snapshots from experiencing differently

Two posts ago, I spent some time thinking about the paradox of “Experiential Learning” (capital E, capital L!) as a commodity in the neoliberal university, and I proposed an alternative way of thinking about the experiential in relationship to teaching and learning. In this post, I put that thinking into practice with a few snapshots of my recent trip to the CATR (Canadian Association for Theatre Research) annual conference at the University of British Columbia.

First, though, a brief digression in service of some theory.

In that earlier post, I talk in particular about the difference between “experience” as a noun (a thing to buy, to have, to collect, to seek out), and “experience” as a verb – a “learning by doing”. In (re)imagining learning as “experiencing”, I am taking a cue from the 20th century director and acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky, for whom the practice of experiencing was central to the development of the technique (sometimes called emotional realism) associated with his legacy. As Sharon Carnicke argues in her landmark book Stanislavsky in Focus (2nd edition, 2008, esp pp 129-47), “experiencing” is a way that an actor prepares and trains (by living and observing life outside the theatre in thick detail); it is also essential to that actor’s work on stage, as they recreate their thick observations in the making of a role and experience them all over again. This is what is sometimes called “living the part”.

As Carnicke explains, though, the Russian term for experiencing (perezhivanie) is more complex than the latter phrase can capture, and for Stanislavsky it connoted much more than just mimetic realism. Stanislavsky imagines actors to be co-creators – along with playwrights and directors – in shaping character, and experiencing is what underpins their creative labour. Experiencing also roots his argument (in “Perspective of the actor and the role”, in An Actor’s Work, trans. Benedetti) that actors operate inside a double optic on stage, where they live the moment-to-moment of their characters, but also remain aware in each of those moments of a character’s larger arc, context, and the story’s eventual end.

“Experiencing” for Stanislavsky, then, is a doing that includes inhabiting another’s story while recognizing and reckoning with that other story’s context and circumstances – which will be different from one’s own. At the same time one hold’s one’s own lived experiences in the world up to careful scrutiny in order to use them as a creative tool in the service of building a role. Finally, one experiences all of these things – the life, the character, and the context – at the same time on stage, and negotiates amongst them.

What I love about Stanislavsky’s model of experiencing is its very doubled quality: that to have an experience is not to hold it but to question it, to see it from the perspective of the immediate moment but also through the crucial wider lens of context, implications – and yes, potential outcomes. To experience is to question the thing itself; to experience is to encounter difference; and to experience is to create in collaboration with others.

Now, with this framework in mind, those promised snapshots.

NHGFZZHNBNBCRP26HX3MOJ2UZA

Performing Towards Youth at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto.

It’s day one.

I’m jet lagged and so I get up early and follow my colleague Laura down to the very first session, which is co-facilitated by Kathleen Gallagher of the University of Toronto’s OISE institute, and playwright Andrew Kushnir. Kathleen and Andrew talk a bit about their recent, amazing collaboration, Towards Youth, and then lead us in a Verbatim theatre workshop.

Andrew reads a series of value statements, and the rest of us place ourselves physically on an imaginary line in order to represent our feelings about those statements. Each time, someone inevitably ends up in the outlier position, and it’s immediately, viscerally clear to us all whether we are “in” or “out” of line. Andrew invites our discussion; outliers laugh and talk about how they aren’t really THAT outlier-ish. We laugh, too, sharing their discomfort and potential uncertainty.

Near the end of this part of the workshop, Andrew reads a statement that comes from the director Robert LePage; the comments he reads were made in the wake of a recent scandal involving the cultural appropriation of lived Black experience. I wasn’t aware of the statement’s origins; some others were, some not.

I found myself the outlier this time. I found myself agreeing with the spirit of the statement, divorced of its context. I felt strong in my brain that my position was a good one. But I felt queasy in my body on the edge of the pack.

Afterward, I thought hard about whether or not I would have positioned myself the same way had I known the statement’s origins. I thought carefully about the potential implications of that statement in a variety of contexts. I felt in my body the ugliness of being on the margin, but also the humility of seeing from two perspectives at once, and of being unsure of whether or not the choice I’d made was a good one for everyone. During our debrief, another member of the workshop wondered how our use of the statement might have changed if Lepage himself, as the author of those words, had been in the room and had been given the opportunity to contextualize them, reconsider them, debate them. We all wondered with him.

61680392_10156318911977966_2772880076558041088_o

Petra Kuppers demonstrates assisted floating during her Salamander workshop at UBC, June 2019.

Later that day I sit with hundreds of colleagues in a large auditorium to hear Petra Kuppers, our invited keynote speaker. Petra is talking about water-based workshops she holds around the world in order to reframe our experiences of our bodies and their interactions in relationship to ability. She begins by sharing a video reel of images from one of these workshops, and she asks us all to partner up and then to audio-describe the images we see. This proves incredibly challenging. My partner and I remark on how hard it is to find good, accurate words to convey the images on screen before they disappear. Experiencing the visual through the linguistic is discombobulating for me; it’s also conducive to improv poetry.

That afternoon I get to participate in Petra’s Salamander workshop myself. I arrive at the UBC aquatic centre and move quickly through the gender-neutral change room, arriving at a glorious, open, air-and-light-filled space containing no fewer than three pools (and many more different water-based places within them). We get in, Petra sets our stage, and soon we are holding one another at head and lower back to enable effortless floating.

I feel the pain in my arms as I try to hold my partner effectively. I hear the quiet around us in contrast to the sounds of children’s play, music, and voices elsewhere, echoing through the space. I float myself and feel the pure joy of looking into the ceiling, nothing else to do, but then I am suddenly conscious of my body’s weight and its potential burden and return to myself, differently.

Later, we move to a warmer pool and make sounds together, creating a water-based orchestra. I dive under several times and open my eyes to feel the sting of the chlorine and witness the wavy shapes of my colleagues’ and students’ bodies rendered amphibious. At dinner, I make gentle fun of the things we did, but in truth this is probably the most memorable and enjoyable experience I have ever had at an academic conference, where the norm is sitting quietly, stiffly, uncomfortably, struggling to listen attentively.

hd-mediaitemid55576-9053.png

A glam promo shot from Kim Senklip Harvey’s Kamloopa.

The next morning we gather in the same big auditorium to listen to three outstanding  indigenous women artists talk about re-matriating theatre on Turtle Island. As Lindsay Lachance, Quelemia Sparrow, and Kim Senklip Harvey talk about their practice, they share ways of working that don’t resemble the kinds of teaching and learning with which many of us settlers – directors, actors, or none – may be familiar.

They talk about “presencing” – sharing one another’s community stories to ground everyone in a room (in an Indigenous-led room). They talk about blood memory as a dramaturgical tool. They talk about birch bark biting as a means of embodying story, and as a practice of collaboration. They talk about making offerings to one another, gifting moments to one another, during rehearsal and in performance in order to keep everyone safe, strong, and well. They talk about making a shared Indigenous-led space, and then creating in that space using life ways and ways of art and labour connected to ancestors, and to generations of good practice. And they talk about indigenous women as theorists.

I witness this conversation on the stage, much of which is not just directed at us but connected to us as a dialogue – even though talking to settlers has got to be exhausting, endless labour for these women. I witness with gratitude as I watch and listen to them make theory together, laughing but also in moments hurting together. And I think about them as theorists not just of theatre and performance, but of pedagogy.

***

The Activist Classroom is going to take a break for the rest of the summer. Go to the beach already, people!

I’ll be back on 3 September, with a few surprises in tow.

Stay tuned, and thanks as always for reading!

Kim

Decolonizing the classroom, end of term edition (Pt 2)

In my last post, I wrote about my History of Performance Theory gang, the amazing term we had together, and the incredible achievement they walked away with: a bunch of As. I talked in particular about how low-stakes, grade-free tasks, and fulsome engagement and participation, were key to their success – not just in “earning” A-level grades, but in demonstrating A-level learning and growth.

A big part of their capacity to learn and grow in this way can be attributed to the amazing classroom space we moved into at mid-term – something I first wrote about here.

I clocked immediately, upon seeing that new classroom space in February and getting incredibly excited about its potential, that in it we would be able to work in fresh ways as a team, and use technology much more to our benefit than we had in our old, quite unloved, traditional quasi-seminar/quasi-lecture space.

Our old room, our new room. A huge difference.

What I had not realized right away was that this new space would also allow the students to get to know one another better, trust one another more, and collaborate more effectively together. This new, active-learning-oriented space was not just able to decenter me as the ‘expert’ in the room, and to re-orient our learning around student engagement and response; it actually had the capacity to shape classroom community in new ways, and in ways that opened students’ eyes to the power of each other’s knowledge and ability in ways traditional classroom environments simply do not do.

How did I learn this thing about my students, this thing that should perhaps be obvious?

I asked them.

Participation in this class was keyed not just to in-class or online engagement; it was also dependent upon students stepping up to really think critically about their own strengths and weaknesses as learners in our class, in two short participation-reflection papers (one at mid-term and one at the end of the year). When I realized late in the term that the students were genuinely exhausted (so far so normal), and thus probably would not give their final participation reflections enough time and effort to properly reflect on their participation in our class, I had a radical idea. I scrapped my plan to review and sum up our course readings in our last session together, and decided, instead, that we’d spend that session working together to reflect on our participation.

To shape that final lesson, I created four prompts for students to write around. These were:

  1. Think about your participation in class since reading week. What went really well? What went as well, or perhaps even better, than in the first half of the term?
  2. Now, think about what didn’t go so well. Where did you want to improve, but it didn’t quite work out as planned? What slipped, though it was going well before?
  3. Now, think about your experience as a learner. What’s your most significant take-away from our class? What piece of knowledge, or what experience, do you think will stay with you?
  4. One last question – for Kim’s benefit! Did our new WALS space affect how you engaged in our class? If so, how exactly? If not, what is still missing?

I gave students five minutes per prompt to write about the first two prompts, then two minutes for the third – plus a chunk of time to pair and share with the other students at their pods/tables – and finally five minutes for the last.

In response to the last prompt, in particular, the students told me things about their experience in their learning ‘pods’ that I could not have understood from outside those micro-environments.

They commented on how the pods’ orientation (everyone around a shared table – no choice but to sit with and look at others!) generated an atmosphere that was not just group-work oriented, but ‘relaxed’ – it helped lower the stakes, so learning could feel more comfortable, and it created an environment where there was no expectation that they would simply hear and write down knowledge spoken from a front-central area. One student noted – contrary to my expectations! – that because students were always sat at the same pods, they not only became closer with one another, but could also extend their discussions over time, picking up on earlier comments or ideas and moving them forward, even when I did not explicitly invite them to do this.

Students also wrote about how a room in which they were expected to sit together, facing each other – and were not forced, as we had been in our old room, to try to engineer seminar tables out of furniture that we typically (despite the hopeful photo above) found to be forward-facing – made the group learning components of our class feel more ‘organic’ and even ‘easy’. Note-taking gave way to complex group discussion; learning toggled between the shared white boards, where students visualized one another’s ideas, and the chat around their tables, making a learning impression deeper than notes alone might be able to create.

They talked, too, about the pleasures of the tech – the electronic white boards at each pod were a huge hit (making question-exploration and note-taking so much more fun), and the projectors and internet connectivity at each were celebrated for the roles they played in the students’ incredible final presentations, in particular. A couple of students suggested that, in my next class in the space, we spend a lesson or two early in the term just orienting ourselves, simply playing around with the technology, in order to discover its capabilities and what they might do for us as we work through the term. I love this idea!

One student, Katie Flannery, really captured the spirit of the group’s replies to prompt #4; I’ve asked for her permission to reproduce her comments here:

The WALS (Wide or Wonderful Amiable Learning Space):

My very random decoding of this acronym sums up how I feel about this room. I loved the space it gave us. We no longer had to take 15 minutes to move around furniture. The room was ready for us to engage with it right when we got there which is wonderful. “Amiable” because I felt comfortable right away. The placement of the tables and where you (Dr.Solga) are able to stand and teach/interact is ideal. It allowed an easy-flowing discussion as you can see every face in the class. “Learning” because I do believe the interactive technology advanced my learning. I liked how we could engage with the whiteboards separately in our own groups while simultaneously displaying it for the entire class. It made the transition from little groups to the whole group seamless. Another class I have had in one of these rooms also got us to do lots of movement activities. We would kind of rotate through whiteboards. A group would write one response down and have to then contribute next time to the following groups white board. This kind of activity allowed groups to really rely on each other. These rooms allow all the movement!

Katie celebrates another terrific white-board achievement.

So this is my take-away from the students’ take-aways from our wonderful, amiable learning space: the room gives students permission to recognize, respect, and learn from each other in ways that are not hierarchical and that authorize multiple voices and perspectives at once as critical questions come under our scrutiny.

When students sit in rows facing forward, or even in a traditional seminar-table setting, there’s always a ‘main’ voice – usually the teacher’s – and there are usually, too, the usual suspects: the clever kids who always seem to have the ‘right’ answer. In those spatial circumstances, it’s so easy for ‘regular’ students to distrust their own voices, or resent those of their louder peers. But when a learning space is comprised of multiple tables, and the prof is forced to become a roving participant and regular listener, the opposite obtains. Students learn more, full stop, get more interested, and do better.

A number of students, in response to my third prompt, commented on the meta-pedagogical qualities of our class; they talked about ‘learning how to learn,’ discovering what was possible in a classroom, and making connections between the work we were reading and the world around them in ways they had not ever done before. I’m convinced that, because the WALS space radically re-orients their (and my!) usual expectations of what a classroom should look like, it also encourages them to think about their physical and emotional classroom experience much more, and much more critically, than normal. This can only be a good thing.

Stay tuned for more WALS adventures as I have them!

Kim

 

 

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

(Or: What if they all get As?)

everybody-a-winner-e1414520494803

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.

fullsizeoutput_1611

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.

1412194819756

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.

2018-04-21_ent_40077993_I2

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.

hqdefault

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.

donut

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.

maxresdefault

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

Kim