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

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


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

First, the best parts.

1. Peer evaluations are improving!

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

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

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

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

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

2. Field trips – so worth it.

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


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



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

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

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


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

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

3. Why not just be honest?

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

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

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


From London to London: A Student’s-Eye View

[Friends: this guest post is by Caitlin Austin, a final-year Theatre Studies student at Western University, and the amazing student intern/”guinea pig” I wrote about in my report on our recent “field trip” to London, England. Here, Caity offers her perspective on her time with us in the U.K., and reflects on what study-abroad opportunities have to offer students like her – heading for teacher’s college, and addicted to the stage. Enjoy!]


“From London to London,” reads the caption of my Instagram post as I departed London, Ontario for a very exciting weeklong trip to London, England! The photo (below) features British and Canadian currency, and the magic ticket that would allow me to cross overseas: my passport. This trip to England marked my first time to Europe and I couldn’t have been more excited! Just carrying the foreign currency in my wallet made me feel worldly, sophisticated, and gave me a real hankering for tea and crumpets.


The trip’s purpose was to help design and plan the future Destination Theatre course (for more details, see Kim’s earlier post here), and to build relationships with academic institutions in England with which Western students will eventually have the chance to be involved. I accompanied my professors, Kim Solga and M.J. Kidnie, on this journey across the pond and gratefully became an intern of sorts. I participated in meetings, took notes, and offered feedback from a student’s perspective, trying to answer the question, what will future Destination Theatre students REALLY want in a trip such as this?

Well, if future trips are anything like this one, those students are in for a treat! I was lucky enough to see 5 plays in 5 days. This was nothing short of heavenly. The first play I saw, Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse, I caught on our first night, still jet-jagged, with a friend I had met only a few months prior during a summer acting program in NYC. All hail the connective powers of travel! The other shows, ranging from a West End musical, The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre, to a nearly 4 hour Greek Epic, Oresteia at the Almeida Theatre (Trafalgar Studios), each offered something unique. However, all productions are not created equal and the scales were tipped heavily in the favour of the West End musical scene when I saw The Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon was, without a doubt, the most fantastic thing I have ever witnessed. I smiled from start to finish. Actually, I was smiling long before the show even began because of the good fortune that had brought me to the front row of the greatest musical ever created (my apologies to all other pieces of theatre EVER). This good fortune began when, during some souvenir shopping near the end of our trip, fate had me stroll down a street called Coventry. While walking to find lunch, I happened upon the Prince of Wales Theatre where two representatives invited me to enter the ticket lottery for the matinee performance. Spoiler alert: I won the ticket lottery and was able to purchase a £100 front row seat for a mere £20!


Caity in musical theatre heaven.

The lottery process itself was quite the event. A real ceremony, full of pomp and flair. The theatre representative draws a ballot from the large, spinning drum and teases the crowd by saying something to the effect of, “One ticket… Going to… America…” – and then pauses for all the hopeful Americans in attendance to squeal with excitement before announcing the lucky winner’s name. Once my name was called (yay!) I claimed my ticket and began to feel like a real V.I.P.: I was barraged with congratulations from theatre staff and fellow ticket winners. Such fun! So, if you should ever find the chance to attend a production of The Book of Mormon, do it! I’ll even cross my fingers that you’ll win the ticket lottery, too.

Besides the many examples of incredible theatre I was lucky enough to see, I had a blast exploring London as well. Kim and M.J., both with years of London living under their belt, were superb guides as I got to know the city. They offered insider knowledge only privy to someone who has held a London address (did you know you can order in the express line at Monmouth Coffee if you buy coffee beans at the same time? Also, the falafels at Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road are unrivalled), as well as supportive encouragement so I could feel confident exploring the city for myself. I’ll proudly tell anyone that I learned at least a few of the major Underground train lines while away and returned to Ontario envious of London’s superior public transit system.

Though we stayed in Mild End on the Queen Mary University campus (very comfortable beds, by the way), we journeyed by train to Stratford-upon-Avon for a half day to scope out how Stratford might fit into the Destination Theatre schedule. What a quaint little town! Though it would be easy to be distracted by the many shops, cafes, and photo opportunities – Ok, maybe we were…


Caity meets Sir John Falstaff…


…while Kim ponders her next move with Prince Hamlet.


Oh, and that dog is made out of sand! MJ + Caity are impressed.

But we also participated in several really productive meetings with different Stratford institutions and returned to Queen Mary with lots of exciting Stratford opportunities for future students. 

Amidst all the excitement of a first time trip to England, one of the features that struck me most was the genuine kindness of almost everyone I met. Locals, and perhaps fellow tourists, helped me when I asked for directions and cashiers patiently waited while I tried to make sense of the British currency in my wallet. Along with the nameless strangers I encountered, I met several of Kim’s and M.J.’s many friends and colleagues in London, all of whom made me feel very welcome. It was really lovely to see how incredibly well-respected and well-liked my professors are, though for anyone who has known them, it doesn’t come as a surprise.

Kim and M.J. have got to be two of the hardest working, most determined, creative people I know. I’m convinced their days have more than 24 hours because the amount they accomplish from sunrise to sundown is hard to believe. I marvel at their work ethic and was honoured to be welcomed so warmly into their process. As an English and Theatre Studies student graduating this year, I will remain incredibly grateful that I was able to experience Destination Theatre in its first iteration and am so excited for the future of the program. To any and all potential students reading this: renew your passport, pack your bags, and get ready for the experience of a lifetime!

On #DestinationTheatre (a field trip report)

One thing I’ll say about my life as an academic: it involves a lot of travel, and plenty of that travel is a real pleasure. Two weeks ago I was in London, England, at the school where I used to work, Queen Mary University of London. I was there with my colleague from Western’s new Theatre Studies program, MJ Kidnie, and our student Caitlin Austin. Our mission: to meet with a long list of theatre and performance people, from my gang at QM to folks at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Shakespeare Institute and the RSC, with whom we might partner as we build our new experiential learning course, Destination Theatre.

We spent the week in meetings, but we also had a barnstorming time wandering the city with Caity and seeing it through her eyes as though for the first time. (Both MJ and I have lived in London before.) We saw an awful lot of theatre – imagine going to the theatre for work! – from a stunning, gutting, critically acclaimed production of The Oresteia trilogy in the West End, to a gorgeous, moving play about dementia cutting through a family (The Father), to a raunchy, modish Measure for Measure at the always-hopping Young Vic. Above all, though, we laboured as a team: meeting and tweeting (@westernuTheatre) and story boarding, all in the service of imagining what our new course will look like once all the glittering potential is harnessed and the inspiring pieces are slotted into place.

MJ with the London Eye

MJ with the London Eye

Eventually, in winter 2017, Destination Theatre will have its first full outing: 25 students from across the university plus two instructors will jet over to Britain for two full weeks of theatre, workshops, artists’ talks, guest visits to some of the coolest back stages around, and seminars with some of the best performance scholars in country. Their experience will be all the more memorable because of Caity’s contributions during our recent reconnaissance journey; her student’s-eye view proved invaluable to the work of imagining this course’s future shape. She saw things we two mid-career teachers simply could not, and that seeing shifted our thinking in key ways.

Caity at Shakespeare's Globe

Caity at Shakespeare’s Globe

How did we come to bring a student with us to London to help us plan a course? Back in April MJ and I won a grant from Western’s International Curriculum Fund to support journeys to London and New York in order to create partnerships for Destination Theatre. Sometime in late summer, as we were reaching out to colleagues and pricing flights, I got an email from Caity about her upcoming course load. Going into senior year she was a credit short for her Theatre Studies major, and there were no courses on offer that she hadn’t already taken. We started hunting around for alternatives – in media studies, in sociology, you name it – that might fit. She did a load of legwork and presented us with options.

While this was happening, I remembered that Caity would graduate the year before Destination Theatre’s first journey abroad, and that she had been crestfallen last autumn when she found that out. I also remembered what a reliable, thoughtful, mature student (and incredibly hard worker) she was. I talked to MJ: instead of “taking” (or, rather, missing her chance to take) Destination Theatre, could Caity help us to build Destination Theatre? We hatched a plan for a reading course in which Caity would split her time between test-driving some of the readings and assessments we had in the works for DT, and doing internship labour for us. As part of the latter she would join us on the London planning leg, consult with us from her vantage point as a senior undergraduate, and then write a final report for the Theatre Studies Committee. And, of course, in the process she would experience her own London theatre “intensive”, helping us to spot must-haves as well as also-rans for the first cohort in 2017.

We floated the reading course idea to Caity; she was excited and keen – even though the course would without question prove more work for her than an ordinary half-credit. Armed with her enthusiastic interest and commitment to the task, we approached our undergraduate studies chair to formalise the arrangement.

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon...

Making the most of every minute: Caity with Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon…

I won’t lie: despite our faith in Caity and the great-on-paper plan for the work she would do for us in London, MJ and I were a bit skeptical about outcomes. We weren’t sure, going into the journey, that Caity would really be able to tell us anything we would not see for ourselves. After all, course planning is a large part of our jobs, and we are both quite good at it.

Caity, however, quickly proved us wrong.

...and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!

…and after winning a ticket to The Book of Mormon!










She was an outstanding secretary and third eye in all of our meetings with potential UK partners, a consummate professional as well as a genial participant. Most importantly, however, she consistently reminded us about the crucial differences between what students (and their parents!) will want from the Destination Theatre experience, and what we might value as teachers and administrators. For example: MJ and I focused a lot on costs, and assessed potential student housing with an eye to making the trip as cheap as possible for participants. But Caity reminded us that the cheapest option wouldn’t necessarily be the most attractive one for students: she bet that both students and parents or guardians would prefer to pay a few pounds more per night for secure, on-campus housing at Queen Mary, which would allow students to stay right next door to the spaces they would use for classes while in London.

She also reminded us that students will want to see as much theatre as possible while on the trip, but will also want to be tourists: for many of them, this will be their first journey to the UK. Old Londoners like MJ and me tend to disdain stuff like Madame Tussaud’s or the London Eye (the huge ferris wheel on the South Bank), and of course many university professors have bad allergies to anything that smacks of mass entertainment. But Caity was keen, and thoughtfully so: they might be tacky, sure, she told us – but that does not make tourist attractions less valuable for our purposes. Touristy things, she noted, are as big a part of the experience package we are building as any show is; they will be key to how Destination Theatre exposes students to a new, global city and its hugely diverse theatrical culture.


In the spring I’m off to New York City to plan the second iteration of Destination Theatre. Caity’s “dry run” will be over by then, and I know I will miss having her along for the ride. Luckily, she spent part of the summer of 2015 in NYC on a short course at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and she knows Manhattan’s theatrical ropes pretty well. You can guarantee I’ll be grilling her for tips before I get on the plane.


Still learning all kinds of stuff from students,


PS: stay tuned for a post by Caity on her experience – coming soon!