Virtual pedagogy: lessons from the world of sport

Today on the AC we are proud to share reflections by Cate Creede, a Toronto-based social scientist and core contributor at Fit is a Feminist Issue. Cate and Kim sweat it out together many mornings over Zoom, with a fantastic trainer and coach called Alex whom Cate works with IRL.

Below, Cate synthesizes the valuable, transferable lessons about student-centred online teaching that Alex models every day. For the AC team (Kim and Kelsey), these thoughts resonate deeply as we think about planning summer and fall classes online, and as we try to figure out how to empower and hold space for the young people in our lives in an inclusive, access-forward, feminist way.




Guest Author, Cate Creede

Like everyone else in the world, my life is suddenly filtered through a screen, including my work as a strategy facilitator, leadership and life coach and educator.  And like everyone who’s had to translate relational practice to a mediated environment, I’ve found it challenging – and a site of constant learning for myself.

One of my most fruitful sources about learning how to be a good online teacher and facilitator is my experience as a learner with my fitness coach.  Since the lockdown began, I’ve been working out almost every day with Alex Boross-Harmer, who was my real life coach and trainer in the Before Times.  She’s figured out how to translate her already-excellent teaching to an online environment – and in doing so, has reminded me again what good teaching is, both in one-on-one environments and in her classes.


Cate, with her trainer Alex Boross-Harmer, in the background

A few months ago, I was trying to figure out why Alex is such a powerful presence, compared to so many other teachers and coaches I’ve had in my life. With other coaches in small group fitness classes, I often find myself feeling inept, or like I can’t quite get the form right, or I’m hopelessly clumsy. It’s hard to articulate, but with many other coaches, even when they do and say all the “right” things, I can feel held back in a way. It’s not something specific like being adjusted, or told I should stay at a lower weight to focus on form, or lack of encouragement. Other coaches can do all those things “right,” and it’s fine … I can get a good workout, have a fun class. But what Alex does makes me feel simultaneously supported, challenged, encouraged, and stronger than I’ve ever felt in my life.

As I’ve been a learner in her virtual space during the pandemic, I’ve identified a few of the specific things she does that generate this empowerment for me.

  • She creates safety by modeling vulnerability and authenticity herself;
  • She uses whatever technology is available (in person or virtual) to create a playful environment that is conducive to exploring;
  • She intuitively identifies our individual “zones of proximal development” (Vygotsky) and encourages us to work in those edges;
  • She demonstrates her extensive knowledge through practical application (she was in grad school for kinesiology before she turned to coaching);
  • She designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda.

What does this actually look like in practice?

A few months ago, Alex told me that her aspiration as a coach was to make a space so her clients feel that the hour spent working out is their best hour in the day. The most critical way she does this is by modeling vulnerability and authenticity. 

She does this by checking in about where we are before class starts – sometimes just with a thumbs up/side/down.  She has an honest, infectious, joyful energy – but she always makes it okay to dial back, be sad or anxious, or be tired.  She assumes we have no equipment, and makes that okay – our bodies and a mat are enough.


Cate, doing a handstand.

She talks about being grateful to be in the space with us, and acknowledges how it improves her own mood.  She calls us a team, not a class, and then she does the workouts with us. She looks like a super fit person – and yet openly acknowledges being sweaty or out of breath.

Over the week, our daily “superhero virtual workouts” have a shape: mobility, strength, ramping up, rest, mobility, strength, etc.  Every workout has a shape too – mobility, strength, conditioning, stretching – with many options within it. She pays attention to what each of us is doing, watching us closely through the screen, offering modifications, reinforcing form, and encouraging.

As she does the workouts with us, she is honest about where she is tired, where her body is tight or painful, where she needs to cut back on reps or go for the lighter option. Her authenticity (in her genuine, spontaneous reactions and affect) models for us how we can find our own path, trust that we know our own bodies, and it ensures that we have permission to adjust and slow down.

Together, this creates trust and confidence: she holds the space and for us so that we can safely push our own edges.

Which is the second major thing she does:  she creates a playful environment that is conducive to exploring.


Cate’s trusty workout companions, excelling at active rest between sets.

When I first met Alex as a teacher, hers was the first class I ever felt inspired to dance in – just because her joy at being in the gym is infectious. (Note: I am not a person naturally given to expressing joy). She talks about workouts as “adult playtime,” and since we’ve been home, she’s built things like handstands and crow pose, and variations on the same, into a more traditional “HIIT” workout format. She can’t help herself from dancing or strict pressing her dog between sets, and she calls attention to how delightful people look when working out with their kids, or playing with their pets.  Even though we are mostly on mute, Alex’ interactions and laughing at herself create a sense of playful community that feels mutually supportive.

With her, I am simultaneously fearless and 9 years old, and wise and strong and 55. I will hurl myself upside down in a handstand in the middle of the floor, and I will trust her when she tells me to slow it down. Sometimes we are leaping around, and sometimes we focus deeply on one tiny mobility movement.

It all feels enlivened: this playfulness creates an “enlivened safety” where we can push our own boundaries.  Every workout we do with Alex is designed to scaffold us to build confidence at the end of our current capacity and push it just a little further – and then she pays attention to each of us to mark and signal our progress.

As a coach, Alex has an innate understanding of how to work with Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.”  Where she push our edges with weight or equipment in “real life,” in covidspace, she designs workouts that always leave a little room for each of us, independently, to reach for an extra few reps. She finds new ways for us to use our bodies – like rowing movements using just our arms against the floor – that require no equipment but get the job done.


Bags of books sub in for dumbbells as the team do bicep curls.

She notices and names the edge for each of us, intuits that precise moment where, with encouragement and detailed analysis and guidance for our particular bodies, we can take it one step further. She pays attention to the chat box on Zoom and offers a continual stream of modifications if needed.  Even while she is doing the movements herself, she is calling out individuals with encouragement or suggestions – “Serena, LOOK at that wall walk!” – and tracking when we’ve done something like a freestanding handstand for the first time (which we can then all celebrate together).

All of this playfulness and presence is backed up by Alex’ ability to translate expertise into practical application.  Alex, a trained kinesiologist, has designed our weeks to have a cycle, starting with mobility and strength on Monday, playfulness and strength on Tuesday, conditioning and strength on Wednesday, rest on Thursday, ramping up on Friday and “sweaty Saturday,” followed by another rest day. There is a lot of theory behind the design, but understanding it is less important than the lived experience of feeling that each day feels doable and like “the right thing for today.”

A screenshot of one of Alex’s Covid-19 online workouts

Alex’s workouts have always been shadowed by this kind of impeccable expertise, but in the covidtimes, she does an even more critical translation of theory into practice because she assumes we have zero workout equipment, and works from there. This in turn creates a sense of resourcefulness, in multiple ways – our bodies become our reliable tools, something to know and explore more than ever.  We use what’s at hand – like lululemon bags filled with books or cans of soup – to add new options to existing moves. We are all negotiating new existences right now – and the symbol of a bag of books (or, in Kim’s case, a summer tire from the basement!) as a weight reminds us that we have the capacity to mcgyver our lives, to deal with whatever comes, with a little creativity and a little joy.

What all of this adds up to, for me, is that Alex designs and leads classes based on our needs, not her agenda. Clearly, she gets something out of this – she talks about the importance of this community and her gratitude for having the team alongside her – but it never feels like we are doing something because she thinks it would be a fun Instagram challenge or she wants to show off something she is good at.  She recognizes that in this extraordinary time, we are in need of movement, in need of care, in need of connection, in need of joy, and in need of reminders that we are strong and resourceful. We do squats and lunges and wallwalks and move our bodies – but the overarching experience is of feeling – for an hour – like we are superheroes who can handle whatever else comes.

Working out in covidtime means pets are part of the process!

Two months ago, I was in the gym lifting heavy things. Now, I can’t imagine trying to lift an actual barbell.  Deadlifting or back squats seem to belong to another type of person altogether — “but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead,” to retrieve a quote from my long ago undergrad in English. Yet there’s something fitting, RIGHT NOW, about working out by moving a towel around on a slippery floor with our feet, doing step-ups on a kitchen chair, lifting bags of books. “If this is too much, take some things out of your bags,” enjoined Alex as we moved from curls to flies.

That’s how I feel right now. I’m lifting unfamiliar things, every minute, and I need to take some things out of my bags. Integrating this literal metaphor into my workouts – and into my teaching and coaching, too – is reassuring me that I can adjust. I’m not in it alone.

We’re all looking for community. And we’ll all adjust.

Cate Creede, PhD, is a consultant, educator, and coach who lives in Toronto, working mostly in the space of academic healthcare and higher education.  She also runs a youth development project in Uganda and writes for the Fit is a Feminist Issue blog. She is aiming for a successful freestanding handstand by the end of the lockdown.

You can find out more about Alex at

For more on Cate, see:








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 ( 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 ( 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:

Looking back, looking ahead – part 2

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

Improvement city.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. I need to find some windows. NOW.

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


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





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

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

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

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


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