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

 

 

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OMG SPACE. Proper classroom space!

*Note: scroll to the bottom of this post for a 30-page preview of my new book, Theory for Theatre Studies: Space!

Every winter term, the faculty teaching at my university get a message from the people at WALS, the office in charge of Western’s Active Learning Spaces. The message invites us to apply to hold our next year’s class(es) in one of the several WALS rooms on campus.

Every winter term, I ignore this message. There’s a simple reason: I assume these rooms are Not Meant For Me. They are big; they hold a good number of students. My classes are small; they are arts-based and niche. Of course, I reason, working in one of these rooms would be absolutely ideal for the way I teach; but no way, I caution myself, would WALS give me one of these rooms. Why allocate precious classroom space that could hold 60 to a class with only 18 students in it? No chance, I tell myself. DELETE.

This winter term, though, I did something differently. I stopped myself from indulging in the defeatist, scarcity-driven reasoning in the paragraph above. I asked myself: what actually governs who gets WALS spaces? Perhaps I should find out?

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Students in a third-year class, Environmental Change, work in a WALS space at Western in 2014. Photo courtesy of the WALS Flickr gallery.

I emailed the person behind the message, a terrific, energetic, pedagogy-forward graduate student called Cortney. She told me – and reader, my jaw did drop – that the WALS rooms are assigned FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED. For reals. She then offered to take me on a tour of the brand-new WALS space in my newly renovated building, Western’s historic University College.

Cortney and I met up a couple of weeks later. I was astonished by the capacity of the room she showed me! It features seven pods, which is WALS short-hand for seven tables equipped with 6-8 chairs, their own projector, a white board that doubles as a screen AND an e-board, plus extra mobile white boards for playing around. There are connection hubs on the tables for all manner of devices, and a USB port for saving whiteboard work. Each pod also comes equipped with the capacity to run Solstice, the third-party software that allows students to beam the screens of their devices (phones/tablets/laptops) to their pod’s projector via an app to share with their groups.

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A glamour shot of my new space in Western’s University College. The natural light is especially welcome!

The room is also big, open, circular in flow, and clean. It is, in other words, the uncanny opposite of every other classroom space I have ever been assigned, at Western or anyplace else.

My first reaction to my WALS tour was:

HOLY SHIT. This classroom is unbelievable!

My second reaction was:

WHY ARE MORE CLASSROOMS NOT LIKE THIS???

I’m not going to delve deeply into the latter question today; the reasons are, I’m sure, more complex than I assume – though maybe not.

(I assume: because retrofitting space is expensive, and upgrading tech is expensive; because universities in my province, let alone everywhere else, are currently being squeezed YET AGAIN by another myopic provincial government; and because frankly, at the end of the day, teaching labour remains undervalued by most of the folks who control the money. Meanwhile, students and teachers, who know experientially the value of good, flexible space to the practice of effective pedagogy, have remarkably little say in how their work is organized physically. ARGH.)

Instead, I’m going to tell you what happened after I caught my breath. I immediately applied to have all of my 2019-20 classes held in the WALS space in my building (spoiler alert: IT WORKED!). Then, I asked Cortney if I could move my current undergraduate class – the history of performance theory class I was teaching in a tatty, furniture-stuffed, under-cleaned and under-resourced room in a nearby building – into my building’s new WALS space right away.

And she said yes.

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My ideal classroom – for all subjects! A light-filled, open-plan studio.

Right after reading week, my intrepid gang of performance theorists and I moved over to our new home. And what a transformation we experienced!

Right away we noticed a difference in our engagement and interaction during class time.

First of all, sitting around pod tables means students are easily organized to see each other, talk to one another (and not just to/at me!), and work together without any excess labour. In our old space, we spent easily 5 minutes at the top of each class trying to move the tables in the room into a seminar configurations, shifting excess tables and chairs as well out of the way as we could. It was annoying and often frustrating; the room showed us that it was not actually meant to be tinkered with, not that much anyway. As the term advanced and our energy levels declined, this work just began to seem onerous. The result? We started simply putting up with badly-arranged tables, spreading ourselves around the room in any way that seemed physically easiest. Conducive to group learning this was not.

In the WALS space, all that extra work was simply removed: now, we just walk in, watch the light come up, plop our stuff at our preferred pods, fire up Solstice on our phones and laptops, and get ready to talk, think, experiment, and learn.

Meanwhile, I noticed a huge difference thanks to the efficiencies the room afforded me as instructor. The instructor’s console is at the centre of the room, but it’s not intrusive; it’s also not organized for me to stand behind, the way a podium is. The console is where I decide what I should show on the screens around the room, when I’m managing the screens, and it’s a place for me to put my stuff. Other than that, it discourages lingering; there’s no way you could “lecture” from such a place. I’ve noticed myself toggling to information or prompts on our class website and then hurrying away from the console, because when I’m at it my back is to the students. (If the room were at capacity, my back would be to half the students, and I’d only be facing about 1/3 of them.)

Where do I position myself, then? I had to work this out over our first few classes. The 15 students in this class are positioned at the three pods “behind” the console control centre (in the left-hand area of the image above); at first I stood between the pods to talk. But then that started to seem weird: I was up and they were seated comfortably. I felt conspicuous.

In a traditional classroom space I would feel more at ease with a standing-sitting dynamic, because the architecture of such a space drives down toward the professor’s centre-front positioning and marks it as a focal point. With that spatial cue, prof standing and students sitting makes architectural “sense”. In this flex space, though, it just feels odd – because the “centre” of the room is not, in fact, the central console, but is divested among each pod. The students are at the spiritual, as well as the architectural, “centre” of the space, and they are seated. So, I realized, I need to be seated, too.

Now, when I prepare to talk to the whole room, I sit down, sometimes backwards on my chair (so I can lean on something!), and then I roll over to the space between the three occupied pods. (Wheels on chairs! Woo hoo!) I regularly reorient my chair physically depending on who is talking, and where they are seated. I move the chair around depending on whether or not a specific pod is reporting back on work. This way, I use my body in the space, and the affordances of the space, to demonstrate to the students their centrality to the space, in particular when their work is on display for the rest of us. I respond to their work, and they to my feedback and prompting, physically and affectively as well as intellectually.

And speaking of that work: we are all IN LOVE with the fabulous electronic white boards! The students have the capacity at their pods to toggle among white board mode, console-screen mode, and Solstice mode, and whenever we are doing group-based learning, I encourage them to shift to the white board and play around with their ideas. Erasing and starting over is easy, and we can share boards among pods, too (although we’ve not yet tried that pro move).

I haven’t yet taken a formal survey to get clear data about how the new space is working for the students, but my anecdotal sense is that they are as keen as I am on it. We are still discovering new tech and new possibilities, and I’ve also created a custom question for their course evaluations about the tech in the room. I’m jazzed for their feedback as I prep for next year. (About which… did I mention I’m excited?!!)

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Student Katie Flannery poses with her pod’s whiteboard learning about Bertolt Brecht.

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Student Ray Reid is feeling less dramatic, perhaps, about his pod’s white board work.

I think a lot about space as a theatre and performance researcher: about how space acts on us to organize our social interactions, and about how our social stratifications and raced, classed, and gendered affiliations dictate – often invisibly – who is “welcome” in certain spaces, and who is manifestly not. I find it remarkable, looking back from the comfort, ease, and adaptability of the WALS space, to think about how disaffecting, how unwelcoming in both a social and a political sense, many of our university classrooms remain. It’s as though they are “not” for learning at all.

This is bonkers! We want our students to discover their potential, to develop creative critical acumen, and to learn from one another as well as from our shared histories and contemporary conundrums. And yet we place them – or rather, we, as students and teachers, are placed – in rooms that often feel more like storage closets (at worst) or sterile meeting rooms (at best) than maker-spaces, zones of discovery.

As far as I’m concerned, all classrooms should be studios: built for the “ah-hah!”, kitted out to the highest possible standard, and arranged in a way that encourages the development of a healthy, supportive, group dynamic, so that we can all take safe risks together as we learn. It’s amazing how important the right space is for the doing of that kind of essential work.

Now, herewith: to celebrate the gift WALS has given me, I offer in return a bit of my new book Theory for Theatre Studies: Space. The “preview” link below will offer you the full introduction, as well as the first part of the book’s first section; the “buy now” link will take you to Bloomsbury’s online shop, where the paperback is on sale for just $11, and the e-book for $13.

TheoryForTheatreStudiesSpace

Preview | Buy Now

 

Enjoy!

Kim