Cold? Warm up here

Post-sabbatical re-entry is a #*%$&%$. There’s no other way to say it. The office is dusty; the plant is very, very unhappy. Your colleagues only barely remember you. None of the students looks familiar: what they look is cold, tired, and not quite ready for January.

But neither are you, so it’s a wash. UGH.

After a week of this, I was officially exhausted: the mental and emotional energy required to sustain a class that has little to give back is a lot even in the warmest, brightest months; in the cold months with lots of snow, strong wind chills, early darkness, and DID I MENTION THE COLD??? – it’s enough to make you think this:

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So while I was prepping for week two, I remembered a recent Tomorrow’s Professor post I’d read about different ways to warm a class up before getting started with the day’s proper labour. And I thought to myself:

Yup, I could use a nice warm-up, alright.

So I programmed a couple in. Here’s what happened.

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I use warm-ups in studio classes all the time, but in seminars they are not conventional. In lecture classes they are DOWNRIGHT WEIRD.

But I live for weird, man.

In my first class on Thursday (students = 12), I had only an hour, so a full-body check-in was not on the cards; you need at least 10 precious minutes for that. Instead, I took a page from the post and did a seated, basic, mental-state warm-up.

First, I asked everyone to say their names. (It’s week 2; do you know each other’s names yet? I didn’t think so. And neither do I!)

Then, we all had to complete this sentence: today, I am feeling XXX.

I started: I’m Kim, I’m the prof, and today I am feeling engulfed by chaos.

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(I googled “engulfed by chaos”, and this image of David Davis was THE FIRST thing that appeared. I am not making this up.)

As we went around the tables, we got some compelling answers: I’m feeling like a million bucks! (OMG, hooray!). I’m feeling extremely embarrassed. I’m feeling excited for the weekend. I’m feeling … busy.

Yup.

The Serious Professor part of my brain always tries to tell the rest of the brain, when I get tempted to warm stuff up, that it’s a waste of time. After all, we have so much Important Stuff to cover!

But here’s the truth of the thing: we had so much better a class after five minutes of sharing our feelings-in-the-moment than we had had on the previous three days, I could not help but assume a corollary. This tiny task, after all, not only humanizes us all (profs included); it bonds us.

We become a community.

In my second class, we had two hours – of Aristotle FOR CHRIST’S SAKE – and in a windowless room to boot. (I find it painful to recall that on my “to do different” list for 2018 in this particular class, top of the list was “find a room with windows!”. I mean, What The Holy Fuck, people! How can there be classrooms with no windows that have not yet been decimated? What year is this? What planet am I on?)

Which means: we really needed to warm up.

This second group is twice the size of the first one (students = 21), and god knows their names are not yet in my brain. So I seized this chance to play a name game, one I gleaned from a talk the phenomenal deaf artist Jenny Sealey gave at Queen Mary University of London this past June.

First, we gathered in a circle in the middle of the windowless, airless room. We all closed our eyes. The brief: imagine your sign-language name, the gesture that says: YOU. Then, make it.

Next, we went around the circle and said our names and made our signs. We repeated each others’ signs for good measure. So far, so manageable.

The third step, though, was the charm: starting to my left, each student had to say the name and make the sign of the person(s) before them, and then their own. The unlucky folks on my right had to do this for almost everybody – and then I paid the piper by doing every single student’s name and sign.

In fact, to be totally fair, we all made each other’s signs along the way, supporting each new student/victim in the queue; in this way, I made Taylor’s diving gesture, and Thomas’s bright flower, and Kylie’s heart, a whole bunch of times. By the time we were at my turn (big, crazy jazz hands, if you must know), it was easy – and everyone was laughing and clapping.

And, once more, we had a way, WAY more energized and interesting class than any of the three preceding ones.

Warm-ups don’t always work: the novelty wears off, the movement gets fatiguing by the time everyone is tired in the middle of term. But at their best they are ways to re-energize a listless group, or a listless teacher, and a great, fun way to make a class into a bonded community, even if only temporarily. Better learning is not guaranteed, but it’s definitely a possibility.

On that basis alone, warm-ups make for terrific pedagogy.

Stay cool!

Kim

 

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Top tips… for next time around

Last week of classes for us lucky Canadians! Which, of course, means we finally get to breathe, sleep, and stop being zombies. ABOUT TIME.

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Longtime readers know I often get all nostalgic at this time of year (spring fever?), thinking back on the goods and the not-so-goods of the year passed, and thinking ahead to better-luck-next-time. This year, I started heading back to the teaching future early, thanks to a lunch date with my friend and colleague Kate. We were meeting to talk about Kate’s class, which I had observed early in March; ostensibly I was writing Kate a letter of support for her upcoming promotion, but in fact I really just wanted to pick her brain about the awesome ideas I got from sitting in on her class. (Thanks, Kate!)

I emerged from lunch newly energised – and at the perfect time, because: ZOMBIE. I needed to write down my thoughts immediately, so I thought, hey, why not start with a post on the blog?

As I was driving from lunch to my office I made a mental list of the five things that I think I’d like to try out next time (AFTER MY SABBATICAL! AFTER MY SABBATICAL! DID I MENTION I’M GOING ON SABBATICAL??!!!!), thanks to talking about teaching over soup and beet juice with Kate.

Here they are.

1. Start with a warm-up

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A group of Western University students warming up with artists Mina Samuels and Jacqueline Dugal during a recent workshop on campus. Photo by Julia Beltrano.

This wasn’t Kate’s idea, ok, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a bit, and Kate reminded me of why. In her class, she set the tone for the whole period by pausing at the outset and marking the moment of beginning with some powerpoint slides designed to orient students, grounding them in the work ahead and helping them to understand where they had been, were now, and would be going. This kind of tone-setting is so useful, not least because it brings everyone together, in the space, as a community, and then prepares for the shared labour about to be undertaken.

When I teach studio classes I always begin with a warm-up. Sometimes it’s as simple as some yoga. Sometimes it’s a rousing game of “zip-zap-zop”. (That’s zip-zap-boing! to you Brits, thank you very much… although the Eastenders version is still kinda my favourite.) Maybe we might close our eyes and fall into each other, fear be damned.

The logic: studio classes are about body work, so let’s warm those old bodies up! But… seminar work is about our bodies, too! Which is to say: if we are tired, or poorly nourished, or stiff, our thinking is badly affected. So warm-up rules apply: let’s remind ourselves of the bodies that hold our brains, wake up our arms and legs, laugh a bit, share a moment. There shared knowledge begins.

2. Set ONE overarching outcome, in addition to the obvious

Kate and I talked about time management: how do we get through it all in just three hours per week? We talked about how much less content we teach now than when we started, 5 years ago, 10 years ago…. We talked about all the other things we want our students to take away – critical thinking skills; stronger research skills; better writing skills – that we feel like we just don’t have enough time to land fulsomely with them.

Then I said: hey, you know what? Maybe we only have time for ONE of those things, per class, per year.

We both went: “huh!”

So here’s my idea: set one outcome, a kind of ur-outcome, that rests above the other, more mundane ones that we have to include in our course outlines. Or maybe we don’t even put those other outcomes on the course outline (your mileage may vary, depending on your university’s policies, I know). Maybe we just write (for example):

In this course, students who commit to our shared labour will…

develop valuable teamwork skills, learning how to collaborate with others self-reflexively, and effectively.

And then we organise our assignments and in-class activities with that outcome in mind, trusting that the other stuff we’re expected to teach will come along with it – or will happen in another course in our program, because we’re labouring together, after all.

3. Write more, and more creatively, during class time

Kate and I both use versions of what I know as the “two-minute paper”, a chance in class to think while writing, and thus think/write before speaking.

My strategy: I pose a question about stuff related to whatever we’ve read/watched. I make the students write for two minutes before anyone can answer said question. I swear by this as a chance for students to gather their thoughts – whether or not they *actually* write stuff down – before I ask for replies, thus (among other things) circumventing the usual problem of the usual suspects raising their hands right out of the gate.

But the problem is this: some students don’t want to write in reply to the prompt/question. And often the students who DO want to write are the usual suspects. So it works… kind of.

Kate made me think about a couple of writing-related things during our lunch: first, that sometimes the best class writing might not be two minutes long. Sometimes it might be longer. Sometimes it might be five, ten minutes – in relation to an assignment, say, or maybe just reflecting on the state of affairs, the state of the day, how we’re all feeling. More time might be good time.

She also reminded me that, sometimes, the best writing is creative writing.

Academics often forget that we were once students. Students who found stuff academics find fairly familiar kinda… well… hard. Baffling. Frustrating. And when we were students, did we not want to express ourselves? Find ourselves? Discover our creativity, what we have to offer the world? Sure, it’s all very Dead Poets Society, but it’s also true: we are teaching young people who are struggling with big ideas and tired and looking for outlets to express themselves creatively whenever possible.

And that’s no bad thing.

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So maybe next year, my prompts will become less scholarly, and a bit more creative. That’s not to say they’ll stop being rigorous; they might just change their skin a bit, invite a bit more playfulness.

I’ll keep you posted.

4. Be a hard(er) ass

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During the class of Kate’s I attended, several students came in late. Kate glanced toward the door (everybody glanced toward the door) as this happened, but mostly she let it slide.

I do exactly the same thing, every time.

So I asked Kate over lunch: what should we do about students who come in late?

We talked about the labour of calling them out. About how tiring it is, for us, to get angry or lay down the law (whatever that might be). We noted the emotional labour of teaching-as-is; it’s already a hell of a lot, and dealing with thoughtless latecomers is an extra pain in the ass.

(Full disclosure here: I’m pretty sure I was a thoughtless latecomer at least once in my undergraduate career, if not, oh, 17 times.)

So then we said: hey, what if we didn’t – just DID NOT – deal with it? What if, instead of calling it out or ignoring it, we just stopped?

What if we said, on the course outline, and at the outset (fair warning):

Hey! Sometimes you might be late. When that happens, we’ll just STOP. Stop the class. Stop talking.

Not to embarrass you (you might be embarrassed, but, hey, that’s not the goal, though it has fringe benefits…), but because talking through your disruption is tiring and unproductive.

So we’ll pause. When you’re settled, we’ll start again.

Hey, being late happens. It’s happened to all of us.

Maybe just don’t let it happen again, if you can help it.

5. Build in time for spontaneity

I’ve been teaching full time for 12 years now. Every year, every week, I over-prep. I prep because the prep is for me – to make sure I don’t run out of stuff to say. Because that would be a catastrophe, right?

Kate reminded me of something I’d forgotten entirely: sometimes, often, the best learning happens spontaneously.

How do we build in time for that? Maybe by sticking it in the prep.

I’m serious! I’ve started including “if this, then maybe this… or if that, maybe not” moments in my prep, to remind myself that I’m always, already, being responsive to my students’ input, and sometimes that means throwing the whole thing out. But mostly it means being willing to be at sea for a while, to see where the conversation goes.

Usually, if the conversation goes sideways, I scold myself for not getting through the entire plan in my prep.

But what if the conversation going sideways IS the best possible version of the prep? Maybe I need to make more time, and space, for that.

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Happy end of term!

Kim