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Low-Stakes Activity — Jenn Polish

Things that other people generally find low-stakes? I often find my pulse thrumming extra hard and my clothes starting to get soaked with sweat and my brain hitting a loop of “I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna.” I know — because they’ve told me — that many of my students experience this, too.

So often, we think of “low-stakes” activities as things we do in the classroom that aren’t graded; writing we submit that will only be checked off as having been completed or not; etc. But for me, and for many students with anxiety (for example), these activities don’t feel low stakes at all. This is also time-dependent, of course: what’s low-stakes one day can feel extremely high-stakes the next, and vice versa.

Margaret Price writes about “kairotic space” as:

“the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged. A classroom discussion is a kairotic space, as is an individual conference with one’s advisor. Conferences are rife with kairotic spaces, including the Q&A sessions after panels, impromptu elevator encounters with colleagues, and gatherings at restaurants and bars on the periphery of formal conference events. Other examples from students’ experiences might include peer-response workshops, study groups, or departmental parties or gatherings to which they are invited.”

Drawing on her logic, here — that the definition of low-stakes is directly linked to the production and reproduction of power — I’d like to draw attention to a classroom activity that seems to me to operate very explicitly along that line of low- and high-stakes learning. I do this to complicate what we mean — and whom we’re including and excluding — when we uncritically/neurotypically assume that what’s low-stakes for us is low-stakes for everyone.

This classroom activity is an ongoing invitation into acknowledging the classroom as being, as Price says, “rife with” kairotic spaces. When this truth goes unacknowledged, we continue to privilege those identities and modes of learning which are so dominant as to be deemed invisible (eg. whiteness, able-bodymindedness, etc.) In order to acknowledge this and explicitly negotiate consent in a space inherently full of unequal power dynamics, in my Theatre 101 class, we (myself included) use “Personal Traffic Lights” to try to establish a consent-based system of participation.

The explanation that appears on my syllabus is as follows:

Each class, you will be expected to bring with you the cards I give you in the beginning of term: these cards will be our Personal Traffic Lights, colored green, yellow, and red. Though we will discuss these extensively in class, I want to explain our Personal Traffic Lights here as well:

Green: When you are feeling up for anything, ready to take intellectual and emotional risks with the rest of the class — or, just when you’re feeling ready to participate generally and speak out in class — please make the green Personal Traffic Light visible to myself and to your classmates.

Yellow: When you are feeling cautiously ready to participate — perhaps you’re nervous (a little or a lot), or having an off-day/you’re tired, but you’re ready to take some risks and dive into theatre class activities — please make the yellow Personal Traffic Light visible to myself and to your classmates.

Red: When you are feeling unable to participate in a traditional way — when you’re having a bad day, when it’s enough of a challenge and risk to be present in class so you would rather learn by observing, listening, and taking notes instead of directly engaging in the day’s activities — please make the red Personal Traffic Light visible to myself and to your classmates.

You can always change your Light in the middle of the class, because of course, our feelings fluctuate all the time.

You will never be penalized for how you’re feeling, of course, but you might find that I’ll check in with you privately if I’m noticing a lot of reds and yellows from you; this is to see if there’s anything I can do to make the class a safer and more comfortable and accessible space for you to learn.”

When we start doing projects and activities together, we will make sure we have roles for when you’re feeling yellow and red. We will work as a team to find various ways for everyone to contribute to the class experience; perhaps the greatest thing about theatre is that there is always a role for everyone, from the most outgoing spotlight-seeker to the most introverted behind-the-scenes writer.”

This piece of the syllabus — when my students did group investigations of the syllabus on the first day and first reported this finding to each other — evoked immense emotions in my students (and myself). One student asked, near tears, “why has no one ever done this with us before?” It should be noted that this student, a few weeks later, was showing his “red” card, but he still went up to perform a short piece for the class. The other students congratulated him on his (very high-stakes, but in a “low-stakes” context, since they don’t get graded either on mini-class performances nor on their Personal Traffic Lights) bravery, performing in front of everyone while he was feeling red. Upon hearing this, another student — also feeling red — immediately volunteered to perform for the class.

It was a very moving moment, and one that will continue to shape my pedagogy going forward.

Another note from my syllabus: the following discussion of risk in my classroom seems relevant to their Personal Traffic Lights, and in the way I first proposed this system to the class.

This is a theatre class, and as such, we will be doing a lot of theatre-oriented activities in the classroom. Sometimes, this might involve moving our bodies in socially unexpected ways or using our voices in unusual ways. Always, we will be taking risks together: it can be a very vulnerable experience to speak or be silly (or be serious!) in front of people, as those of us who are shy and/or experience social anxiety know!

I want to do my best to make sure that the level of risk involved in our class challenges us — myself included — to push ourselves beyond what we’re used to (perhaps that means talking in front of the whole class, or perhaps that means performing an emotionally vulnerable monologue), but at the same time does not overwhelm us. That is the reasoning behind the Personal Traffic Light system described above: please let me know if this system is working for you, and how we can adjust it if it isn’t.”

For my peers: Since we are already engaged in this activity in my class, are there tweaks you can anticipate — either in the instructions or implementation — being needed for next term? What objections to this should I anticipate (I’ve already heard… well, a lot)? What am I not thinking about?

 


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