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Reflections and future plans: Collaborative learning as an anti-ableist and inclusive teaching practice

I discussed my high-stake activity project on Social Self and the plan for its implementation here .

Within my D4A pilot research I focused on exploring how collaborative learning can increase accessibility to learning and students’ engagement, and integrating disability into curriculum and teaching.

I designed this project with several goals in mind, including that the project would (a) be relevant to students’ lived experiences; (b) position them as authors of scientific knowledge; (c) through engagement of students in collaborative activities; (d) thus promoting accessibility and engagement of learning.

In overall, the assignment worked well, including the in-class presentation of students’ work-in progress projects. Initially, it took some modeling from my part and warming up for students to engage in constructive discussion and providing feedback to their peers, including suggestions for further improvement and elaboration of their projects, but gradually students took the full ownership of the discussion as it became truly a student-led conversation. I believe it was also due to the fact that the project was designed to address topics relevant to their lived experiences and positioned them as authors of knowledge produced in the process of the project. I was also pleased to see how students were able to use the concept of disability and the material we discussed in class and relate it to other topics and social categories they researched.

However, despite the fact that the discussions were very lively, quite sophisticated, and on several occasions had to be ended due to time limitations, there were still students who chose to remain quiet if not disengaged during the post presentation discussions.

I would like to continue using this assignment in the next semester in a very similar format. Although students had an opportunity during the class activity to practice analyzing data (both, individually and collectively) using concepts of dominant and counter discourses, I believe students would benefit from additional time and/or further experience of practicing analysis of their narratives.

I observed that the faculty commonly question what accessibility to learning looks like and frequently hesitate implementing accessible practices in teaching as they are concerned that the expectations would be lowered and overall quality of learning compromised.  Based on my experience with this project, providing students with additional instructional support in the form of project instructions and incorporating collaborative activities throughout the semester led to higher quality of work and more sophisticated analysis and conclusions.

In the next semester I am planning to focus on students’ contribution to developing learning community that promotes accessibility of learning. Although it might sound as very obvious, the role of students’ contribution to learning accessibility is probably one of the most important realizations from my D4A project. Drawing on the notion of learning as collaborative practice and experiences from the last two semesters, I understand that accessibility can not be simply delivered to students by the faculty, but also has to be collaboratively constructed within the learning community of the classroom by students and faculty. I believe that accessibility is not a thing that can be simply added to teaching as a new ingredient into a recipe.  Rather, it is a process that has to be developed through revising existing teaching/learning practices and developing new anti-ableist pedagogy that includes students as its co-constructors.

Well, It’s Been A Year™: On Listening and Student Leadership

From consent-based pedagogical practices to assigning fan fiction in my first-year composition class, this has been a year of delving deep into what anti-ableist pedagogy means to me, and how emotional health needs to shape this conversation.

More importantly, though, this was a year about listening.

Listening to the five brilliant student leaders we worked with on this project, and fighting for their voices to be prioritized rather than fetishized, decision-makers rather than props.

Because I had the privilege of meeting weekly throughout the year with our D4A student leaders, I think my experience with this project was fairly unique. Not quite a professor (I teach, of course, but I’m not a full-time faculty member and don’t, career-wise, want to be) but not quite a student (I’m defending my dissertation in November, but I haven’t been an undergrad for some time now), my position was an exhilarating one.

The students and I cried together, laughed together, ate guacamole together, and developed an array of inside jokes that kept us going amidst emotional breakdowns, horrific discrimination, and anxiety attacks. The bond we developed was, I think, the most generative part of this project; because it’s that bond, and consent-based project creation and activism rather than strict agendas and one-sided lectures, that made D4A something that will stretch beyond the realm of funding situations. It’s the ownership the students had over the direction of the project that ensures that it will last; because they want it to, and together, we’ve been developing the tools all year to continue this advocacy as a healthful lifestyle rather than an anxiety-inducing obligation.

Because the students were given completely free-reign to choose their own projects during the second part of the D4A year, they came up with totally different projects that all reflect their personalities, experiences, passions, and immense intellect. Individually (one project per student), our student leaders:

  • analyzed professors’ behaviors in relation to student feelings of safety in class participation (and, sure enough, the preliminary survey data we’ve accumulated suggests that professors’ attitudes are the biggest factor in student engagement);
  • interviewed employees in the Office for Students with Disabilities to determine holes in services and best practices for getting students what they need;
  • interviewed his fellow LaGuardia students to uncover the emotional impacts on motivation that required classes have on the student body;
  • developed a proposal for integrating high school students in special education programs into college life to ease their transition; and
  • recognizing his privilege as not, himself, identifying with having a dis/ability, our final student documented his fellow leaders’ efforts in a video project introducing D4A, a trailer for the project, of sorts.

(These projects will be featured on our website soon!)

From the magnificent range of methodologies and presentation styles and topics our five student leaders generated, it was a huge takeaway for me that giving students free reign to investigate what they think needs to be investigated and presenting it in a style that works best for their learning style is tremendously important.

We can’t in good faith call students student leaders if we structure our programs to actually allow students to lead. The humility required to genuinely take this approach is a massively important part of anti-ableist pedagogy, and it’s one of the biggest things I learned from this year.

However, the student leaders were also very quick to assert what they needed (which I was thrilled with them for!) when I was loopy with giving specific guidelines for their projects. Giving students clear, bulleted lists of tasks to be accomplished, and specific dates and criteria, is hugely important in alleviating student anxiety. So, finding a balance between empowering students with consent-based project choices and also alleviating anxiety by being clear and consistent with expectations was a priority this year.

I find these realizations to be a huge part of anti-ableist pedagogy, since our student leaders were constantly emphasizing how the methodologies we were using in meetings — always allowing ample time for settling in and emotionally checking in, while having a clear and consistent structure for the rest of the meeting — were important to the ways they need to exist in learning/working spaces.

From these thoughts emerge my biggest “coulda-woulda-shoulda” from this year’s D4A work: sure, there was everything from massive scheduling issues to meetings-to-plan-meetings that interfered with efficiency, but those things seem to be part of the structural culture of LaGuardia. Therefore, those struggles, for me, sort of blend into the background.

More specific to our mission and our project, though? The entire D4A faculty coulda-shoulda-woulda been much more involved with the students and their projects. The insights that our students offered, consistently and brilliantly, throughout every aspect of this project, cannot just be conveyed by one (part-time!) professor to other (wonderful, full-time) professors. It set up a dynamic of relaying information from those most marginalized in school structures (students of color, most of whom identify as having dis/abilities) through me (a white, trans, part-time faculty member with mental dis/abilities) to the other D4A faculty members. It worked fine in a pinch, but structuring in deeper levels of contact with students — and I emphasize structured in, because our faculty did often contact/work with our students, but more on their own time than what was structured into the program — for all project faculty is the main thing I would recommend for future iterations of this project.

These projects — indeed, all projects of this sort — need to be led by students. We did a good job at this: our students (with the dedicated and powerful help from Justin Brown and Priscilla Stadler) created our survey (data and report forthcoming!), and they created brilliant projects that will shape how we talk about D4A moving forward. However, weaving formative interactions into more of the everyday structure of the project for all faculty and staff involved would be even better.

It’s been A Year™ indeed.

And thanks to our brilliant student leaders, I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Reframing the Assignment

The Fall 2017 semester has been a very busy one for me. The Therapeutic Recreation program, a new Health Sciences program officially opened in the Fall 2017 semester. With that, there has been a shift in the course assignments that were originally created during the college curriculum review phase. The original assignment that was used in the Fall semester utilizing and implementing the UDL principles was for a course in the Health & Human Services program. The low stakes assignment designed introduced students to one local social welfare program of interest. This activity encouraged students to use critical thinking by allowing them to become actively involved in their learning by taking the concepts of social welfare policy and analysis and connecting it to the role of a social worker within a clinical setting. Utilizing UDL within the course and with assigning students this activity allowed students to illustrate connections with real life experience to the practical and theoretical knowledge on Social Work & Human Services and the role of a Social Worker/Human Service professional within a clinical setting. The activity received a lot of positive feedback from the students, in terms of engagement and integration of real life application of clinical skills from a clinician in the field of Social Work.

With that, I am looking to re-designing this particular assignment for one of the Therapeutic Recreation course, HTR 201- Therapeutic Recreation Clinical Fieldwork. I will develop a low stakes activity that will encouraged students to use critical thinking by allowing them to become actively involved in their learning by taking the concepts of therapeutic leadership learned in the HTR 102- Professional Issues in Therapeutic Recreation course and connecting it to their capstone course and clinical fieldwork internship (HTR 201- Therapeutic Recreation Clinical Fieldwork). The assignment will be built around the students’ interaction with patients/clients in any of the following fields of practice: children, HIV/AIDS, mental health, long term care/nursing homes, substance use. The activity will interrelate with my research on investigating, “How can UDL and its principles be implemented within a clinical environment?” “What are the best practices for clinical practice using UDL to measure competency for students with disabilities?”

As with the low stakes activity in Health & Human Services, the challenge with incorporating UDL and the three principles with the HTR 201- Therapeutic Recreation Clinical Fieldwork course is that the most of the skills required of students to demonstrate competency and mastery of concepts, coursework and hands on patient care are, in most cases, determined by federal, local and state regulatory, accrediting and licensing bodies not affiliated with the college. The idea of assisting students in establishing a “professional identity” will be incorporated in the clinical fieldwork course. The activity will assist students to who must complete an internship or fieldwork experience in a clinical setting by providing the student with some supports and/or accommodations that are individualized and flexible in order to incorporate UDL within the clinical setting.

Taking students out of the classroom so that they could develop an interest in establishing a professional identity to the extent that they are able to successfully demonstrate the ability to apply classroom theory and practice with personal life experiences by synthesizing and transferring learning beyond the classroom (Integrative Learning) will be the goal of the activity.

Reformulating Our Assignment…

I took the time to reflect on the last semester and the consideration of my UDL assignment into my SCH150 (Drugs, Society, & Behavior) course for Spring I 2018. I am working to fully implement a scaffolded assignment after implementing, a low-stakes version, in my class during the Fall I 2017 semester. Over the course of the Fall II 2017 semester, I worked to adjust the low-stakes portion of the assignment and to expand the more complete assignment for the course. The premise of this assignment is to expand upon the considerations of drug policy, based upon course information and review of current affairs related to drugs and drug policy within the United States.

In the Fall I 2017 I had my students complete a low-stakes reflection at the end of the course on their perspective related to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Specifically, if they felt that this policy was still correct in its application and classification of substances within the United States. Students were encouraged to either write out the blog post or to record and upload a vlog post. Currently in Spring I 2018, I have more fully-integrated a scaffolded assignment with both low-stakes and high-stakes portions using different modalities to access the various strengths of students within the classroom. First, after a brief discussion on the history of U.S. drug policy and the aforementioned act as well as watching a documentary “Breaking the Taboo” and writing a brief reaction response, students record and upload a brief (up to 5 minutes) recording on their current perspective on the aforementioned act (i.e. what does it say, is it a good policy). The students will receive feedback as well as discuss their perspectives in class on the topic further. Students will begin compiling their evidence to think about potential reclassification of drugs within the current structure as we dive into discussing the different substances over the course of the semester. Students also continually watch films and write brief reaction posts that will help further inform their final paper. At the end of the course, students will have compiled the final high-stakes paper and then will work in teams to have a low-stakes debate in-class (once I provide position statement for them to approach the debate).

I am still working on adjust the assignment. However, my DfA colleagues have continued to be a wonderful support to this process. It has been through their work and listening to their assignments that I have been able to re-evaluate how to approach work within the classroom. It is helped me figure out the key objectives and understanding that there are a multitude of ways to work toward accomplishing that objective for the course. Overall, this project and initiative will help ensure a  more inclusive and accepting environment at LaGuardia and beyond.

 

 

Fan Fiction as Anti-Ableist Praxis

Last term, I wrote about something I was doing with my theatre class. It was a consent-based model of participation and assessment, which I use in all my classes but make physically explicit in my theatre class. This term, I think the compositionist in me was feeling left out; so I’m going to focus on something new I’m doing in my English 102 class. At LAGCC, this class is Writing Through Literature.

I’ve long been an advocate of fan fiction as a form of potential community building. Additionally, I think fan fic can be a radical reclaiming of who gets to create the narratives we tell ourselves. Emotions — the grief of straight cis white able-body-minded men writing everyone else’s stories, as well as the sheer joy of recognizing ourselves on the backs of dragons — drive the fan fiction writing process. So, too, does a sense of social justice and the thirst to be included that marginalized creators feel deep in our bones. Historically, fan fic is a genre created by and for marginalized authors who don’t otherwise see ourselves in dominant narratives.

And if fan fiction is about joy, about community, about justice and representation and improving our writing skills while flexing our inclusivity muscles, why, then, should it not be practiced in our writing classrooms?

So, this term, I’m having my comp students write fan fiction of Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Poem for a Lady Whose Voice I Like.” I have never seen them all take to an assignment with such fervor, and it is, so far, amazing. Letting them analyze the poem and engage deeply with Giovanni’s text and subtext while being able to craft their own original stories has been an absolute revelation thus far.

Why am I including this as an anti-ableist, inclusive practice, though? Because emotional inclusivity and emotional access to classrooms is, I believe, just as necessary as any other form of access. Are all my students fan fic readers and writers? Nope. Have each and every one of them expressed excitement about the idea that they’re allowed to craft their own tales as a valid way to analyze literature? Have each and every one of them found that suddenly, their chosen forms of expression — and through this, their chosen forms of learning — are sanctioned and encouraged and rewarded in the classroom? Yep. Yep, they have.

And to me, that is every bit as anti-ableist as it can come, especially when we consider the sheer amount of young people who experience depression and anxiety who are engaged in fan fiction reading and writing outside of the classroom.

My assignment is on my course blog, and you can peruse it for yourself; and, perhaps, even draft a little fan fic of your own!

Collaborative learning as an anti-ableist and inclusive teaching practice

This semester I teach two sections of Social Psychology, which is a capstone for Psychology Program. Teaching this course allows me to continue working with both of my research questions. Specifically, I am exploring how collaborative learning can increase accessibility to learning and students’ engagement and experimenting with integrating disability into curriculum and teaching.

I designed this course as an interactive and collaborative space in which students can actively engage in exploration of social psychology from critical perspective. Specifically, the class examines and challenges traditional cognitive-experimental approaches in social psychology from a critical social psychology perspective, including disability that is frequently left out even within critical perspectives. Therefore, I expanded the traditional curriculum of social psychology and disability became integrated in various topics of social psychology (e.g. research methods, self and identity, etc.) as well as it became a topic covered along the other social categories, such as race, gender, and class. So far, students have been always very interested in any topic related to disability and particularly its intersection with other aspects of identity. The students are quite fascinated to explore the parallels between disability, ableism and disableism as well as other types of societal oppressions that constitute self and identity, but have been traditionally explained as a composite of innate and individual characteristics. Being able to assist students in this process of discovering social nature of our subjectivities is extremely exciting and rewarding.

The high stake assignment that I am implementing in this class is a staged paper on ‘Social Self’. In this project students have an opportunity to develop un understanding of self and identity as socially constructed through and by social discourses and other social practices. Students start with a personal experience of a struggle or oppression of their own or somebody close to them. Gradually, they learn to apply discussed theoretical concepts to analyze a described experience and understand the dynamic, fluid, and social nature of our selves and subjectivities. This project consists of several short papers and collaborative class activities that support and prepare students for developing their final papers. Before submitting the papers, students have an opportunity to present their work in the form of presentations. (Oral presentation is a requirement of the course). The whole class provide each student with feedback and further suggestions that the students have chance to incorporate in their final drafts.

(I experimented with this approach to presentations and final papers in the Fall II semester. Having an opportunity to present the work in progress rather than a final product seemed to significantly decrease students’ anxiety around presenting in front of the whole class. This format created a learning space in which students not only presented their work but also practiced their expertise and applied their knowledge to provide further support to their peers in accepting, collegial and collaborative manner.)

In terms of timing, students are submitting their first part of the project after the Spring break, and we will throughout the semester toward the presentations scheduled at the end of the semester. Students will submit their final papers during the week of finals.

I am looking forward to the feedback and support of DfA faculty group throughout this project.

Dusana

Reflective Post 3/30

I plan to implement my UDL activity in my ENG101 class. Currently, my timetable is as follows:

This semester: reformulate my low-stakes activity

Fall I: reintroduce my low-stakes activity in September/October; use this assignment as a scaffold for the high-stakes assignment that, will naturally, build on it. At present, I am working on the same research question; however, this spring and summer I will do more research to asses whether or not best practices in composition pedagogy have been updated and or revised, in order to continually address UDL inclusive teaching practices.

My colleagues on the DfA team are already providing invaluable support and creative inspiration. In truth, I couldn’t ask for a more generous and dedicated group of colleagues to work with. All we need to do is continue encouraging and motivating each other. The end result will be establishing more transformative pedagogical practices at LAGCC, which will continually raise our students’ levels of academic engagement.

Reflection on Low-Stakes Assignment-Health Sciences

This semester, students in my Social Welfare & Social Policy course were required to complete an assignment that was designed to introduce students to one local social welfare program of interest. This low stakes activity encouraged students to use critical thinking by allowing them to become actively involved in their learning by taking the concepts of social welfare policy and analysis and connecting it to the role of a social worker within a clinical setting. In order to complete this assignment, students must visit a community based organization (clinical setting) that provides social services in any of the following fields of practice: family and child welfare, addictions, health care, mental health, disabilities, services for older individuals, services for minority populations, and correctional services. This activity interrelates with my research on investigating, “How can UDL and its principles be implemented within a clinical environment?” “What are the best practices for clinical practice using UDL to measure competency for students with disabilities?”

Utilizing UDL within the course and with assigning students this activity allowed students to illustrate connections with real life experience to the practical and theoretical knowledge on Social Work & Human Services and the role of a Social Worker/Human Service professional within a clinical setting. The activity went very well. The students responded that they were highly engaged and pleased with being provided with an up close opportunity to see the actual work of a Social Worker and to engage in a conversation that outlined the clinical skills needed in the field.

The challenge with incorporating UDL and the three principles with a Health Science course is that the most of the skills required of students to demonstrate competency and mastery of concepts, coursework and hands on patient care are, in most cases, determined by federal, local and state regulatory, accrediting and licensing bodies not affiliated with the college. One idea that was sparked was the thought of assisting students in establishing a “professional identity”. This would involve more interactions with course assignments that take students out of the classroom so that they could develop an interest to the extent that they are able to successfully demonstrate the ability to apply classroom theory and practice with personal life experiences by synthesizing and transferring learning beyond the classroom (Integrative Learning).

What may work better would be to think about ways to best assist students to who must complete an internship or fieldwork experience in a clinical setting would be by providing the student with some supports and/or accommodations. I am not sure what those supports and/or accommodations would look like; however, the goal would be to make any supports and/or accommodations individualized and flexible in order to incorporate UDL within the clinical setting.

 

Okay, But Did It Work? — A Reflection on Consent-Based Participation Practice

Last term, as a pilot faculty member with the Designing for All project, I joined my colleagues in creating a low-stakes assignment for a course that I hoped would increase access to my classroom. I have publicly outlined the parameters of this “low-stakes” activity, but in brief, I was teaching HUT 101 at LaGuardia, which is Art of Theatre.

Many of my students were theatre majors: some were not. When we were designing our grading contracts together (something else that’s an essential part of my consent-based pedagogical practices), one of my students said, “so, we should all try to get comfortable being uncomfortable.” This insightful comment followed an extensive discussion we had about risk, vulnerability (which, incidentally, in the middle of the term, I got tattooed on my arm and they were delighted), and keeping ourselves healthy. This discussion focused on the fine line between pushing yourself to do something that scares you and then feeling good about it, versus knowing that the very act of pushing yourself to do a certain thing at a certain moment will give you a panic attack and/or make things worse. We’re all constantly trying to find that line in our theatre classrooms, and in our class, we were explicit about our commitments to supporting each other in pushing ourselves healthily, rather than destructively; and caring for each other when lines were accidentally crossed.

The cornerstone of this discussion — and of our class in general — was our consent-based system of participation. We each (myself included) had red, yellow, and green index card name tags that we changed with our mood. These Personal Traffic Lights signaled to ourselves and each other whether or not we were feeling able to participate physically and readily (green); whether we were feeling tired and/or unsure, but ready to try something new, if tentatively (yellow); or ready only to be physically present in class, not feeling up to engaging in a more direct way than simply being there (red).

The persistent criticism and caution that I heard from fellow faculty members was that students would elect to always be on red; and, since I made it clear that no one would ever be penalized for being on red, they would get a free pass to not participate (in traditional ways). This consent-based system, people argued with me, was setting my class up for disaster, for exploitation, for an utter lack of participation and gaming of the system.

As it turned out, nothing could be further from the truth.

Both on a classroom-wide level and on a one-on-one level, we negotiated what students could do to participate while they were feeling red. Perhaps they’d write their thoughts and give them to me quietly; perhaps they’d email me after class with their comments; perhaps they’d help their team, in the case of group work, by quietly researching, even if they physically wanted to sit far from the group. All of these things happened, and so much more.

My students who were on red participated in profound — and profoundly unexpected — ways.

One of my boys, when we were presenting our monologues, was on red. He usually was on red during class. Nonetheless, he got up and performed an absolutely beautiful monologue with passion and poise, even though he showed signs of panic right when he (voluntarily) stood up to begin. When the other students were offering feedback, one raised his hand and said, “Man, I notice that you’re on red right now, and you did a kickass job anyway. That’s badass and brave. Thanks for sharing with us.”

And the rest of the class applauded and snapped while this student beamed and bowed.

There was a chain reaction, then: more and more students who were feeling red that day performed, and they were all congratulated with particular fervor.

Even during peer reviews, students on red were extremely productive. One of my students was on red during peer reviews and quietly backed out of interacting with others. His partner gladly joined another peer review team, without comment or criticism; just a supportive clap on the shoulder. The student emailed his work to his partner; they both agreed to look at each other’s work later, in the comfort of their own spaces. In the meantime, the student worked on editing his own ten-minute play, sometimes coming up to me and softly asking me questions and for guidance; but for the most part, he stood alone in the corner, working on his own piece. Which, by the way, turned out to be amazing.

I had students who were never on green; who were perpetually on yellow. One of these students never spoke during class; ever. She talked to her group mates in small group work, and she talked to me (sometimes) one-on-one. But never, ever, ever, in front of the class. She even went so far as to ask a classmate to read out her monologue for her, because she wasn’t feeling able to read it aloud herself; it was a spectacular piece of writing. However, on the last day of class, this perpetually yellow student gave a bold, confident, organized, poised presentation as part of her collaborative group project: in front of everyone.

So, I found that the criticisms — the gaming of the system that people kept cautioning me against — had no play in my classroom. Students on red and yellow often participated in the most creative and incisive ways, and the bonds between the students were higher than I’d ever seen in another class. They developed group Snapchats just for them, and I know many of them are keeping in touch now, after term has ended.

We as a society too often associate consent — explicitly or not — with weakness. With a lack of masculinity. With wishy-washy-ness. All of this, of course, is wrapped in a misogynist culture that associates gentleness and consent with negativity, with being less-than. Throughout education, but also in the humanities — which is already mired in feminizing tones of not being ‘hard’ subjects — countering these attitudes (especially when we’ve unconsciously internalized them) is a tremendously important aspect of designing classrooms.

Consent-based pedagogy, then, can be a very important part of explicitly inviting, welcoming, and validating students whose bodyminds are disrespected and disregarded by more mainstream pedagogical practices.

Low-Stakes Activity — Jenn Polish (Consent-Based Pedagogy)

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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