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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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