April 29, 2016

Reflections with a twist

One of the things that yoga has taught me about the academic classroom is not to take for granted that my instructions are clear. Just because I know what I mean – or even if half the class does – doesn’t mean I’ve reached everyone.

In my yoga classes, I do a variation on sun salutations that includes a twisting low lunge. It always astonishes me how many people instinctively twist away from their front knee, into an awkward and unstable twist. 1 It took me months before I realized that I needed to change my cues to reach those people. About half the class got the ‘let’s raise our arms and twist right,’ but in every class, I’d look up to see more than a few in the shaky went-the-wrong-way version, looking at me with distrust in their eyes. They clearly felt something was wrong, but having misinterpreted my cue, they weren’t at all sure how to correct.

Then I started saying ‘let’s twist toward that front knee,’ and they all got it. My revised cue also works for the few who inevitably lead with the left leg when I cue the right, since my cue is no longer based on direction, but on relative position. I think it also helps that the cue references a specific point on the body, so there is no confusion of right/left, with no fixed point.

So, I realized, I need to be willing to reflect on my cues, and be open to changing them, even I think they’re pretty straightforward. We don’t all visualize our bodies the same way, so while I might be generally comfortable with direction-based cues, 2 I have a responsibility to find other ways to lead people through the poses.

I’ve also realized that I need to be open to variations, and not just when I’m offering them. 3 At the end of every class, our final pose is Savasana (the Final Relaxation, or Corpse Pose – and hence one of the few that I only name in Sanskrit). Getting into Savasana is pretty straightforward, and I give a series of cues for coming out of the relaxation after two or three minutes: I ring a tingsha bell, then I say “to come back, let’s start with small movements of the wrists and ankles, then a nice big stretch, and a moment on our sides, in a fetal position, eyes closed… and when we’re ready, let’s use our arms to push up to seated.” It drove me bananas that so many people shifted and fidgeted during the Savasana, and even more bananas when they completely ignored my sequence to come back to Easy Seated Pose for our Namaste. One of my regulars hugs her knees to her chest and rocks herself manically to come straight upright!

But it struck me that my stressing about Savasana was counterproductive. So, rather than insisting on the sequence, I’ve started saying “find any position, laying on the mat, where you can be comfortable and just relax for a few minutes,” instead of insisting on the ‘real’ Corpse Pose. When I ring the tingsha, now I say “let’s take whatever movements we need to come back” and then offer some of the sequence as options. Some people do the whole sequence, some choose one or two of the steps, and my rocking horse still rocks herself back up. I let go of my rigid definition of Savasana, and now we’re all more relaxed.

If I consider both examples – the low twist and the Savasana – it’s clear to me that for the twist, I needed to find a new way to explain, in order to ensure that the pose is safe and stable. For the Savasana, on the other hand, I needed to let go of my vision, and allow people to find their own best expression.

How does this realization – that it’s not them, it’s me – manifest itself in the academic classroom?

Also a nice metaphor for being open to different paths.

Also a nice metaphor for being open to different paths.

Last week, I had my Master’s students work on an exercise in assessment. I gave each group a different colourful image, and instructed them to determine the learning objective, the appropriate and acceptable evidence that the objective has been met, and, using backward design, to decide on the instructional strategies that would get the student to the objective. I thought my instructions were clear enough, yet broad enough to allow for some creativity. The idea was to take the concepts – learning objectives, evidence, criteria for assessment, and backward design – out of the classroom, to make them clearer.

I was initially dismayed, then, when the first two groups that I checked in with showed me their progress and both were using their image as if they were teaching a primary class with the image, rather than teaching someone toward the image. In other words, the lovely photo of the garden, I thought, would inspire a lesson on how to plan and plant a garden; the group with that photo, however, used it to teach children how to identify colours.

My first reaction was to “correct” the groups, and get them to consider the garden as the objective, rather than the tool. But then I stopped myself, and wondered why I needed them to use the photo the way I thought it should be used. Would they not get the concepts if they changed the function of the photo? Would my exercise somehow not work? Would they be unable to present an objective, an assessment, and a learning plan? The answer to all of these questions was ‘no,’ of course. So rather than correct the groups, I discussed their ideas with them, and let them get on with their work.

In the end, about half the groups worked with their photos as tools, rather than as objectives. Each group presented to the class, and gave feedback to each other, and there were no problems at all – most groups began with “we chose to think of the photo as…” and we all accepted each group’s approach.

In future iterations of the course, I plan to use this exercise again, but I’ll model my idea of how to use the photo. I still think it’s valuable to think about assessment outside of the classroom context (as my yoga crossovers demonstrate!), so I’ll adjust my instructions to guide students in that direction – but I won’t get bogged down in “why don’t they get it?” frustration. I need to learn to recognize the “why don’t they get it?” reaction as a cue for me, to reflect on what I’m saying, and how, and whether, ultimately, different interpretations are problematic.

Is this a twist, or a Savasana?

  1. yes, it’s certainly doable, but for the level I teach, it’s not a comfortable pose
  2. and honestly, I’m just as likely to go left when someone says right, especially if I’m teaching and being the mirror. I have to cue Eagle very, very slowly.
  3. Because I teach “all-level” classes, I tend to offer several options for poses as we go along. So, for instance, I might cue Downward Dog, but give the option of Child’s Pose as an alternative.
February 19, 2016

The Notebooks, three weeks in

For the past three weeks, I’ve been continuing the journal experiment, and yesterday, I took some time to get feedback from the class on their experience. I gave them ten questions to discuss inFeedbackWDCLD small groups, then asked the groups to share their responses. I figured that small groups would mean more responses, rather than relying on the more extroverted students, and would open the door to more critical feedback, as no one student had to claim responsibility for a perceived negative comment. I made no notes in class, as I’m trying to avoid using their words directly in my account of the project, but these are my reflections on the general discussion:

  1. How do you feel about the journaling so far? How did you feel about it at the beginning?

Not a lot of response; people seemed positive, and no one reported that their group complained or discussed doing away with the activity. Lest the lack of response be taken as indicating a lack of participation, let me say that it seemed to me that most groups did genuinely engage in the discussion. I only had ten minutes to give them for the discussion, so it’s certainly possible that they didn’t have enough time to articulate more affective responses, and focussed on more concrete questions.

  1. What have been your favourite writing prompts so far? Are they better if they’re directly related to our course, or more general?

One group said that the general prompts are good because they can write about anything and even vent a little. They seem to be using the journals as an outlet. On the other hand, another group said they really liked the prompt to think about a passage in the book or to relate themselves to a specific character. My take-away from this is that providing a few prompts is a good idea, since they then can choose specific or general, so I’ll continue to provide three or four writing ideas each session. I will, however, be more conscious of choosing prompts that provide both opportunities. Continue reading

February 15, 2016

Sometimes, they just blow you away

So, at the end of a class last week, pretty much spontaneously, I told students that their only assignment for the weekend (aside from reading) was to find an image that represents one character from The Tin Flute. The result – overwhelming, timely response, no two images the same – has me floored. I’ve posted the images to a Facebook album, and I’ll use them in class as we continue our discussion. I’m hoping that the exercise helped them think about character, and it’s pretty evident from their images that they enjoyed the idea and took some real consideration.

In short, sometimes, they just blow you away.

December 22, 2015

In closing…

Earlier, I posted about using a new lesson for teaching students about thesis statements. The plan was heavy on interactive feedback, which in turn was something I used more frequently this semester. As we got into planning and drafting the final essay, I came back to the thesis lesson a few times, and made sure to include feedback on their thesis statements when I reviewed their outlines for the essay. I was happy to see that overall, the theses were stronger and clearer, and the final outcome was a batch of pretty well written essays.

At the beginning of each course, as part of my overview and introduction, I ask students to think about what they expect from the course, and what they hope to achieve. I give some space in my course pack for them to record these thoughts, and at the end of the semester, their final assignment is a personal reflection on whether their expectations and goals were met. I also ask them, among other things, to discuss which aspect(s) of the course they found most useful.

Last night, I read the reflections of this semester’s class, and I was thrilled to see that several students discussed the thesis lessons in particular as helpful, not just for our class, but for their writing in other courses. Many discussed the emphasis on writing stages as very useful and, in some cases, a sort of epiphany about writing; but I’ve been using that approach for a while, and I’m used to getting that feedback in their reflections. The thesis lessons were new, however, so I was gratified to get validation of the new tactic.

Of course, the end of my teaching semester is also, more or less, the end of my student semester – I’ve officially finished my first semester of my doctorate. It was a great three months, and I’m excited, still, about moving forward with my research and my writing. So, not a finish, but a pause.

But first, a few days of baking and present wrapping. Happy holidays!