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Help, I am teaching Theatre online!

“What has teaching Theatre online been like? Do you have any tips?”

With the Coronavirus spreading worldwide schools are closing down temporarily. Many of my friends and old colleagues have been asking me similar questions over the last few days as I am currently based in China. So, I thought I would write a short article sharing my experience. When our school announced that we would be teaching online I thought it near to impossible - but it is not. It does come with its set of frustrations but in retrospect it has been a very rewarding journey and it is doable if, like I tell my students, you “just get on with it!” So, here are ten things I found pivotal in getting started:

1. Follow admin’s lead

As is usually the case in a time of crisis turn to your school administration for guidance. From them you should find out which online platform you will be using, whether or not you will be sticking to the school timetable, what expectations they will have of teachers, and if the workload for students will stay the same (it will most likely increase for you). If they do not provide clear answers, decide how you will run your classes and submit it to them for review. It is important that you have admin’s buy-in because as the online teaching period lengthens, parents may grow concerned over prolonged screen-time and the amount of set homework, and if you have admin on your side, these conversations can become a lot easier. If you teach theatre as an elective, there might be external pressure to cut back on your classes but if you have been following admin’s guidance, they are more likely to be open to standing up for you.

2. Set up an online platform

Find out which online platform you will be using to conduct your classes and get accustomed with it as fast as possible. In my school we are using Microsoft Teams, but other professionals have been using Google Classroom or a combination of email, Skype, and/or Zoom. Whatever platform you are using make sure that it allows you to: create groups based on the classes you teach; have a general platform where you can post announcements, assignments and reminders; easily conduct live video lessons; upload and review students’ assignments/tasks; upload course material; and message instantly.

3. Keep a timetable

Try to have students follow their normal school timetable. This way their normal school routine is not disrupted too much and they get to change between subjects like they would at school. It also helps teachers respect different subject boundaries and allows them to teach lessons “live” like they would if they were teaching in school.

4. Have student contact hours

If you do not have student contact hours at school - set them. If you have student contact hours - keep them. Having a time of day where students know that if they write to you, you will respond immediately is important in keeping them motivated as it shows you are reachable and care about their well-being and quality of work. If these hours overlap with other subjects’ live lessons – do not worry. You are teaching a generation whose personal devices are an extension of the self, so trust them to be able to multitask online.

5. Set up an online routine

Just like you do when teaching, set up a routine. Make sure students know when you will make subject announcements, release the week’s task and the previous week’s feedback, and expect work handed in. It will not be long before they and you find your rhythm. An online routine also gives students a sense of consistency in a time that is marked with uncertainty.

6. Stick to your semester plan

Being expected to teach online does not mean you need to redo your semester plan. It simply means you need to rethink your kinaesthetic tasks i.e. group acting might be reduced to a series of monologues or character acting pieces or puppetry. If you have a tech-savvy group of students, you might not even need to change your group acting task because they could create a video that includes all of them.

7. Write concise and precise instructions

When I started out teaching, I used to write down my teaching instructions as my teacher talking time was too high. By writing it down, it not only helped me to reduce the amount of time I spent talking but it also helped me to simplify my instructions as I mainly taught EAL-students.

Your students will not be in your classroom where they can draw from your body language or their peers. They might also struggle starting a task if they only receive instructions during a live lesson or via video. Thus, be sure to accompany any set task with written instructions. Keep these instructions simple and short. You can achieve this by ridding instructions of adjectives and by separating steps of action e.g. “Click on the red PDF-file titled “Task 101”and read pp.6-10” can change to “1. Click on the PDF-file titled ‘Task101’. 2. Read pp.6-10.” Important to note that when they reach the end of your set of instructions, they should ideally have the task completed and uploaded. Try as far as possible to not exceed more than ten steps.

8. Still set interactive tasks

All your planned groupwork and/or interactive tasks do not need to be replaced with individual work. Students can interact with their family and friends in their home environment to complete the work. They can also be grouped online. They will just need to text, email, and call to get it all done. This gives them a wonderful opportunity to experience what it is like in many modern-day offices where individuals do not have the time to go and speak personally to whomever they wish to see. What is more is, if your task calls on them to act out a piece or build a set they can still do so. Instead of you assessing it in person, they can record their performance/process and/or take a picture and upload it onto the platform for you to assess. The hidden bonus here is that you will also already have evidence for year-end portfolio assessments.

A tip here: You might want to consider setting tasks that require them to move away from their electronic devices. You could perhaps request them to print out their script, write down their answer by hand, draw pictures, talk to a family member, dress up as a character, etc. Students will already be spending too much time online and by setting work that requires them to move away from their devices you can help their mental health and will make yourself popular with parents and school admin.

9. Create videos for nearly everything

In class, we try to cater to all sorts of learners – the visual, the auditory, the kinaesthetic. Teaching online might have you thinking that you cannot model to your students however, when you are teaching online, videos take on the role of teacher modelling. It might thus be worth considering providing students with a short welcome/feedback video each week, an example video of what their final task submission should look like, or a video where you explain the concept in under a minute. Seeing you as a teacher in a video each week will not only personalise the work, but it will also give students the courage to commit to the set task because their teacher did it already. You might find, as I did, that by making these videos you are looking at the work with a fresh pair of eyes. Lengthy videos are difficult to download for students thus you are pressured to explain and model concepts in a short span of time. This added pressure of limited time sparked in me a new creativity which had me summarising plotlines, glossaries, and technical concepts in under a minute. It was great fun, but this truncated breakdown also helped students grasp material that they had been struggling with before.

10. Cheat personalised feedback

I am currently responsible for around 450 students between grades 6 and 11. It is impossible for me to provide each and every student with personalised individual feedback if I want to maintain a normal work week. Not providing students with feedback will impact their motivation levels negatively, so I “cheat” the feedback by drawing on the following techniques:

  • Instead of setting weekly tasks, I scaffold tasks over 2-3-week periods. I then layer the year groups in a cycle that allows me to only assess one to two year groups a week.

  • I draw up a blanket rubric which I link electronically to their assignment. It ranges from “poor” to “excellent”. Under each heading are detailed criteria that explain to them what their work contained or did not contain. After submission, I just click on the heading that corresponds with their work followed by the following: “Johnnie, click on “Monologue” rubric to access your feedback." It is up to them to then read how they met the criteria.

  • I have a generic template with pre-written feedback into which I just insert the student’s name. It becomes a copy and paste job.

  • Finally, I do what all time-constrained, responsible teachers do, I have them peer- and self-assess.

The thought of teaching online can be quite overwhelming for both you and the students, but it is worth keeping in mind that it also comes with a bunch of advantages. For a start, technology is not as foreign to us compared to a decade or two ago. Students who are reluctant to participate in class tend to perform better because a lot of the stimuli that cause their social anxiety is removed by this medium of teaching. If you structure your course just right, you might find that parents are taking part too and what better advocate is there for theatre education than self-experience? Oh, and next time you find yourself in a job interview, you will have the perfect answer ready for when the interviewer asks, “So tell us about a time you integrated technology really well in your classroom?”

So, there you have it! Now get on with it🎭

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