Performance arts instructors develop new ways to engage students in anticipation of remote fall quarter

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With the rapid shift to remote learning in spring quarter, all instructors were forced to adapt to teaching online, with some performance arts and theater-adjacent faculty teaching particularly hands-on courses needing to dramatically reshape or cancel their courses.

Now with spring and summer quarter instruction behind them, some performance arts instructors say that, based on student feedback and academic research, they have adapted in many ways to online teaching, ranging from distributing kits to students’ homes to making greater use of Zoom’s features.

Stanford has further facilitated instructor adaptation: The Center for Teaching and Learning suggested guidelines in May for fostering an inclusive environment, and sites like Teach Anywhere continue to feature best practices for online teaching and frequently asked questions.

Since spring, Theater and Performance studies instructors like Dan Klein ’91 and Lisa Rowland ’05 — who teach TAPS 103: “Beginning Improvising” and TAPS 104: “Intermediate Improvisation” — have been working with students to develop new techniques and strategies to replicate in-person learning as closely as possible.

At the pandemic’s start, Klein said he had no idea how to transform his highly interactive classes to a virtual format.

“We have to be in the same room,” Klein said. “It’s a live medium. There are a lot of subtle cues that we’re dealing with.”

But after a quarter of experimentation with remote learning in spring, and given the summer to solidify his plans, Klein said he has discovered not just how to adapt to Zoom, but how to maintain a level of engagement similar to in-person classes. “I can teach an exercise, and then I can have people break out into groups, and [we can] all do it at the same time — and the efficiency of the class ends up being maintained,” Klein said.

For instance, improvisation classes such as TAPS 103 and TAPS 104 require participants to be toggling constantly between group games, small-group activities and fishbowl demonstrations where two or three people present while the class watches.

“Zoom lets you do all of those,” Klein said. “You just have to play with it a little bit.”

To further ensure that students remain engaged, Klein hopes to keep his class sizes at 24 students or fewer. That way, he can see all the students’ expressions, reactions and physical gestures on one screen.

He also plans to try reading aloud anonymous chat messages, setting the scene with virtual backgrounds, taking five-minute breaks, using objects from students’ rooms as inspiration and even playing a version of tag: When someone is “it,” their objective is to say someone else’s name and count to 10 before the called-on person can exit the room. Klein hopes this will raise students’ energy levels and get their imagination flowing at the beginning of class.

Even with these new approaches, faculty in the fall face teaching students with varying living situations. Even if some household items are universal, students will be learning in different environments, some of which are more conducive to learning than others, according to Klein. “Somebody might be in a space where they have headphones, but there are other people in the room with them, or they just don’t have a space or good enough WiFi connection.”

These realities may necessitate frequent survey feedback and a mixture of synchronous, asynchronous and course activities across departments.

Other instructors teaching highly interactive classes also have had to creatively adapt. For DANCE 46: “Social Dance I” instructor Richard Powers, one of the largest challenges with teaching a virtual dance class is showing students how to dance with a partner. To solve this, he or his wife Tracey Powers will dance in front of the camera so that students can follow along with the mirror image, depending on whether the student follows or leads.

Powers said the core components of his teaching approach will not change, including the five- to 10-minute halftime breaks he takes in the middle of class, during which he discusses concepts, theories and histories of dance, such as how to handle mistakes, vertical versus lateral thinking and how to perform well in a team.

He said that students often tell him that they get more out of this philosophical approach than they would a normal dance class. When in-person dancing resumes, Powers said, “they will have enough of that in their body, plus a majority of future partners who are experienced.”

Jerome Nowak, a second-year mechanical engineering Ph.D. student, took Powers’s class in the spring. He said Zoom classes made him miss the connections he would have made talking with people after class. Social Dance, he said, was the closest he got to feeling a sense of community again.

“I’d learned about people’s identity in how they move,” he said, citing how most students were unmuted and had their videos on. “At the end of [class], I felt as if I had a nugget of every person, how they exist in space — and that was a really cool thing to notice that I wouldn’t have gotten without the online learning.”

Nick Enge ’11 M.S. ’12 and Melissa Enge ’13, also former students of Powers, teach Social Dance at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, and described a similar process for improving remote learning.

“We had two weeks to figure out how to finish out two months of teaching social dance without allowing people to touch each other, which is essential to what we’re doing,” Nick Enge said.

Because UT Austin is on a semester system, the Enges spent the two weeks of spring break figuring out how to finish out their class. In that time, they learned to incorporate a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. During live classes, they demonstrated dance steps in front of the camera like Powers, and outside of class, students watched pre-recorded videos and practiced on their own time.

After teaching another remote class this summer, they are ready to apply everything they learned from their students and adapt to the situation this fall.

“One of the biggest things with Social Dance is that when you have two people, there’s obviously connection and tension,” Melissa Enge said. “And since we were teaching to people that were by themselves, we had to figure out ways to mimic that.”

For waltzing, students are instructed to hold a book in one hand and rotate it fast enough to keep it from falling to the ground. Another strategy is to use a doorknob to make sure that the students’ hands are at the right level and to provide resistance for the bicep.

“Nick and Melissa had a chance to try [haptic responses] out this summer,” Powers wrote in an email to The Daily, “but I won’t have a chance to try them myself until Autumn quarter begins. I’m looking forward to that.”

Contact Matthew Turk at mjturk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Matthew Turk is a writer for The Stanford Daily.