Teaching in Zero Gravity – Keep Reaching

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 3.50.23 PMProfessional development for educators has become a buzzword that cannot be pinned down by any one specific meaning. K-12 instructors are being suffocated with process and methodology and higher ed instructors are essentially, developmentally adrift. An ever-increasing network of educators is making the sort of rich personal and professional development possible in new and more relevant ways than ever.

 

It’s hard to define professional development because the definition of professional is so varied. The needs of the individual are unique. One teacher’s inspiration may be another teacher’s subject of disdain. It’s a unique as appetite. It’s also heavily dependent upon the goal of the one seeking development. Learning comes in all sorts of strange and wonderful packages and often the place we learn best is not found in the comforting structure of a training room or faculty retreat.

 

That is how I came to my first ever earth-shaking professional development experience. I was taking a series of courses designed to help me become a better online teacher. The teaching style of each instructor varied wildly. My reactions to each type of teacher gave me a lot of information about the student experience. What would have prevented a negative experience? What behavior reinforced a positive one?

 

If you teach online and have never taken a class online, I recommend you do. Even if it’s a free online class. Like a MOOC for example. Like THIS MOOC for example. Chris Long is teaching this MOOC on Coursera which starts in a week or so on advanced instructional strategies in the virtual classroom.

They are using my book, Teaching in Zero Gravity, as one of the resources for the course. (You don’t have to buy the book to take the course, buy you will totally want to, am I right? Am I right?)

The type of professional development inspires you is less important than the fact that you keep learning and growing and improving. You owe that to your students and to yourself.

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51 Versions of Spamalot

9cRk8BgceAn actor pulled me aside after rehearsal this week and registered their displeasure at one of the choices I had made for our upcoming production of Spamalot. I’d like to say that was the first time it had happened. I’d like to say it was the first time it had happened that day.

 

 

I would classify myself as a veteran director, but I have never before now directed a play with such a cult following. Myself included. Most of the cast and crew were familiar with the production before we decided to do the show here. The rest have quickly gotten up to speed.

 

 

For those with a deep love of Monty Python, the scenes take on a certain sacredness. Perfect deliveries of impeccably written dialog. Working on Spamalot has been like catching up with an old friend. When I was 12, I snuck my Walkman and cassette of Final Ripoff to bed every night to listen to a group of artist who seemed like old friends. Even though I didn’t understand half of what they were saying. They were mine.

 

 

So as we began to dip our toes in the water, I shouldn’t have been surprised at how many people approached me with earnest questions regarding how the show would be put together. Their passion and excitement for the play matched my own and there is a special magic when you are able to align stars in this way.

 

 

But with passion, the heart is involved. One afternoon I was called aside to ask about a particular version of a song we were doing. The actor did not like my decision and eventually left the show because of it. Ironically, I had been approached by another actor who informed me that if I DID change the version, they would leave the show.

 

 

It brings a level of discord into an otherwise vibrant process.

 

 

In the end I had to make peace with the fact that I would never be able to produce a version of Spamalot for each of the 51 hearts of our cast and crew. If the process was going to work, I was going to have to pick a version and move forward.

 

 

All for one.

 

One for all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sucks to be U or any other letter after M

sad-trollolololIt’s always at the end of the semester that I start thinking a lot about the different ways that a student can get inadvertently screwed over while they’re at college. Don’t misunderstand. It’s not a testament that our colleges are out to get students, but more a dumbstruck awe at just how much a seemingly unimportant random happening can affect the entire course of a person’s education.

Ok, so I’m grading my students’ discussions. It’s a peculiar thing, anyway, but because they are at the beginning of our three week journey, it is time for a round of the following standard comment, online instructors, you know this one.

POST ONCE, REPLY TWICE. YOU ARE NOT DOING THIS. START DOING THIS.

However, that unfiltered comment, boiled down to one simple statement really doesn’t fly well with students. Comments need to be constructive, supportive, and, to be honest, a bit gentle. Students are much more likely to read a negative into what a teacher writes, it’s just safer for them that way.

So I start grading the discussion. It was going pretty well until I ran across the first student who has not responded to any of her peers.

Watch this.

“Angelina Aaaaaanderson*, you’ve added some great contributions to the group so far. I particularly liked your insight on X. I have noticed, however that you aren’t engaging your peers as much as you might. Remember, one of the elements of the class is communication. Your ideas and experiences are important and so are your peers. So take a minute and go back and contribute a little more to those earlier discussions and I look forward to your future contributions!”

And you walk away from that feeling so good right? Like, BAM, teacher of the year! Good grief! Could I possible be a more constructive and gentle and not to mention SUPPORTIVE, professor?

But it’s a trap, right? Your artificially elevated self-esteem propels you through a few more students and then you stumble upon another one. No problem here, though. I’m a professional.

“Gnorma, Ggnrrlenson*, you’re off to a great start on discussions. I’ve noticed that you aren’t always replying to your peers. Don’t forget, replying to at least two peers is not only a requirement but really helps to make the classroom community. You’re thoughts and ideas are important and we want to hear them! Let me know if you have any questions.”

Ok, it’s not as long but it’s still totally good, fully developed feedback. If I were a student receiving that feedback, I’d be very happy. If that feedback were a meal, I’d tip 15%, no question. What? Seriously I would.

What is happening is that YOU are comparing this feedback to the feedback I gave Angelina, up there. This is different feedback for a different student that touched on different issues. I swear. And besides, it’s not like they’re best friends and are going to compare notes . . . I hope.

A little further down the list we come to another student who doesn’t yet fully grasp the importance of interpersonal communication in the online class.

“Mitch McMcFarlane*. Hi Mitch, just wanted to send you a reminder that you need to be replying to at least two of your peers to receive full credit on the discussions.”

“Phran Pfeffenpfeffer* Don’t forget to reply to at least two of your peers!”

By the time I get to Xenon Xaimoungkhoun* I was thinking, “Eh, just give him a 5 out of 10 and he can look at the rubric to figure out why. It’s not like I didn’t write it everywhere possible in the course materials.”

At that point I go pour myself another cup of coffee and take a break. Got to stay fresh to be a good grader you know. And my feelings about Xenon’s feedback is a good sign that I need a break.

Pace myself. Grading is like a marathon.

I come back and start on the next assignment that needs grading. And the cycle begins again.

The sad fact is students whose last names are sitting solidly in the second half of the alphabet are probably getting a less interactive education than students in the first half of the alphabet, particularly students who take predominantly online classes.  Unless a faculty member is taking active measures to keep things mixed up specifically to prevent feedback fatigue, it’s much more probable than even I am comfortable admitting.

Short of gathering a bunch of data to determine if this is happening, make sure you’re mixing the order up. Don’t always start with A. Start in the middle sometimes. We all know how it feels to show up to the buffet just after everyone has taken all the bacon.

Don’t be that buffet. Make sure everyone gets some bacon.*

The End.

 

Footnotes.

*No, this is not an actual student name, of a student I have in class, right now. It could, in fact, be a student that someone else has had, or I have had in the past or might have at a future date. But, in that event, rest assured that I do not, have not, nor shall not, here nor ever after, be referring to that said, other Angelina Aaaaaaanderson in the aforementioned discussion feedback.

*Probably French

*Totally random name choice. Swear.

*I’m naming my band Pfeffenpfeffer.

*It’s legit, I checked.

*Do I seriously need to justify a bacon analogy, ever?

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Pull up a chair or “Flagrant misuse of quotation marks.”

Amber Dining

Twice in the last three days an experienced teacher has describe the process of writing a syllabus to me as “locking it down” to catch even the most “loophole seeking student.” I didn’t put those terms in quotes to suggest they are not actually valid. Those quotes are there because those phrases ARE direct. Yes, I heard teachers say this with my own ears. Twice. In the last three days.

For a long time, when I challenged these ideas, I was told that eventually “it” would happen to me and I would “understand.”  Okay, those quotation were sarcastic. But seriously, at some point in the last year or so it occurred to me that “it” had never happened.

When I mention that I’ve never had the big “it” problem, I’ve been met with a firm, “Don’t worry, you will!” or my personal favorite, “well you’ve been lucky.” Suggesting the reason I haven’t had students wriggling through my syllabus looking for loopholes like some sort of degree-seeking mole, sniffing away at the policies until “A HA! This class has no late policy. It perfectly suits my needs. I do not like responsibility so I seek out ways to be dishonest. Yes, THIS is the class for me!” –was some stroke of luck rather than the product of my teaching methodology.

I’ve only been teaching for about 15 years so I guess it could still happen. No one ever told me what the requisite number of years IS to determine that you know enough about teaching to be a good teacher or at least enough to be able to talk about it with some sort of authority. The truth is, that’s not really how the world works. There is no magic number. You’re not going to have “enough” by anyone else’s standards but your own.  And the time you spend waiting for permission, is time lost.

All I know is this. I talk to a lot of awesome people every day who frequently bite their tongues thinking they don’t have enough skills or experience to bring their ideas to the table.

That’s bullshit, y’all. It’s your table too.

Be awesome today,

Cheers.

 

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Student Bill of Rights – Are you providing these basic things in your course?

Bill Discussions at a meeting I recently attended briefly ventured into the idea of students’ rights. What do students have a RIGHT to expect as they enter into the classroom relationship? When a student enrolls in a class they are purchasing something. That fact cannot be refuted. And while I think we all agree that they are not purchasing a grade, they are most certainly purchasing the opportunity to earn one and all the rights and privileges that come with it.

 

I remember standing at my last graduation as a student. The head of our department said some very impressive things but the one phrase that stuck in my mine was

 

“ . . . Granting all the rights, privileges and honors appertaining thereto.”

 

My mind briefly pondered what those might be. As a Theatre History major I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have to flash my diploma. I understood these sorts of things for doctors, lawyers, architects, but for me, I figured it was all in the script.

 

And I love scripts. Especially ones that have words like “appertaining” and “thereto.”

 

Now that I am on the other side of the academic carpet, I understand many of the rights and privileges that come with the degrees I’ve earned are what I am being paid to bring to the table.

 

 

Between the student and the teacher is a void. A vast structureless nothing.

 

The teacher’s job is to bring the knowledge. To facilitate the learning. To work in the best interest of the student. To uphold the integrity of the institution.

 

However, currently the experience of being a student is fraught with uncertainty and inconsistency. Every teacher teaches differently. Students, more often than not, have no clear expectations for any teacher and because there is no sense of what is “okay” or “normal” to expect they languish, adrift.

 

If a student is not entitled to a grade, what DOES tuition guarantee? Walking into a classroom, what rights does the student have in the relationship between themselves and the teacher?

 

Well, I asked a whole bunch of students what they would ask for, if they had the chance and this is the Student Bill of Rights I’ve assembled based on their comments over the past three semesters.

 

Le Student Bill of Rights

 

1. Students have the right to a reasonable estimate of how long it will take a professor to respond emails/voicemails and instructions if they do not receive a response within the instructor’s provided timeframe.

 

2. Students have the right to a reasonable timetable for grading assignments, which may vary depending on the complexity of the assignment.

 

3. Students have the right to a clear and concise breakdown of how the course grading system works, providing students adequate understanding of how their grades are being calculated.

 

4. Students have the right to receive feedback on assignments in a timeframe which will give them adequate time to prepare for similar subsequent assignments.

 

5. Students have the right to privacy within the classroom. Personal information or class status is disclosed at the student’s discretion alone.

 

 

From my discussions with students, if these five basic things were incorporated into all of their courses, student stress level would plummet. Do all of your courses provide students with the information above? Will you consider adopting the student bill of rights? Particularly for online courses where students do not have the luxury of seeing your reassuring face three times a week. These are not unreasonable requests for students paying hundreds and often thousands of dollars to share our knowledge and experience.

 

Giving this sort of information to your students exhibits a level of respect for them as human beings. It distances you from being the “Great and Powerful OZ” and communicates to your student that you value them, you value their time, and you value that they are choosing your course, and your experience.

 

If you think this is groovy and all that, take a moment to share it with your friends and kinfolk. The semester is coming soon; classes are being built. It’s a great time to add a few bells and whistles to the old syllabus.

 

 

 

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What to do if you showed up at InstructureCon with no warm clothes. #instcon

Someone get me towel.

Someone get me towel.

So. You either didn’t hear any of the weather warnings or you decided to ignore them and now you’re at Instructure Con with not much more than a bag full of t-shirts one long sleeve shirt “just in case”. I feel your pain. I really do. And we didn’t even have rain last year Well, you’re in luck, there ARE a few options at your disposal.

1. The stores at the resort. Pro: These guys know how to keep a person warm. Con: It costs approximately One Million Dollars. That’s not entirely true. Last year we asked and the clerk showed us a clearance rack of under armor thermals and they were affordable (under $30). I loved them so much I packed them this time around too.

2. Find a group and take a trip into Park City. Use your phone maps to guide you. Park City is designed look, not like a regular town, but like an ideal small city. They hide their “regular” stores. Some area friends took me into town last night and we stopped at a Rite Aid. When I asked why there were no tall signs on poles, they told me that tall signs weren’t allowed because they looked tacky. Use your GPS, find a “regular” store. Buy some things. Note: Everything is still more expensive than you’re use to but at least you won’t be shocked by the coat that is on the sale rack, graciously marked down to $700.

3. The postal service. I know that we are in the mountains but the post office comes here. Really they do! It costs a lot more to send things overnight, but if the cost is less than the cost of some new clothes, it might be worth it.

If none of the above work for you and you’re not afraid of looking a little silly, you can try the following.

1. The suit of towels. Wear your regular clothes but wrap your exposed limbs in the plush towels provided by the hotel and secured with a binder clip. If you didn’t bring or know where to find binder clips, go home, you don’t belong here. J/K. I’ll let you borrow some.

2. Take the gondola ride half way up and then walk down. As you travel down the path collect large-wind breaker looking leaves and attach them to your clothing with twine. Tip: Find twine.   PROtip: Find twine BEFORE you go on the gondola ride. Old conference lanyards would work in a pinch. There’s a reason we revere mountain men, people. Superhero mountain men.

3. Wear all of your clothes, every day. While it might not seem like 6 pairs of shorts can’t possibly keep your calves warm, the workout alone from moving that much extra weight (hell, carry all your swag too!) will keep you warmer. Your body is already working hard from the altitude. As long as you never stop moving, you’ll be fine. And you have the fun of meeting new people in the laundry room every night. Note: Do not wash suit of leaves. They are a one-wear only, garment.

In the end of it all, you are a resourceful, if not terribly observant, superhero. And I am willing to bet that Canvas is giving out at least one warm garment as swag (last year they gave us bitchin’ jackets).  Maybe this year we will all get tauntaun coats. They ARE showing Star Wars after all.

The most important thing is that you don’t make the mistake of deciding that  you just won’t do the outdoor stuff. I am a super introvert and they make it so fun, you just can’t stay inside. It’s fun just for the people watching.

Also, drink some water NOW. Figure out your hydration plan. Have a PLAN.  This year my plan is to drink a liter before I leave the hotel room just to start off balanced.

Don't end up like me.

Don’t end up like me.

Stop and say hi if you see me today. I’m carrying a Tuesday only swagnet for the first 15 people who find me. You won’t want to miss it.

I’m on twitter @mstephen  Just sayin.

 

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The Official Unofficial Guide to InstructureCon 2014

Flashback Heart Attack
So. You’re going to InstructureCon. You should be grading, but instead you’re surfing the internet and reading up about next week when you’ll join 1500 of your most ed-crazy compatriots, at a beautiful resort, with a promise of all sorts of surprises and excitement.

On Monday Instructure released a slew of information about what to expect. They even provided a handy video rundown of helpful tips for when you get there. That’s great, sure, but what about the man on the street? What about the secret passageways and robotic room cleaners? I mean, do you really think they would tell you EVERYTHING about the conference?

No. That is why I am here to provide you with the Official Unoffical Guide to InstructureCon 2014.

One. Do not miss the opening events. Last year, my flight in was going to cut it close, but I had vowed to make it there on time. Unfortunately for us, while meeting our connecting flight in Denver, a tornado touched down and I ended up watching my colleagues hanging out with MC Hammer (yes THE MC Hammer) via their selfies on Twitter.

Two. Take the shuttle, but book it ahead of time. We had forgotten this part of our travel arrangements and got lucky when there happened to be a spot just as we were ready to head to the resort. I don’t know if all the shuttle drivers do this but ours told us all about the resort, the city, construction, buildings. Seriously he was a non-stop fountain of knowledge and not in the annoying please-stop-talking way. He was fascinating. If your shuttle driver isn’t as talented as the one I had, I apologize now, but you still should book a shuttle, it’s the easiest and cheapest way to get to the resort.

Three. Canyons Resort. – Canyons Resort is more a hub of hotels than a resort resort. By “hub of hotels” I mean that there are three identical hotels all hovering around a central area that is where most of the activities take place. The Grand Summit Hotel, the Sundial Lodge and the Silverado Lodge are all separate hotels that sort of . . . I don’t know . . . hang out together?

So Canyons Resort is sort of the whole thing together and it has three hotels. Three different hotels. This will seem obvious to everyone but you as they give you directions that make no sense. Hang in there. Go into the central outdoor area and orient yourself if you are directionally challenged like me. There will be a ton of signage but it is still very, very, easy to get turned around. Worst case scenario flag down someone on a golf cart.

Four. They let Instructure employees drive golf carts. I am not sure they require training for this privilege. I am also not sure that is such a good idea. No, I am positive, for some of those drivers, it is not a good idea. The Instructure employees seem to take a great deal of glee and joy zooming around the grounds in golf carts at top speed. They love it so much, in fact, that they will often fight for your patronage. Some even offer in-ride mints. (I’m not joking.) Take advantage of the rides, but please, watch out. I worry.

Five. Altitude. It’s a really great thing they have golf carts zooming around, because altitude sucks. There will be bottles of water everywhere. Drink them. In fact, go have a bottle of water now and three tomorrow. Don’t wait until you get to the conference to start hydrating, you need to arrive hydrated. The 9000 feet altitude will leech the water from your body with a ruthless efficiency (and fanatical devotion to the Pope). Remember when you were in elementary school and you got that one stop at the water fountain right after recess? Remember how insanely thirsty you were? Remember how you hugged the coolness of the water fountain and were comforted by the condensation that could only be appreciated by a group of eight-year-olds who had been playing freeze tag for or an hour (remember when recess was an hour?)? This is what your body will feel like all the time. Even when you’re not playing freeze tag.

If you ignore your body, you won’t just get a headache and feel run down until you slam a few waters. We’re dealing something much more intense than that. If you ignore the hydration recommendations, the end result is a dehydration sickness that can take several days to recover from. There’s no way to avoid having this happen to you other than to drink a lot of water. Keep track. We aimed for a minimum of four a day and one to replace any caffeinated or alcoholic beverage we consumed. Even then, there was a time I slacked a bit in the middle and felt horrible. I am dead serious here. It is not possible to slog through and be ok. You do not want to be at this resort feeling like crap and missing all the fun, when you could have just taken advantage of the copious amounts of free water within arms reach almost everywhere that you go.

The dehydration isn’t even the worst part of sitting at 9000 feet. The worst part is adjusting to the thinner air. It did get better as the week went on, but it does tax your body, making you physically tire very quickly and a small flight of stairs can become an incredible challenge. Pace yourself and take advantage of the golf carts.

The good thing about the high altitude is that thin air is cool and clean smelling. The view is sharp and clear. Everything seems fresh and alive. Just pay attention to your limits and if you have asthma or other breathing issues, make sure you’ve got your inhaler and maybe a spare, just in case.

Six. Go get a glass of water. Drink that water. I’ll wait.

Seven. Isolation. Yes, the park is a bit removed if you are use to conferences where you can walk down the street if you want to go check out a local pub or restaurant. They built this resort in the mountains for a reason. The seclusion is a selling point. Canvas seems to work hard to pack really interesting stuff in everywhere, so finding time to get out and see the city might be harder than you anticipated. Not because they lock you in, but because the evening activities are really cool. Last year one of the nights, everything was set up like an old carnival complete with games and free everything. (Please Instructure, don’t go bankrupt.) By the time they are saying “You won’t want to miss tonight!” You really won’t. Last year I planned on meeting up with a friend who teaches at BYU. We were only able to have a brief reunion before I was off to another big event.

Eight. The powers that be at Instructure love secrets and surprises. In fact, they enjoy it so much they even keep secrets from their own employees. I’m sure this is to help with the surprises, and they do deliver on the surprises. It does mean that a lot of random things happen. I’ve managed to nose out a couple of things that might happen next week but I’m keeping them to myself just in case revealing their secret would mean I had to sit that part out in my room as punishment.

Nine. Safety. The advantage to the isolation is that the resort is really, really, safe. There seem to be security and hotel employees hanging around almost everywhere. Of course you should take the precautions you would normally take at any large gathering, but at this conference, the elements and the wildlife are going to pose a much bigger “danger” to you than crime.

Ten. Gondola Rides. If you are not afraid of heights and want to check out some nature DO NOT SKIP THE GONDOLA RIDE. Nothing could have prepared me for just how beautiful the gondola ride would be. It doesn’t take long and takes you literally up to the top of the mountain.For those of you who are scared of heights. This gondola feels really safe when you are in it, although it does sway a bit and makes an alarming shuddering noise and feeling when you go over the poles. Still, I felt really comfortable moving around the gondola to get pictures out of the different windows.

Eleven. Coffee. They have good coffee. This is a very big deal to me at conferences. As the week progresses it becomes a big deal to everyone. The snacks and water and other amenities are great, but if the coffee at the conference is subpar, my brain doesn’t function. Just don’t forget that coffee is a diuretic and you need to drink a bottle of water for every cup of coffee to compensate.

Twelve. They do not have super-solid wifi. I took my iPhone, my iPad Mini, and my MacAir last year. In the month before the trip, I had wavered on whether or not to bring the laptop and I was glad I did. In many of the conference rooms the laptop was the only thing that could connect to the wifi. I wasn’t the only attendee grumbling about the wifi. This year I see they are separating the tracks to different hotels (see above). Maybe this will reduce the load and increase the wifi. At a tech conference this is non-negotiable.

Thirteen.  They will keep you too busy to charge your devices. This is awesome but it also sucks. By the end of the day my phone is dead and I still have about 1000 things I want to take pictures of. This year I’m pretty sure I’m just going to pack an extension cord and power strip in my luggage and charge people to use it. Can you imagine sitting in a room of 100 battery drained ed-tech junkies as you unwind an extension cord and place it in the middle of the floor. It would end up looking like a small campfire, all the tech nerds huddled around the surge protector, smiling into their screens.

I wouldn’t have done this last year, because I decided that I was going to travel light. I hate waiting for my luggage, so I almost never travel with more than I can carry on the plane. This might work for some conferences, but the weather at the resort is mildly supernatural. In the span of a few hours you can go from coats and long sleeves to tank top and shorts. Then there is the midmorning weather phenomenon I have cleverly branded hot-cold. This phenomenon happens when there is more than a 50 degree difference between the temperature in the sun and the temperature in the shade.

On more than one occasion I saw people sharing a table that was half in and half out of the sun. The people in the shade are all cowering inside their tauntauns while the people in the sun are applying sunblock and digging in their beach bags for their sunglasses.

Don’t fill up the suitcase you bring along, unless it’s with Captain Crunch (if you do this, call me). Canvas is totally stupid when it comes to swag. The amount of swag of all types and qualities that get dumped on you is stupid. There’s no other word for it. Not just that, but they are sort of obsessed with making you take stuff. It’s kind of they’ve been informed they might not have a job if they bring back any of those neon 2L2Q shirts. At first it was cool, but after awhile they became like swag pushers.

“Hey, you got a T-shirt yet?”

“Yeah, man, thanks!”

“Wait, um, you got a spouse? Maybe a colleague back at the college? I can send one with you?”

“Um, yeah, well, no . . I did get two yesterday, so you should give them to someone else.”

“No, here! Take one! Take three! Bring your friends over! Please! My job depends on how many things I can give away to people! Don’t you see?”

Now, I’m not complaining about free stuff. No way, no how. But I worry about Instructure and this obsessive desire to assault its clients with swag. I’m not sure it’s a healthy relationship. Are you ok, Instructure? (Call me.)

Fourteen. Camera. Once you have wisely followed my suggestion and packed a larger suitcase you’ll have room to pack the good camera. All I took with me was my phone last year and I was a bit disappointed even though I got some great pictures. I’ll be taking the DSLR and hoping to do a lot more photography while I’m there.

Fifteen. Costume. The OTHER thing you need pack in your suitcase is a costume. Even if you are not a costume person. Last year, by the time that 80s night and the costume party rolled around there were a LOT of people who regretted not packing some sort of costume. An impressive number of people created 80s costumes out of neon swag t-shirts and makeshift banana clips. Trust me, even if you decide against it, it won’t hurt to have it with you, after all, you’ve got the big suitcase.

Sixteen. Revelry. The party atmosphere is a bit more laid back at InstructureCon. This seems to be more related to the overall feel of the resort rather than the nature of the conference because there was certainly no shortage of alcohol. Last year they provided two drink tickets per attendee, per night. The great thing is that the tickets were transferable. This meant that if you were hanging around later than the majority of the crowd, people would force you to take their extra drink tickets as they left. I guess no one can stand the thought of a drink ticket that did not fulfill its destiny of happiness.

They did not, however have coffee at the bars at night. We spoke often of how nice it would have been to have an Irish coffee or other warm concoction rather than the ice-laden alcohol. It’s hard to get into a rum and coke when your teeth are chattering because you had no idea it got this cold in June in Utah. (It was about 40 degrees.)

Seventeen.  Firepits. If you’re a night owl, one of the coolest places to hang out is around one of the many fire pits that the hotel has going at night. Nights are quite cool but if you have adequate clothes, the fire pit circles are comfortable and coveted. Trust me, throughout the conference people will gravitate to them constantly. It’s an awesome place to chill out and talk to new people.

Really this is just enough to get you there. There’s so much going on all the time. My best advice is to get plugged in and stay alert and active. Join the canvas class for the conference and watch the tweet stream. (#instcon).

Eighteen. Shameless Plug. I am excited to see all of the people I met last year and to meet the first timers now that I feel a bit like a veteran. Come and find me at the conference and I’ll have a swagtastic swagnet for you if you ask. My session will be Thursday at 11:00 am. Below is the blurb from the schedule. Hit me up next week. Know that I am socially awkward and not great at making small talk. But I love talking about teaching and learning students and impact. Soon my friends. Soon.

HOISTING THE MAINSAIL: HOW CANVAS HELPED ME LET GO OF GRADES AND GET BACK TO CONTENT
Michelle Stephens, Richland Community College
Grand Summit, Kokopelli III
I’ve always been a fan of contracted and competency-based course structure. When I gamified my Theatre Appreciation class, I found ways to use some unique feature in Canvas to keep my students clear on expectations, assignments, and outcomes. This session will briefly touch on the concept of contracted grading before delving more deeply into innovative ways to use rubrics and add badges to create a transparent and reassuring delivery system that will keep students engaged in content rather than process.

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Transgender students: Everything you were afraid to ask.

Students workingLike many transformative times in life, it seems that often, transgender students are in the process of gender transition or affirmation during the time they are in our classrooms. The majority of the time you will probably not have any idea you have a transgender student in your class. But that is not always the case.

This topic isn’t talked about much, because people aren’t sure how TO talk about it. Most of the faculty who I speak to are much more concerned with inadvertently offending someone.

So let’s have this conversation.

First, it’s important to understand what transgender means. A transgender person is someone whose outward body does not reflect the gender identity in his or her head. As in, “I am a girl. But the body I am in is a boy’s body.” Do we really have this mental gender identity? Absolutely. Whether you believe science or Oprah, gender is a mental as well as a physical state of being. Transgenderism is perhaps easier to understand if you think of it as a birth defect.

Additionally though, transgender has to do specifically with gender. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation. This is an extremely important distinction that we will we come back to.

But first. What should you expect when you have a transgender student in your classroom. First, unless a student approaches you and discloses they are transgender, it’s none of your business. Just like the personal lives of all of the rest of your students.

Should a student contacts you or approaches you to discuss how you can help them, then it becomes part of your awareness.

A transgender student might contact you for a number of reasons, but two seem to be standouts.

  1. Their name may not be correct in the roster system and they wish to make you aware of it. This is a crucial one. The process of getting a name legally changed is expensive and time consuming. Some transgender students will not have been able to complete the legal name change yet. However, attention to this particular detail is crucial. Let me share one of my own failures as an example. A couple of years ago I had a transgender student contact me nearly a month before classes began to let me know that they did not use the name from the roster (their birth name) and provided me with their chosen name to use instead. Well the month passed and by the first day of class, I had completely forgotten about the student’s request. I pulled the roster up on the computer and blazed ahead.  After class the student approached me privately and chastised me, rightfully, for dropping the ball. Why? Because this student was far enough along in their transition that the old name would have  inadvertently given this student’s private information to the student’s classmates. Even worse, some of the students in the class were acquaintances of the student and had never known the student under the former name. Luckily the blunder went undetected. Had it not, my mistake could have proved disastrous. Realistically, it could have even proven dangerous for my student.
  2. A second common reason your student is contacting you is that they may just need support. Like I said earlier, often, a transgender student makes a decision to begin living as the gender they identify with in their teens and early twenties. If a student comes to you to reveal this, feel warm and fuzzy. That student is putting a great deal of trust in you. Honor that trust.

Beyond that, transgender students are not any different than any other student. In fact, most transgender students would really you just forget about the whole transgender thing and just see them and treat them as they are. It’s not offensive to ask  a transgender person privately which pronoun they prefer if you are unsure. For example, on the first day of classes one semester, as I was calling the roster, I came to a very typically male name. The hand that went up, however, was a bright eyed young woman in the second row. She corrected the name, changing it to a solidly feminine one. I made the note, and moved on. After class I approach the student and asked if she preferred female pronouns as well. She said yes. The end.

I understand the desire to be supportive and not offensive. I have stuck my foot in things often enough (maybe in this very blog) that I am also overly cautious. But one thing I have learned over the years is that if you are trying to be supportive, in earnest, mistakes can be forgiven.

However, there are a few things to avoid and I thought I might put them here. In case you were curious.

  1. Transgender does not equal Sexual Orientation. A female to male transgendered person who is sexually attracted to only girls is not a lesbian; he is a heterosexual male. (This is none of your business.)
  2. “Sex-Change Operations.” First, lose the term. It’s old and outdated. Also be aware that not all transgender individuals choose gender affirming surgery whether for monetary reasons or otherwise. (This is also none of your business.)
  3. Asking or assuming anything about their medical decisions. (Surgery, hormones, laser hair removal, etc.) I know this sounds really obvious but from what I have observed, people seem really casual about asking someone if they are on hormones, having kids, having “the surgery,” etc. It’s nobody’s business unless the student offers. It is your job as the professor to model the behavior everyone in the class should have. Which is actually not that hard, you just sort of go about your class like normal.

So what have we learned? Transgender students are pretty much just regular students who sometimes have important name issues, some privacy issues we should respect and protect if revealed to us, and that’s pretty much it. Carry on Wayne, carry on Garth.

 

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Westboro Baptist Church retirement tour.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 5.37.01 AM Yesterday I found out that the Westboro Baptist Church was coming to my town to picket a couple of churches that are performing gay marriages.

As you might expect, it’s blowing up Facebook. I knew I wanted to say something, but not what. As I see the groundswell of different kinds of counter-action, I realized few people see the truth of how bad things are for the WBC. I wanted to show everyone how the Westboro Baptist Church is on the decline. How their line up of protests has become watered down like a one hit wonder on the county fair circuit. I wanted to explain how much the WBC wants you to march down there and hate them and shout at them.

 

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 5.37.16 AM

But they especially want you to assault them, so they can sue the city for not protecting them well enough. Oh yes, do your research. The WBC is a litigious machine.

But I also have read a lot about what people said about Phelps and how abusive he was to his family. I think about the people that stand holding the “God Hates Fags” signs. For the adults, I wonder if the seeds of doubt have already been planted. Although it is probably easy to believe the brainwashing when the people you are picketing show up and feed into all of the behaviors and lies you’ve been told all of your life.

 

Then I think about the children, who are no doubt, smarter than we give them credit for. What should we show them about the world they’ve been told is full of danger and evil? When the “Them” show up, what are they like?

I also think about the fact that for a brief time, we will have eyes on our town and this event. I would like to think when that time came, the hate was engulfed by a much larger and more positive message. Maybe one like this.

We do not approve of this hate in our town.

However.

We will let you have your say, but we will not let the message go unanswered.

This is called accountability.

We will not treat you in the way you treat others.

This is called maturity.

We will acknowledge that all people are human beings including members of the WBC and that there are children and victims among your members who need to see the real face of what they have been told to fear.

This is called compassion.

When our answer comes, it will not be filled with hate and revenge, but with a duty to show each other, ourselves, and the WBC that disapproval does not have to be delivered with hate.

This is called integrity.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 5.39.48 AM

 

 

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Confessions of an Apple Fangirl: The Beginning

Photo Mar 13, 4 57 25 PMAs I was about to head out to a couple of conference, I paused as I gathered up the devices I was taking with me. iPhone, iPad, Macbook. I wonder briefly if any of the new people I’d meet would look over at my pile of shiny, silver apple splendor and chuff an exhale before contemptuously thinking . . . “Well, it looks like SHE’S enjoying the Kool-aid.” Because these are the kinds of exchanges I believe really happen in the delusional wonderland that is the inside of my head.

And I admit it. I’m a Kool-aid drinker. A Macphile. An Apple Fangirl. I always smile when I see someone using a Mac in a movie. I then point it out to the person next to me. There was never any point in denying it. Though I’ve never gone so far as to be a stand-in-line kind of Appleholic, the love is deep, and it’s pure.

The story of how I came to love the Mac might illustrate how Apple romanced an entire generation of kids into a lifetime of loyalty.

My story goes something like this:

 

One day, in the 4th grade, I walked into math class to find that overnight, a beige plastic TV and box thing were sitting on the table at the front of the classroom. Everyone wanted to use it. No one wanted to use it more than me, though.

No, they didn’t.

You see, they could not possibly have felt what I felt when I first saw that computer. Mr. Howe had briefly mentioned something about possibly staying after school to work on the computer if our parents said it was ok.

I don’t remember if I asked my folks or not. If I didn’t, sorry guys. It wasn’t my fault.

The computer was the damnest thing. It was this little box and it had a whole world inside. It wasn’t a tv. I had no agency when it came to a tv. This huge place inside this little box was all mine.

There was a game. I don’t remember a lot about it but I remember naming the players in my “gang” after the ghostbusters and working through the areas of the game and the computer and there was nothing there but this world. And me. There was no time.

Unfortunately, that was not true for the rest of the world when the secretary came down saying that my mom had called and HOLY SHIT IT WAS 4:30.

Well, I raced home, bag and jacket flailing. I’m sure I got a stern talking to but my parents were usually pretty cool about stuff like that.

As I grew up, Apple grew up and seemed like ever other year my school was filled with a whole new set of Apple computers. (I think someone at my school must have been a beast at grant writing.) The mouse. The color screen. Don’t get me wrong. I love technology now, but there was something magical about the way that technology was rapidly evolving. I was just old enough to know that we were watching the birth of something amazing.

And for me, that amazing was wrapped up in this beautiful package.

So when we acquired our very first computer, a used DuoDock 230 that my Husband brought home. I still have the key to that computer on my key ring. (Because you could lock the little laptop into the docking station and, yeah, well . . adorable.)

So Apple grew up and I grew up with it.

It’s not a matter of me believing that Apple is perfect. There are legitimate criticisms. Heck, I’m the first to admit how sad it is I have to jailbreak my phone to get it to perform simple tasks Droid has been doing for years. I get it.

But for all of you out there who poo-poo Macphiles and their seemingly endless pursuit of the next version of iShiny, know that for many of us, that love is like the love of your hometown sports team, or of a particular brand of car. Not totally rational, definitely somewhat emotional, but most definitely real. And shiny.

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