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Citizenship Starts Right Here

by Ruth Barber, Instructor, Department of Theatre Arts

Allow me to introduce myself as a professional theatre artist. My vita outlines my experiences as a scenic artist working in theatre, film, and television. Teaching college students is relatively new to me, as is the immense content of the course given to me when I was hired. It took one semester of enacting someone else’s syllabus to learn from a student statement what I had suspected many times over the semester: “everyone thinks this class is a joke”. My take away from that comment was that the way I was teaching the course was the joke. Ouch!

Influenced by integrative course design processes and outcomes suggested by L. Dee Fink, I reflected on the meaning of significant learning in this context. In particular, what experiences did I want students to have- and what did I want them to learn?

In the big picture, five years from now, what was most important for them to remember? How could I help them see their place in the broader picture of artistic collaboration as a theatre artist/citizen? In the smaller, day-to-day picture, how could I move away from chalk and talk? What experiences did I want them to have that would bring them out of “isolation” to “collaboration”; and how did I want them to learn?

I began by examining situational factors, what Fink calls a foundational aspect of “Key Components of Integrated Course Design”. Each of us has given challenges, or certain situational factors that set the context of our courses. Below is a list of the factors that contributed to my challenge:
>SPACE: The course is taught in a large lecture hall.
>BREADTH: It is a survey course about all aspects of technical theatre production.
>TIME: The course meets twice a week for 50 minutes.
>DISCONNECT: There is a lab component of the course that I do not teach.

How could I overcome these challenges? Considering Fink’s taxonomy allowed me to target specific learning outcomes, yet think in terms of integrative learning/significant learning.


I began to think about and plan for student engagement differently. While I made many changes to what and how I teach,  I’ve selected three and briefly describe the impact to me and my students.

Small Changes: Seeing Results
One of the most important learning outcomes was raising students’ awareness about their place in the bigger picture (learning about oneself and others), or the Human Dimension aspect of significant learning. With this focus, I replaced a lecture about backstage organization with a different assignment, “Who’s the Boss?”

Change #1 “Who’s the Boss?”
Human Dimension of Significant Learning
Instead of using the PowerPoint with an organizational hierarchy chart that I inherited, I assigned each student a job title within an organization. The students had to research the responsibilities of that position, and if the position supervised another position or worked under another supervisor. The students then presented their research to the class and called on the next student in the organization’s hierarchy. The students tapped into the complex interconnectivity through dialogue: the Board of Directors hires the Artistic Director, who oversees the artistic programming for a theatre company; the Artistic Director chooses the Directors for the plays that have been chosen for the production season; the Director of the play chooses the Design Team, and so on and so forth.

The first change in assignment was engaging and it set the stage (no pun intended) for the rest of the course in terms of how we are all connected as citizens in theatre. It takes a large network of theatre citizens to tell one story. This understanding enabled me to refer back to that network as I moved through each area of technical theatre for the remainder of the course.

I was encouraged and moved forward to assign more responsibility to the students for their learning by creating an assignment in the area of Fink’s Taxonomy, building foundational knowledge. Instead of a boring PowerPoint on tools I assigned “Scene Shop Tool Scavenger Hunt”.

Change #2 “Scene Shop Tool Scavenger Hunt”
Foundational Knowledge Dimension of Significant Learning

Each student was assigned a tool to research; tips on how to use it, contexts for it’s use, and examples of products. The class met in the Scene Shop and the students found the tool and presented the tool and their research to their peers. I stressed that this was solely a peer-to-peer learning activity and that I would not lecture on it in class: it was up to them to teach each other this information.

Continuing in this vein of the Human Dimension of learning and substituting a lecture on Health and Safety, the students instead had to complete a new assignment, “Gruesome Theatre Injuries”

Change #3 “Gruesome Theatre Injuries”
Caring Dimension of Significant Learning
This is a riff on a play titled, “Gruesome Playground Injuries”. The students were asked to write about an injury that either they sustained or were witness to, and the type of health or safety hazard that caused the injury. The students presented their stories to the rest of the class and a discussion followed on how the injury could have been prevented.

These activities are just a selection of small changes that allowed me to shift the expectation and responsibility for learning onto the shoulders of the students; hence I saw more engagement and more to the point, they felt more engaged. The students asked surprising questions that came from a deeper understanding of how these topics affect their lives and their place in the world of theatre.

Below are a few recent comments from students statements:

“Ruth has had many engaging and interactive components to this course which has kept it interesting for students who enjoy more hands-on components of classes. She had a good balance with lectures and other activities outside of the classroom.”

“Ruth encourages questions in her class as well as some brief class discussion. She is very knowledgeable in the field and has a lot of experience with the technical aspects of theatre. I also liked the classes where we went to Dillingham for hands on learning.”

“She did a very good job of explaining the material in ways we could understand, and connecting what we were learning to real life.”

Am I on the right path? The changes for both my students and myself are palpable. Overall, with these revisions, this course has been rewarding. The students were more open and relaxed and asked more questions.  Indeed, I know I feel more energized and enthusiastic.


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