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Connecting with Students: Seeing Through a Performance Pedagogy Lens

November 8, 2021 • Joan Gavaler

Principles of Performance Pedagogy provide fundamental support for learning in any discipline. Performance Pedagogy values harnessing students’ pre-existing strengths and their own collection of knowledge and unique experiences. In this post, I discuss different perspectives we can bring to how we engage with students.

What is it that we have been so eager to “get back to” when we leave asynchronous and Zoom classrooms and return to in-person teaching? What aspect of our teaching was interfered with when we had to operate remotely? I believe it is our desire to teach using performance pedagogy practices that grow from attention to self-discovery, direct experiences, and relationships. For example, we can consider different ways we present material in a class.

When I meet with a class, I notice that I have at least three different perspectives from which I might present material. I might focus on the subject matter first. When I offer information in a standard way, each student is then responsible for absorbing the information as they see fit, engaging with the coursework, asking questions, and practicing with a friend. During the class period, I can provide time for questions and time for students to work alone or in pairs to go over the information on their own.

At other times, I might provide direct support to students to help them grasp the material through one-on-one feedback or other methods that keep me closely aware of the students’ current level of understanding. I may ask students to write a narrative reflecting on their learning process in my class and what goals they hope to achieve before the semester ends, as well as goals they expect to continue pursuing beyond the current semester. This provides a basis for highly personalized feedback in response to particular questions or goals that may differ from student to student.

Finally, what happens when my focus is on an active exchange with each student? As I respond to student perspectives, I find a new appreciation for the material by viewing it through their eyes. When I start with their frame of reference instead of my own, I can teach both the key concept and its greater relevance, in a way that provides students with a higher level of motivation and context to learn that material.

For example in Dance Composition, I ask students to give feedback to each other using a process that focuses on the choreographer’s intent. I listen to the peer feedback before offering my own, and I learn what students are valuing in the choreographic work they are making and seeing. This has helped me frame what I wish to teach in a clearer manner. In Modern technique, I give students “action phrases” in which they must create movement in response to a verbal cue rather than learning movement that I show them. Action phrases provide the opportunity for students to make choices about the specific movements they practice and the transitions they create. This has helped me see gaps in their knowledge as well as untapped strengths in their performance range, both of which I can use to teach them more skillfully.

Other thoughts about how we might leverage what students already understand might include:

 Giving students an (ungraded) quiz on something not yet formally taught and using those results to frame how the material is presented.
 Asking students to speak to a topic from current knowledge before adding our information for the day, connecting the new information to what we have just heard students articulate.
Grouping students who have shown differing strengths and weaknesses together to take on an assignment as a team, emphasizing the importance of hearing everyone’s ideas.

We can enliven our teaching by periodically changing our perspective on the material we are presenting and the people we are presenting it to, making room for a fuller range of interactions with students over the course of a semester.

© 2021 Joan Gavaler. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Meet the Author

Joan Gavaler

Professor of Dance and ‘21 – 22 STLI Excellence in Teaching Fellow

Joan has been a dance professor at William & Mary for 27 years. As a STLI Fellow, Joan brings principles of Performance Pedagogy to interested faculty to cultivate self-awareness in students, connect subject matter to what students are invested in, create multiple ways for students to communicate knowledge, support cross-disciplinary and collaborative learning experiences, and assessing outcomes.