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In my opinion

For the love of teaching

The whole campus is invited to celebrate at the University of Alberta's Festival of Teaching.

BY BILLY STREAN | MAY 10 2011

Teaching can certainly be a solitary endeavor. Obviously, the classroom and interactions with students are social activities. But planning, preparing, and reflecting upon teaching are often done in isolation. It’s also easy to wonder, particularly in moments of skepticism or cynicism, whether one’s efforts in teaching and learning are truly noticed or appreciated.

The recent annual Festival of Teaching at the University of Alberta, now in its fourth year, was a wonderful way to connect with colleagues, to learn and grow as an educator, to be inspired and reenergized, and to see that there are many people who honour and appreciate teaching and learning. The festival has grown to a four-day long forum for celebrating teaching in different venues on three campuses. Other universities could benefit from an event like this one, perhaps, like the University of Alberta, beginning with a venue for teachers to share ideas and successes in a conference-like format and expanding based on local creativity. A new group of young colleagues and students who were invited last fall to re-imagine and re-energize the festival took up the challenge with great energy. Back for the fourth year were the “wandering scholars” where a number of graduate students arrived in costume, portraying great teachers from various times and cultures.

An addition this year was “Festival Classes” that opened certain class sessions for observation. Visiting David Barnet’s fourth-year drama class was inspiring. The class was deeply engaged in rehearsing for production, and so many aspects of what I observed were exceptional: the sense of community and level of team interdependence was like nothing I’ve seen before in the context of a course. Some parts may have been theatre conventions that I’m unfamiliar with, but the way in which David offered coaching, direction and cues, and how the students rolled with them, was stunning.

I next attended the much talked-about Science 100 program, where professor Glen Loppnow gave a chemistry lecture. Although the majority of the content loomed way above my understanding, there were many aspects of the session that were intriguing: iClickers at work, music in the background, a constant series of questions to probe students’ understanding and learning, and my favorite moment, when Dr. Loppnow gave the students feedback by banging his head against a metal cabinet.

My third visit was to another theatre course, this one given by professor David Ley on voice for actors. Although the standard direction for the festival was for visitors to simply observe, David invited everyone to participate in the extensive warm-up. With only 12 students in the class, it was a fairly intimate space and the three of us visiting, felt fortunate to be welcomed. Much of the session involved one student presenting a monologue with a series of suggestions and coaching from David and the other students.

Most striking about all three classes was the delightful connection that each professor had created with his students. Their particular techniques and approaches catalyzed my own thoughts about how to include them in my own courses, but what was most powerful was the joy I felt when I witnessed the teaching moments.

In retrospect, another key element was the importance of feedback in all three disparate scenarios. Each instructor guided the students toward higher levels of performance. The engagement wasn’t a linear process between the instructor and the class as a group; the students were actively contributing to each other. All three visits helped fuel my tank for teaching.

It was quite a different experience being on the other side of the observation process. I was definitely intrigued watching myself beginning to develop evaluation apprehension about classroom visitors for my cricket lesson (I teach physical education). My trepidation was in large part due to the impending visit of our vice-provost, Colleen Skidmore. As is often the case, anticipation was significantly worse than reality. Colleen was entirely supportive and seemed to have a mood of curiosity and enjoyment of my session.

In terms of the public events, the Festival Banner session (creating a 2×5-foot banner) that attracted 44 instructors and their teams was a great way to connect with other teachers and a good reminder of what it’s like to be a student in an area of incompetence. The “Festival Talks” displayed the range of teaching and learning experiences at the University of Alberta – from tales of a medical student, to a personal account of the challenges of embarking on undergraduate education, to accounts from professors at distinct places in their academic careers.

Taken as a whole, the Festival of Teaching brought teaching out from isolation and doubt into community, celebration, and appreciation. In an intense university like the university of Alberta’s, where research is king, I’ve never felt better about the collection of passionate, committed teachers and the overall valuing of what we provide for students on this campus.

Dr. Strean is professor in the faculty of physical education & recreation at the University of Alberta and a 3M National Teaching Fellow.

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  1. Lisa Kabesh / July 24, 2012 at 10:08

    I recently attended an “Idea Exchange” at my university (McMaster, in Hamilton, ON) on community-engaged learning, and had a similar experience–it was a tremendous learning, networking, and feeling experience. It reminded me just how good learning can feel. So, thanks for sharing your experiences of U of A’s Teaching Festival with University Affairs readers. It’s wonderful to think of teaching in such a way: as cause for festivities, as a field of scholarship and personal development, and as an aspect of an academic’s job deserving of university sanction and support. Plus, I’m practically salivating over here from your description of festival classes!