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Creative and embodied teaching

A few weeks ago, my drama colleague Lisa Peck and I were invited to guest teach on Rebecca Webb’s MA seminar on Provocative Pedagogies. We decided to introduce the group of MA students studying on education-related courses to whole-body learning that drew together my own critical-creative pedagogy and Lisa’s feminist pedagogy. This blog post is a short summary of this amazing teaching experience and reflections from student participants, co-authored with Karthik Peddiraju, an MA student from India.

The class took place in Sussex’ iconic Meeting House, one of the buildings originally designed by Basil Spence as a multi-faith space. This was a new space for the students to learn in, which added to their excitement. The large class windows around the room allowed a connection to the outside space, and on this particular grey day the first daffodils raising their sunny heads spoke to me of new energy and warmer days to come.

The Meeting House connecting us with campus outside

The class started with warm-up exercises of students throwing balls to each other and connecting with the space physically. I then briefly introduced my critical-creative pedagogy flower and explained the following exercises as an example of whole–person learning that invites students to bring not only their intellects but also their bodies, emotions, senses and experiences into the classroom to create a holistic embodied learning experience. This set the stage for Lisa’s activities based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. She guided the students through a number of individual and group activities, such as enacting their current place in the MA, their memories of how they felt when they first started at Sussex and their wishes for the end of the course. Students also gave physical shape and movement the pedagogical flower, which was amazing for me to see.

a group of students
Student groups giving physical shape to the critical-creative pedagogy flower

For Karthik, ‘the use of the body to express our emotions was a new experience. The warmup exercise of throwing balls at each other helped me to ease my body and the lecturers participating in it made me feel more comfortable. Most of the time, I can sense a subtle power distance between a teacher and students but in this session, I didn’t feel of any it. It made me relate to Dr Peck’s feminist way of teaching I learned about in the pre-assigned readings. When we worked in small groups, using our bodies to create objects representing a classroom such as a computer and a filing cabinet, this needed communication and coordination. These activities also helped us to discover our strengths and complement each other on them.’

After the class, the module convenor, Rebecca Webb, commented on ‘the power of watching accomplished teachers working together with knowledge and craft and yet without claiming a status of the 'all powerful': demonstrating vulnerability; connecting with each other; sharing joy; humour; puzzlement; mistakes; curiosities; and an eagerness to be surprised and to learn from everyone present, including all you talented and committed students.’

Students also shared their reflections on a padlet. One of them wrote that ‘it was great to experience what [bell] hooks would have called ‘action’ – the idea that we were enacting this creative-critical pedagogy. The awkwardness we felt at the beginning really was this idea of breaking away from oppressive modes of practice (at least for me) of being conscious of what others thought. I loved the connections it made with Dewey’s ideas of experiential education – the opportunity to reflect, but also to start from the student’s experience.’

‘The above was particularly enacted in the three stage-process where we used our bodies to show where we felt we were at the moment, as well as thinking of a word to go with the stance. We then reflected and thought about where we had been at the start of the course, and then what we would be like at the end. I particularly enjoyed this process as, after I’d fully engaged with it, I began to really think about where I was at the start of the course compared to how I was now and further into the future and I found the whole process quite grounding.’

Another student commented ‘I was struck by the way Dr. Peck could initiate 'play', provoke excited participation, and yet be in complete control of the classroom. The fact that we were there to learn was never lost throughout the day. I observed a fluid dynamic between instructors and students and instruction and learning. The class felt like I was part of research in action. As I was discovering new things about myself and my peers, my professors were observing and learning new ways of applying critical pedagogy.’

For Karthik, ‘the main takeaway was whole-person learning and creating the safe spaces and caring facilitation required for critical or provocative pedagogies. A learner finds it difficult to express their opinions, in my case I judge myself for the thoughts ignited by seminars and limit myself to express them. In this seminar, I didn’t feel judged although there were three lecturers. Expressing my thoughts helped me have more conversations with lecturers and the feminist way of teaching also encouraged many other students to share their perspectives and opinions. As a result, me and other students have started engaging more with classes this term.’

Most powerfully for myself personally, for the final activity students discussed negative educational experiences they had experienced in the past and staged these in an embodied tableau which they shared. Other students then took the place of individuals and changed negative to positive gestures and expressions. Students enacted cultures of shame in the classroom that were collectively converted into horizontal and supportive teaching relationships of greater positivity. The emotion in the room was palpable, as was the collective effort to co-create embodied provocative pedagogies. Thank you to everybody who participated!

 a group of students
Students enacting pedagogies of shame


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