When COVID-19 forced Lehigh to shift to online learning in the spring semester, faculty rose to the challenge.
Now, they say, they’ll build on best practices, should the pandemic prompt Lehigh to continue with remote learning in the fall, with the goal of developing and implementing new strategies to deliver a next-level online experience.
“What we’ve been doing is encouraging those faculty who are already being really creative—the ones who are out there doing all kinds of interesting stuff with their courses—to just keep going,” says Lehigh Provost Patrick V. Farrell “At the same time, we want those same faculty to let their colleagues know what they’re doing, because they are going to want to put those ideas to use, too.”
The creativity of Lehigh faculty cut across all disciplines, and included innovative work even in classes for which remote instruction may have seemed difficult.
‘New Ways of Thinking’
In a first for one of Lehigh’s most popular courses, for example, the students in Kashi Johnson’s hip hop theatre class “Act Like You Know” created a film of their original work, rather than close out the semester, as they usually do, with a live theatre performance. The film debuted Sunday, May 3, on YouTube, in a live viewing party that had students, staff, faculty and alumni cheering the cast in comment streams.
The film featured the students’ original work and quarantine-inspired rhymes, dances, spoken word poetry, skits and lip syncs. Johnson, chair and professor of theatre at Lehigh, said that while she had always enjoyed engaging her students on social media platforms, she would not have otherwise used a platform like Zoom for performance coaching.
“The mandate and the urgency of now has just made it … this is what we're doing, and you will adapt and figure out a way to make it work. And I appreciate that push because I never would have wanted to before,” Johnson said. “My art form deals in the actual interpersonal interaction. That is at the heart of theater. It's live.
“To not be live takes away the very heart of why I love it so much.” But, she continued, “It's also a very creative art form. It inspires innovation. It inspires new ways of thinking and doing things too.”
Johnson used Zoom technology to have the students rehearse and produce and write their own pieces, just as they would have in face-to-face meetings on campus. And she coached them, via Zoom, in the spoken word and led them in stretches and artistic check-ins. There were some skits that the class had been worked, rehearsed and recorded prior to Lehigh going remote. “And then when we came back after spring break, I realized that the gift of our class has always been to speak truth,” Johnson said. “We deal with the authenticity of now.”
Johnson, who has a hands-on teaching style, acknowledged that it probably took a few weeks for her to get into a teaching rhythm with her students, to the point that she was able to ignore the screen, connect with her students and overcome the barriers of being in different places.
“I tried to build in as much normalcy as possible into our semester,” she said. “I maintained the same Zoom classroom for the duration of the semester. The room served as the physical theater where I would coach student performances, and my virtual office where I held office hours. This continuity was very successful. Sometimes, I would drop by the classroom for an impromptu meeting, only to find some of my students already there working on another project or hanging out--just like it would be in Zoellner's Black Box theater.”
Johnson developed protocols that made acting coaching easier for remote instruction. For example, instead of allowing students to sit down when they rehearsed, she asked them to stand and find ways to raise their laptop or phone to eye level. That simple adjustment enabled students to stand and perform with confidence, she said, and in standing, they were able to fully engage their body and voice in the act of performing.
In the midst of the pandemic, with many students finishing their senior years at Lehigh via Zoom and some feeling isolated, she said, “there's real truth to tell. There are real stories to convey.”
Johnson said other faculty in the department were innovative in their teaching as they moved to the online format. In a props course, for example, there was a shift to having students find items around their home to use to create and make props.
“So the reinvention of the wheel is real and ongoing, but theater is like that,” Johnson said “We are used to challenges.”
Amy Forsyth, associate professor of art, architecture and design, quickly figured out how to adjust the plans for her furniture design course to have the students design and build cabinets.
Her original idea was to have the students build the cabinets as practical storage pieces, but also art pieces. She says the students were to think about how cabinets open and close, make hinges and sculpted doors and maybe paint them. First, Forsyth posted videos of herself showing and describing cabinets she has made herself to aid students.