From Stage to Computer Screen: Learning to Teach Virtually

AVI-SPL wants to help your teams stay connected and productive during this difficult time as most of us are working, teaching, and learning from home. Our Together We Can online learning series offers helpful ideas and resources. Below is this week’s edition. Read all Together We Can posts.

Sean Carter, the services product manager at AVI-SPL, is also a respected instructor in stage combat and teaches a course at the University of Memphis. In this post, Carter explains how he adapted a class intended for in-person learning into one that could be successfully delivered online.

Most days, my experience as an employee at a company providing collaboration technology is pretty separate from my swashbuckling night persona.  Recent events being what they are, these parts of my life have recently collided in a unique manner.

Working at the world’s largest audiovisual and collaboration technology provider, AVI-SPL, I’ve seen firsthand how we are one of the best resources for our clients with the knowledge and education around technology. I’ve used just about every video conferencing platform invented, helped design solutions for clients to bridge gaps between their offices, and even taught my coworkers how to utilize these technologies. 

With this starting point, one might think that I would have a head start when it comes to teaching a class at the University of Memphis that has recently been moved entirely online.  When it comes to the knowledge of how to use the technology, I do.  When it comes to how to move a performance-based class with 90% of the grade being in-person creating and acting together, I was as lost as any other faculty member. 

Ever wondered how actors in movies and in plays sword fight, jump off buildings, or punch each other in the face without actually getting hurt?  Yeah, that’s what I have the privilege to teach.  Stage combat probably isn’t the first class you would think of as possible in an online format.  But with reality hitting hard, I had half a semester left in a class that is BASED in partner work, in-person communication, and a cooperative creative process.  Plus, we were supposed to start learning sword fighting for stage – old-school Errol Flynn/Basil Rathbone swashbuckling –  which everyone, including myself, was disappointed we wouldn’t be doing together.

The week after the University of Memphis campus officially closed was the week my students were supposed to perform their mid-term exam.  It was a fight scene that they choreographed with their partner put to a script from a play, movie, or TV show.  They could use any style of unarmed fighting or knife fighting we had learned up to that point in class, and I had students doing everything from scenes in Les Miserables, to Batman, to Kill Bill, to plays they wrote themselves and hoped to produce.  We found that they couldn’t be performed and, seemingly, the work and they put hours into both in and out of class would go to waste.

I knew that my class at this point was going to be as much a collaborative effort between myself and my students as much as it would be between themselves.  So, we did what we could and set up a call to talk it out.  I wanted to make sure my students still learned something of value through the semester and my curriculum didn’t degenerate into busy work.  After making sure everyone had the technical capabilities to do class over video, and making sure that they could take the time out of caring for family we moved forward with…virtual sword fighting!

My students found everything from broom sticks, to Swiffers, to pool noodles and we had a swashbuckling class over Zoom (check out the picture – my students were very excited).  I cleared my living room and through the sheer willingness to adapt, learn something new, and have a little fun, we have been able to effectively have a very excellent class thus far.  I can teach, talk to, and see all my students at once as I explain moves, combinations, technique, and safety practices.  We can have meaningful and engaging discussions and continue an education that will flow right into the next time we get to meet in person again.

Overall, we found that with a little extra effort, some imagination, and a willingness to learn and change on all sides, we were able to continue what we started in a meaningful way.  So to everyone out there whether you are a teacher or not, realize that you can’t take the years of experience and excellence and expect that to translate into a different medium in 45 days.  But what we can do, collectively, is decide to stop reacting and start acting.  Stop saying the situation stinks and do something about it in the little bubble you can control.  Make the best of what you do and who you do it with and rock it – do it with 10 times more than you would in person because it’s needed now more than ever.

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