Here Endeth Year One

With a final click on the University of Birmingham’s Canvas portal, I submitted (and verified that it was submitted) my paper for the Shakespeare and Pedagogy module, thereby officially completing the first year of my MA. *insert huge sigh of relief here.”

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It has been quite a journey. I think back to that afternoon in Porto, two and a half years ago, as I was sitting in the plaza outside the Teatro Nacional São João reading Measure for Measure in anticipation of a Portuguese production of the play. I remember reading the play on my Kobo, and reflecting on how much I loved reading Shakespeare, and about the program I had been researching, off-and-on for a year or so, at the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham. This tends to be how big decisions in my life get made – I do a lot of research, and then sit on it for a long while until one day, something clicks and I say “Fuckit, I’m doing it.”

This was one of those moments.

I recognised at the time that attempting to start an MA program immediately upon my return to work and my “real life” after having been away for a year travelling the world would be a bad idea. Re-inserting yourself into your own life after being absent for a year is a difficult task; dealing with the reality that you have changed more, and in different ways, than those who surrounded you before and after the absence, and figuring out how to navigate that are challenging to be sure. Not signing up right away also afforded me the time to consider the logistics of the enterprise: How much time would this realistically take up? How am I going to manage the work load? How am I going to pay for this?

I did, finally submit the application, and was accepted, and chose my modules for the first year, and waited, and it was while I was in Paris at the IDEA 2013 Conference that it all became official – I was enrolled and registered, and I took the photo for my student ID card. Not a bad photo for being taken on an Android against a wall in my friend Teddy’s apartment.

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The most daunting thing at the start of the program was the reading lists. As I was taking two modules — Research Skills and Methodologies, which lasted the full year, and Shakespeare’s Theatre, which lasted the first term only — there were two reading lists, one of them quite sizeable. So I started the reading as soon as I returned to Toronto (after having purchased what was, I feel, an overly expensive U of T Library Card) in anticipation of the courses.

Another personal cause for concern was the whole online thing. I’d never taken a course through distance learning. During my undergrad and teaching programs, I always went to my lectures because I felt like i got more out of listening to the lectures and hearing what the prof had to say on the topic at hand rather than just doing the readings. I really had no idea what to expect, even though many friends who had done their Masters’ degrees gave me a lot of advice. I needed to experience for myself.

I have tended to be an early adopter (I was on online communities as far back as 1995, pre-uni when friends of mine set up their own BBSs in my home town, and in my first year of uni when many of my floormates and I engaged in a BBS called Olohof, based out of somewhere in Scandinavia, which was really the first iteration of what was to become modern chat programs. So I am quite comfortable navigating online communities, and the “community” created by our common courses were no different, really. What I did learn was that some people clearly had more time than others. Because of my workload, I often posted what was asked of me, and not much more. Some colleagues, however, had all this time to go digging deeper and doing more research. Keeners.

But I got through the first term, got good marks on my assignments, and in the process rediscovered my love for learning. One of the stark realities of being a classroom teacher is that, while you spend your days surrounded by learning and discovery, very little of those things are being done by you – it is your job to facilitate those things in others. So to be reading, researching, discovering, questioning, writing and discussing again after nearly 15 years was invigorating.

I think, however, that my favourite experience this past year was travelling to Stratford-upon-Avon to participate in the Shakespeare and Pedagogy course on-site. Not only did I get to connect with a great friend and artist in London and have a few days to poke around what is one of my favourite cities in the world (AND to get to see Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit AND Susan Calman do her stand-up act), I finally got to meet, face-to-face, some fantastic people who I now value as colleagues and friends. The course was, in essence, meant to allow us to experience and critique the Active method of teaching Shakespeare, as practiced by the Royal Shakespeare Company Education department (which is not far off from what Canadian companies such as the Stratford Festival and the Classical Theatre Project in Toronto practice). What it did was reinforce the sense of community that was begun online in Canvas – when you not only get to put a face to the names and words you see online, but get to collaborate and hangout with these great people. I really loved getting to play with them – because that’s what, at its best, Shakespeare education should be: play – and getting to know them.

That week working with colleagues who are primarily British also reinforced how lucky I really am as a teacher. I do follow, as much as I can, news about education in other countries, and what has been happening to teachers and education in England is nothing short of reprehensible. Michael Gove may no longer be the Education Secretary, but the damage he has caused to the British system could take years, even decades to repair. The near-elimination of arts education, the focus on standardized testing, and the disregard for experiential learning is frightening, and hearing my colleagues’ reflections on their practice and the restrictions placed upon them by the looming spectre of Ofsted made me realise how lucky I am to be teaching in Ontario, but also how we must be so much more vigilant in protecting what we have built and gained in Ontario, and how we must stand with our colleagues across Canada and abroad to make sure that it is the experts in Education, not politicians, who lead the change in the system.

The most important thing that has happened to me over this past year is the reignition of my passion for teaching the Arts. It is very easy, after 10 years of teaching, to forget why you got into the whole thing in the first place, and to forget the ideals and enthusiasm you had as a first-year teacher. It has caused me to refocus my professional practice, to focus on those things that really matter to me and to my students, and to push myself – and hopefully, them – to be artists. It also has me thinking about what lies ahead… after I finish the program in 2016, what then? I now know I want to teach teachers, to ensure that all arts educators have the support they need and the knowledge they require to not only educate their students, but to advocate for the Arts in their own schools and communities. Maybe that means another Master’s? A Ph.D? Who knows.

In the interim, I just got the reading list for the first of the two courses I am taking in the Autumn term.

No rest for the wicked.

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