A Conversation with Andrea Actis on Risk, Vulnerability & Affect in Teaching & Learning
Risk and Sharing Strange Memoirs
This semester, Andrea Actis took a risk. She went into her 300-level English class and shared some deeply personal pieces of writing, or in her own words, excerpts from my strange memoir and portions of my strange dissertation. Seated in her office on a Monday morning in April, she recounts that first class three months ago: I read the Acknowledgements pages of my dissertation aloud. There, I narrate the day I submitted my applications to grad school then found my father’s dead body a few hours later. The students found it unusual, yet shared with her that they wish more professors would tell them what they had been through.
Why did she share this with her class? Andrea explains how she remembers the moments when her teachers were vulnerable with her and the impact it had on her, allowing her to write from a personal place. I went to grad school traumatized, I didn’t know how to write any way but this. I needed to make it meaningful to me. Similarly, by taking a risk and being vulnerable with her students, she wanted to create a space for them to be vulnerable, a space to find their personal voice, and show them that they didn’t have to sacrifice their own experience in their writing.
Teaching from the Heart
Andrea teaches English literature and writing. I’ve met her before, yet still find myself amazed that we are only ten minutes into our conversation and the topic is already on risk and vulnerability in teaching and learning. There’s passion, strength and courage in her word and appearance. That is, courage in the sense of the word’s Latin root cor or heart. You truly get the feeling that she talks about herself, her discipline and her students from the heart.
I imagine being a student in Andrea’s class on the first day and experiencing my teacher share something deeply personal and meaningful to her. I sense the trust I would immediately feel. The message I would pick up is that this class, this space, is a safe container for me to show up in as who I am. Yes, that is courageous leadership in the classroom. And as Andrea talks about her students experiencing a feeling of pleasure and pride in their work, it is obvious how much she cares, not only about her learning outcomes, but also about each individual student.
A feeling of pleasure and pride! Andrea has a delightfully eloquent way of choosing her words and sentences, which almost makes you feel you are part of a beautifully written story as you talk to her. Whether it’s a product of her discipline, or the very reason she is in it, she draws you in. She makes you want to use words. To write. To be the student, who is given the opportunity of an assignment, which in the process, turns the writing into a feeling of pleasure and pride. The student that will know that her teacher will share the pride with you for having found your own voice.
The Care Package Project in English 100
As Andrea tells me about some of her assignments, I discover more examples of how the heart in teaching extends to her students’ work, to their hearts and emotional attachment to learning. In her English 100 class, the research project is designed as a Care Package. The students pick a fictional or real person and throughout the semester, they compile resources to support their care for that person. It can involve helping someone or changing someone’s mind. The main point is that they are being asked to connect with something they genuinely care about. After weeks of research, writing and revisions, the final product is a letter to the person, complete with resources, quotes and references.
The result? Andrea explains how the research becomes personally valuable to the students: In the process of creating the care package for someone else, the students surprise themselves to find out how pleasurable and difficult the writing process is when they care. And while the students show a lot of pride in the final product, Andrea is also positively surprised by the quality, especially when she learns that this is the first time many of them connect with themselves as writers. Genius way of involving both the cognitive and the affective domain in learning if you ask me!
Another added benefit to the emotional attachment in an assignment such as this is, in Andrea’s words, that care helps eliminate anxiety. And, in looking at different authors’ representations of the experience of anxiety, the students are given permission to use strategies for addressing their own emotions. It’s like giving them a tool for both their learning and their living, Andrea adds.
Write Me a Letter
Talking about giving students tools, especially those tools we hope will extend beyond the classroom and into our students’ life and careers, what’s a meaningful way for students to summarize and express what they have learned in class? If you’re like me, you will swear by reflective assignments, however, Andrea has a delightful twist to that. On the last day of her 300-level class, she asks the students to write her an 800-word email to show her what they learned during the semester. They have to discuss the readings and provide five quotes, and they must talk about what they still want to learn. They can prepare and some will bring a draft, but they get three hours in class to write.
I cried when I read the letters, Andrea admits with a mix of pride and care in her voice. They were so generous and beautiful. Yes, they had to use beautiful words and to show me they’d taken seriously all the course’s lessons in rhetoric and style, but to see how meaningful the writing process had become for them, their pride and how their relationship to writing had changed…
Why an email? As Andrea explains how emails and letters produce the best writing because the writer connects with someone emotionally in the process, I see how she, again, skillfully draws upon the affective domain in learning. And how, by making herself the receiver, she comes full circle in showing up as another vulnerable human being and teacher having held a safe space for her students during the semester.
The Elphinstone Secondary Connection
While Andrea surprises me with her vulnerability, courage and attention to emotions in learning, there is a specific reason I originally reached out to her, which also involves a willingness to take risks, to lead and to do things differently: Andrea is the first CapU instructor to teach English 100 to Grade 12 high school students. Originally hired in January 2017 to be part of a pilot project to teach English 100 to high school students, Andrea commutes weekly to Elphinstone Secondary in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast. Starting out with 16 students the first semester, she now has 26 students in her class. And there’s word that another high school in Sechelt has recently asked for a class to be delivered there as well.
The class is taught like a regular English 100 class, Andrea explains, except it’s mixed mode and the high school teacher will be there to support and to take on a tutoring role. When I ask about the main difference to teaching the class at Cap, Andrea immediately smiles and says without hesitation: The constant onslaught of questions! She elaborates on how the energy is different, how the students have known each other for a long time and are sometimes a little too comfortable with each other. The high schoolers bring strong, sometimes unreflective positions to the course readings and discussions, but because the atmosphere is much more conversational, these positions can quickly loosen and open up.
Another difference is the type of students, who will elect to take the course in Grade 12. They choose to be there. They all know already that they want to go to university. Andrea sees many of them this semester on a path to studying sciences and engineering at UBC, and they know that getting English 100 “out of the way” will help them in their first intensive year in their new programs. They are grateful for the opportunity even if they struggle with materials at first, because they haven’t been asked to read a dense scholarly article before. She also guesses that this struggle might be exactly what her English 100 students back at Cap are talking about when they express the shock of having to “unlearn” certain things when they first arrive.
Seeing 35 Voices Emerge
Whether it’s at Elphinstone Secondary or at CapU, Andrea’s passion for writing is remarkable and contagious: I love teaching writing because I can get at the source of a student’s wisdom and creativity. My job is to nurture people’s visions by showing them strategies for discovering the writers they are and might become. I get to see 35 different voices emerge, I get to see my students actually recognize themselves in what they produce.
Not coincidentally, Andrea will soon be extending this passion to more than the 35 students in her classes, as she takes over the role as Convener of the Writing Centre in the fall. I personally have to admit, writing a piece about an English instructor as articulate and eloquent with words as Andrea felt somewhat intimidating at first. Yet interestingly, I just have to think about Andrea sharing her personal writing in front of 35 unknown faces and suddenly, it is not hard at all. In my short conversation with her, she deeply touched me with her approach to teaching and with her passion for writing and I am left feeling extremely grateful and inspired to know how many students’ lives and hearts she touches every day in a similar way.
Which faculty/department are you in?
How long have you been teaching at CapU?
Teaching since 2010 and at CapU since Jan 2017
How many sections do you teach?
Full section load. Andrea will also be taking over as Convenor of the Writing Centre in Fall 2019.
Favorite thing to do when you’re not teaching?
Dancing. As part of a family of dancers, Andrea will actually dance in her apartment every day. That is, when she is not walking, hiking or eating food with friends.