Teaching as a performance: How one teacher stays connected to his class

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This post is part of our Featured Educator series. In this post, we interviewed performing arts educator Robert Mark Morgan on staying connected with his students online. 

For performing arts and drama classes, the switch to online learning meant a loss of precious hands-on experience. But teaching itself is already a kind of performance, according to Robert Mark Morgan, a performing arts educator at Washington University in St. Louis. And, he learned how to channel that performative spirit to connect with his class and keep them engaged through the computer screen. Read on to find out more about his approach of teaching as a performance. 

Bringing performance to the online class 

Robert teaches design-based drama courses focused on scenic design, covering topics such as makeup design, lighting, and more. As such, he approached online teaching as a performance — “there’s a lot of staging and performance in teaching,” says Robert. 

While he’s been a longtime user of Prezi’s presentation tools, he also wanted to avoid simply screen sharing a presentation, especially on a video conference with 80 first-year students. That’s why Robert turned to Prezi Video, which lets him stay on screen while his content sits next to him. “I like that I can have my topics there next to me while still maintaining some level of personal interaction,” he states. 

Through Prezi Video, Robert was able to inject a visual and performative element to his lessons, such as having a graphic cover his face and then peeking out from behind it. “We have to remind ourselves that 17 and 18-year-olds have grown up on their phones, and they’re used to being bombarded with visual stimuli,” adds Robert. “So the bar has gone up for maintaining their attention.” 

Check out this clip from Robert’s lesson on the psychology of color to see how he combines visuals, Zoom’s chat functionality, and Prezi Video to great effect:

And here’s another example where he highlights his work for the Cleveland Play House in a quick two-minute clip:

Stay connected while you work remotely with Prezi Video

Connecting with students through a screen

Although treating his teaching as a performance has helped with keeping students attentive, the most important thing that Robert stresses is the human element. “It’s not about just having a video class,” he says. “It’s about having some kind of community connection with your students so you know what they’re going through.” 

It’s crucial to keep in mind that online learning is something many students (and teachers) have never experienced in their lives, and when students have to learn from their rooms all day, it can be quite isolating. Robert has found that by staying on screen while he teaches, it’s easier to maintain a human connection: “You need to have visual contact. Once you cover your screen with other content, you’ve lost them because they know they can look away.” 

How teachers can create their own performances

Robert didn’t start using Prezi Video until after he transitioned to online learning, but he found success quickly through experimentation and creativity. Here are some of his tips to help you create engaging video lessons as well: 

  • Start simple. Robert recommends using the Prezi Video templates at first. “The last thing students want to see is you fumbling with technology,” he explains. Get comfortable with presenting next to your content, and then slowly add more visuals and complexity. 
  • Be flexible in your structure. Once you start creating content with Prezi Present (or importing a PowerPoint deck), you can take advantage of the more conversational topic structure. “I’ve really enjoyed the flexibility,” says Robert. When he finds that he’s short on time, he can easily skip to the last step in order to cover the most important points in the moment. 
  • Let the challenges fuel your creativity. “Constraint can be the catalyst for creativity,” states Robert. One of the positives of moving to online learning was that it forced him to embrace new technology and teaching methods. Take this time to find creative new ways to reach out to students and engage them. “A lot of educators are finding that now is the time to do a bit of reinvention,” he adds. 

Now it’s your turn — start creating your own Prezi videos for your class today. Or, if you need help getting started, check out our resources for educators.

About Robert Mark Morgan

Robert Mark Morgan is a Teaching Professor at Washington University in St. Louis and is also the Director of the Beyond Boundaries Program – an interdisciplinary program where students study across disciplines to tackle societal and global challenges. His stage designs have been seen onstage all around the country. Learn more here

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