Saturday, December 18, 2010

Barefoot and blind

It has been a tumultuous week: evaluation conversations, renewal of courses, paperwork for a new course, finals, finals, more finals, lots of grading, Christmas tree, Christmas cards, and some thoughts about Christmas presents (not done yet). Stress bordering insanity.
Best therapy: a long run.
Even better therapy: a long run, barefoot, on the beach.
Approaching zen: running barefoot, on the beach sand, early in the morning, with eyes closed.
I could write a treaty about running barefoot on sand. After reading Born to Run almost a year ago, I decided to give a try to barefoot running and thought the beach would be perfect. The first time, I chose running on the sand close to the ocean (packed and hard). I tried to run my usual time. At some point I realized it was going to hurt. When finished, my calves and Achilles tendons were in flames. I walked in pain for a week afterward.
Chastised, I started again, but on the freshly raked, soft sand. Much better. In the following months, I experimented with different sand textures: the soft one would work mainly on the thighs, the harder one worked the calves and ankles.
For me, running is much more than just exercise. It is one of the few ways I can manage to empty my mind. The amount of stimuli bombarding me lately has been significant, part of which is self-inflicted due to social media dependency.
It is hard to describe the feeling of running on sand barefoot with your eyes closed. As a very visual person (and visual learner for all that matters), shutting down that source of information had an immediate relaxing effect. I felt submerged in a soft cocoon as my Central Pattern Generators kept my legs moving. It was blissful.
If you wonder: yes I did run into a heap of kelp once. To avoid disasters I would open my eyes regularly to check for obstacles.  
The next experience was the awakening of the other senses. After a while I could tell if I was going away from the trail by sensing the difference in the consistency of the sand. The sound of the waves become a point of reference instead of a background lull.
And one more insight- as soon as I closed my eyes, I slowed down. Without the immediate correction of the eye and relying on my less developed senses, I had to slow down and establish a reliable steady movement.
For the last 10 minutes I wandered down to the packed wet sand by the water, and let go. Empty as the beach was, and with a steadier pace on a more supportive foundation, I could run fast, a true endorphin rush, legs pounding, heart racing, and yes, eyes still closed. 

How often, in our hurry to cover a predetermined material in a pre-established schedule, we push our students through the basics instead of allowing them time and space to acquire a secure footing and a steady pace? How often do we (I) believe that by bombarding them with cool and cooler information, tools, and materials they will learn better? 
As time goes I tend to take longer and longer time on the basics, and try to overcome the temptation to move forward too soon. My morning run showed me once more how essential is to establish a solid foundation, without the need for instant correction and feedback, before trying to accomplish more complex tasks. Especially important in the lab: one of the areas I need to improve training in organization and discipline. 
Going slow, taking time to establish a community in class, allowing students to use different approaches to learn, and encourage them not to do shortcuts in their thinking process. Plenty of formative assessments without the stress of grading. Room for brainstorms, creativity, and play.
It was a good run :)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Insights from the prison

I spent the last weekend in a prison. I mean a real prison, surrounded by barbed wires and blue-clad inmates. And no, luckily I was not incarcerated- I was facilitating another Alternatives to Violence workshop in a state prison. It was special for me, as it was my first Advanced level workshop in a long time. And it was in Spanish, my mother tongue: in this prison, as in many others in California, there are many Hispanics. And in these dire budgetary times, where many programs are being cut, Hispanics seem to be especially affected. AVP as a volunteer organization does not cost money to the state- so often it is the only program still running in certain prisons. 
I got involved with AVP 5 years ago- it immediately gave me skills to handle conflicts and communication issues, and after I completed my training I started facilitating. Besides my work as en educator, I consider AVP my other important contribution to society, both directly and indirectly. I do AVP both in the community and in prisons. It has been shown that inmates that have gone through the program show decreased recidivism. Indirectly, I know that I am a better teacher and person thanks to this program.
How so? It is not a coincidence that many AVP facilitators are also educators. The goal is the same: giving our students the tools to solve problems, not solving the problems for them. We do it in a framework of community and trust: Any AVP workshop start with activities meant to encourage community building and cooperation. Once trust is established, we do exercises and process them afterward. Between exercises we have activities for sharing and also "Light and Livelies," games meant to lighten the mood and play. 
This particular workshop was memorable because our facilitator team (2 outsiders and 3 insiders) decided to give a try to an exercise meant to model interactions based on inequality. The group is divided in 2, where one half can only speak the to other by asking permission first and addressing them in a formal way. This group wears masks, in contrast to the unmasked, who can address anybody without permission and in an informal way. Halfway through the exercise the roles are reversed, so everybody can experiment being "superior" and "inferior." This exercise usually stirs powerful emotions (especially in the prison context), and a deep analysis (debriefing) is essential for it to be valuable.
As the facilitator team plowed its way through available documentation and advices before committing to the exercise, I was struck by the similarity of the debriefing process to the strategies used to foster critical thinking in class. It should start from description and facts, then move to the meaning and significance of those facts (and in this case, the emotions and feelings associated to it), to finally arrive to the application of what was learned. It was stressed not to fall in the lecturing mode, but to combine listening to the group and asking good questions to lead them to actively analyze the exercise and formulate their own conclusions.
We finally decided to go for it. None of the facilitators had done that exercise before, and we were a bit nervous, but as a team we felt that we would "wing it" based on the general guidelines and trust in our group.
It was great. After a hesitant beginning, participants fell in their roles, and displayed different approaches of behavior in those roles. Emotions ran high but not critical and after the exercise ended, during the debriefing, we had the incredible experience of seeing the participants share, think, go deeper and deeper in their analysis, and come to conclusions on their own, helped by nudges of  questions. 
I am back in real life today, preparing finals and planning classes. But I am still in the afterglow of the weekend's experience. I have had those moments in class before, and I know I can do it again. Those are the moments we live for. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Apropos the multiple choice questions

I cannot stop thinking about the Chronicle article I read this morning about a survey showing that part-time faculty tends to use less effective teaching techniques. There are already many comments up, tackling several aspects touched by the article, from the precarious working conditions of adjuncts and less professional development possibilities to their vulnerability to student evaluations. I do not intend to analyze it- enough to say that while I would be happy for anything that made adjunct's working conditions better, I am rather skeptical of studies based on broad generalizations that may lead to knee-jerk reactions. 
Anyway, back to the article: examples of less effective teaching practices were tests based on multiple choice questions. I had to laugh (with some sadness) because just yesterday I had a conversation with one of my classes regarding their final comprehensive exam. I had decided to give it a try to crowdsourcing questions, and told my students to post questions, of which I would use a certain number as part of their final. During the ensuing dialog I was asked repeatedly what kind of questions would I ask, and when I answered that it would be a mixture of questions they have seen before in other exams and assignments, they kept asking about multiple choice questions. Those seemed to be their favorite kind of questions. And as several honest students have told me before, they like MC questions because many times they have just guessed and got their answers right. 
I cannot really understand it, personally. If in my young years I had been tested with MC questions, I would have probably fared much worse academically. I have always been a big picture person (with many hazy details and unexplored corners), so I always loved  essay questions. MC questions tend to throw me off- they make me focus on details and spend time analyzing the meaning of each sentence. And still, I may miss some minor clue. 
Personally, I think there are good and bad MC questions. I use them for a portion of my exams for questions that require clear understanding of certain concepts. They are good for that, if they are worded well- I try not to gauge memorization, but basic understanding of concepts. One of the comments of the article mentioned the point of MC questions perceived by students as impartial and fair, and there is some true in that. Essay writing in a science class like mine will have a huge quality spread depending on writing skills, so while I do have some essay questions, they are only a minor part of exams. I like short answer questions, matching or labeling ones, as well as other assessments like report writing (with plagiarism checking software, of course- even so, I have had my share of complete copy and paste from Wikipedia) and oral presentations. I just got into the wikis, and am planning getting started with VoiceThread next year.  With assessments, I tend to have the same philosophy as with portfolios- spread them out and diversify...