Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Kinesthetic learning: act your topic!

Several years ago I was teaching an Introductory Biology course for non majors at a community college. It was for sure challenging, with the majority of students being there only to get the GE science requirement, and therefore quite uninterested in biology. One of those students was a hopelessly hapless woman who was taking the course for the second time. Straddled with family and health issues, she would stay after class to talk to me, and in one of those conversations she referred to the day when the previous instructor made the class "play" chromosomes to illustrate mitosis. Her face lighted up as she listed the names of the phases of cell division (metaphase, telophase). I was fascinated. Here she was, the typical clueless F student, remembering that particular information. While acting mitosis out seemed like a childish act, it had worked for this particular student- so I decided to try this approach some day.
I am aware of the controversies about the validity of learning styles, but as far as I am concerned, they exist. Personally, I am what would be called a visual learner with strong kinesthetic bias- in order to learn I need to "do," even if it is only highlighting, drawing, or doodling. 
"Making up about 5% of the population, tactile and kinesthetic learners absorb information best by doing, experiencing, touching, moving or being active in some way."
My first experience was what became later the "Hemoglobin dance." Hemoglobin is the protein in the red blood cells that transports oxygen. Carbon dioxide is transported through different mechanisms, the most important being a chemical reaction:
CO2 + H2O <-------> H2CO3 <-----------> H+ + HCO3-
Carbon dioxide, helped by the enzyme carbonic anhydrase (in the red blood cells), combines with water to produce the weak carbonic acid, which immediately dissociates to bicarbonate and hydrogen ion. Ions move in and out the red blood cells, and this reversible reaction moves according to the gradient of gasses (very different in lungs and tissues). It is one of those dynamic processes that is hard to explain on diagrams. A year after that conversation about mitosis, I was facing a physiology class dozing off through my explanation of gas transport in the blood. I decided to act. I asked for volunteers and wrote a long list that included hemoglobin, carbons, oxygens, hydrogens, carbonic anhydrase, and the other molecules involved. Tempted by the possibility of extra credit points, carbons and other atoms joined hands to form molecules. A circle of students created a red blood cell. Carbon dioxides dissociated, oxygens bound to hemoglobin, and students were now wide awake and laughing. These days the Hb dance is a solid part of the chapter dedicated to respiratory system. Maybe, some day, we could make it into a prize winner video similar to the "Dance your Ph.D" ones.
Besides the Hb dance, other favorite candidates have involved meiosis (mitosis is ok, but not nearly as fun as meiosis, the cell division that gives rise to reproductive cells), and my absolute favorite, the immune system.
This year is the first time I have decided to make the Immune system play into a (small assignment). If you think about it, the immune response is very much like a Shakespeare play, full of interactions, violence, murders, and other interesting events. Immunology, the science dedicated to the defense mechanisms of the body, is one of the hardets subjects to explain. While most topics have a beginning and an end, and are therefore suitable for a linear explanation, explaining the immune response requires first a dissection of each of the components separately, and then putting them all together into a dynamic framework. By the time one gest there the students have passed out long ago.
So in the Immune system play, students are assigned roles of different components of the immune system. I plan to give them the roles in advance so they can read up and prepare. In the class, I make a general introduction and then the play starts. I usually break it down to different pathways. "What happens if a bacterium invades?" Neutrophils come to eat them. Lymphocytes develop an antibody response, Antibodies bind and kill or neutralize. I bring props (shawls, hats) to use as signaling molecules or toxins. As the action unfolds, I freeze the scene and explain and write on the board. At the end of the session, students would have seen most of the aspects of the immune response acted out.
Which reminds me, I should get started on the screenplay...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Eric Mazur, Physics, and my thoughts afterward.

I stumbled across Eric Mazur's (@eric_mazur) work a while ago, very probably through Twitter, where most of my education information comes from. I even applied to test his system Learning Catalytics, but have not used it (yet). When juggling multiple courses in multiple systems, and learning multiple tools at the same time, many decisions are based on the time needed for the learning curve. Looking at the system I realized I would need the most scarce of all my resources, what I call "brain RAM" or creative space. 
I guess most of you are familiar with what I mean. It is hard to be creative when drowning in a sea of grading, class preparation, student advising, and collaborations. Not to mention juggling family life. When I want to change a teaching paradigm, more than just implementing a tool, I need time and mental space to see the big picture: what I want my students to learn, and how can I achieve that.
In summary, I have had this corner of guilt for not exploring Learning Catalytics more. Then a friend I met at a clickers' conference in San Diego mentioned he was the key note speaker. And finally, from a tweet I landed on this page. The fact that it was over one hour long was a no-starter, but I kept the tab open for several days in my browser. Last night, while doing something mindless- posting content for an online course- I clicked on the video to at least hear the beginning. Well, I watched the whole thing and enjoyed it tremendously.
I think the overarching reason of my enjoyment was to realize that it can take many years of explorations, trials, and tribulations to achieve success in the learning process. So it is ok that I do not achieve my goals right away, that the first time that I implement a new approach there are stumbles and misunderstandings, and I will get comments such as "she has a very confusing teaching style." 
Then there were the small things that made me smile, starting with Physics. I confess to a complete lack of comprehension of Physics- I would have flunked each and every basic exam question Mazur showed. Sadly, I owe a bad teacher my dislike of it. I had my first Physics class in middle school (that was in Europe), taught by this very strict old bad-tempered lady. She accused me of talking in class, which I did not, and protested indignantly. To which she called me a liar. Deeply hurt, that was the end of Physics for me. For the rest of my education, culminating in three Physics courses in college, I survived using memorization. Just like Mazur described, I would look at the problem and solve it using procedures I did not understand. I wonder sometimes how is it possible that I am so color-blind to Physics when I loved Math and particularly Calculus. Maybe it has to do with the fact that my first Math teacher in middle school was young and energetic, and she was also the Bio teacher. And while I was a Chemistry person, it was this teacher who mentioned for the first time cellular respiration, which brought together my love for Chemistry and my interest in living things.
But I am digressing, which happens often when going down on Memory Lane. 
At the end of Mazur's talk I felt validated both in my quest of better learning and in the fact that it takes time, effort, and data collection. "The plural of anecdote is not data" was a great phrase, and I have to focus more in collecting hard data to validate the effectiveness of new approaches. I was specially pleased that I am already doing several of the approaches he mentioned- peer instruction, group work, and even open book exams- although I prefer open notes, to avoid reading pages copied verbatim from the book.
None of the colleges I teach for has clickers, but I learned a much cheaper alternative to clickers from MiraCosta Community College professor Rica French. It is based on a printout (A4 size) like the picture, ideally made on a sturdier material. They can be given to students at the beginning of class and collect them at the end. To answer MC questions, students will fold the printout to show their choice facing the instructor, who can have a quick visual evaluation of how many have it right and wrong, and proceed accordingly. While not quantitative and recordable as the clicker version, it does do the job of engaging students. That said, I am not sure if I would follow the clicker route. I guess it is very useful in huge classes, but I have the luxury of having smaller classes, usually around 30 students. 
So at the end of the day, what did this talk do for me? Basically it made me feel much better about the journey I am in, from the traditional lecturing to that ideal interactive/peer/social process resulting in real palpable learning. And the measure of learning would be, as Mazur states, "students applying what they saw in the classroom to a different context."
Amen to that. And still working on it!
What do you think, dear Readers?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From boring to blogging part 3

Wordle: wiki project insructions
Wordle of the instructions
Well, it has been a while. I was expecting to finish the third installment of this wiki assignment story earlier. I got delayed for several reasons, some of them really good reasons. That includes being included by one college in an "academic leadership something" committee to encourage the adoption of innovative approches to education. I was also asked to submit a list of examples of those approaches in my classes to be showcased in a video in a faculty technology website. In another college I was asked if I would give a webinar on use of wikis and blogs in online courses. I have been learning about online teaching and pedagogy quite intensely for the past year or so, so starting to see some results feels really good. 
I finished the Designing Effective Online Assessments course in a typical clueless student frenzy. The course had assignments of increasing complexity: generating SLOs (Student Learning Outcomes), designing traditional and non-traditional assignments for them, and finalize with a complete roadmap of SLOs and the assignments with a timetable. Drafts were to be posted on Wednesdays, we would give and receive feedback from other students by Friday, and revised assignments were due by Sunday. Last week's assignment instructions said to post the roadmap of at least one SLO, which I did, wondering why my team mates were posting all their SLOs. Sunday around 8pm I realized that the final submission indeed involved ALL SLOs...oopsie! Luckily I am really good at working under stress and I managed to submit the completed document just before midnight. That gave me some insight of being an online student, and why there is no such as too many warnings and reminders about deadlines. 
With the draft of my new wiki developed I moved on to a fuller version. I decided to try it on a f2f class with high enrollment as a group project. I established a set of rules in order to preempt situations I had seen in group projects and used some of the advice given by Tori Bovard regarding online debates. In her presentation during OTC2011 she emphasized the need for group agreements regarding group work, such as clearly assigning responsibilities within the group (submitter, spell-checker), as well as procedures if students are MIA. Those agreements were to be submitted before the beginning of the actual project, providing not only a framework to handle future issues, but also an an exercise in collaboration and consensus. I also included requirements for group and individual postings (basically establishing that each student had to post something on a regular basis), content and quality of the wiki postings, quality of feedback to others, and possibility for extra points. It became a 3 page document and I am curious to see how it works. I will keep you posted as the assignment is planned for October this year. For my completely online course where this idea came from, I will probably use a similar rubric except that it will be an individual assignment, and it will include regular blog postings as well.
I will not bore you with the 3 page document, but here is the grading rubric:
Aspect evaluated


Max Total Points
Content (group)
Covers less than 3 aspects of the content (see above)
Covers at least 5 aspects
Covers all aspects
Content (quality)
Content is incomplete or incorrect
Content is not up to date, or incomplete
Content is up to date, detailed, and relevant
Presentation (group)
Only uses text
Uses 2 types of content, but it is hard to read/observe.

Uses 2 types of content

Uses 3 or more types of content (text, pictures, video etc)
Fonts and pictures are easy to read and observe.
Correct spelling and grammar, good text flow
No references.
Less than 3 references, or 3 but incorrectly formatted
3 references, correctly formatted
Participation (group)
Only posting on week 7
Missing one
All required postings
Participation (individual)
Only posting on week 7
Missing one
All required postings
Feedback (Individual)
No or irrelevant feedback provided
Provides helpful feedback with some suggestions
Provides thoughtful and insightful feedback given with clear suggestions for making significant improvements

Timeliness (individual)
No or late submission for original post and feedback
Late submission for either original post or feedback
Timely submission for both original post and feedback
Total possible
Extracredits (individual)
Weekly participation (2p), creative/WOW effect (2p)

Dear Readers, what do you think? I would love to hear your advice and/or comments. I am still in time to change it...:)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

From Boring to Blogging: An Educational Experiment, part 2

In the first of a series of 3 postings (see here) I related my idea of implementing a performance assignment through a wiki and blog in an online Microbiology course. This post describes how did it work.
What worked
Regarding blogging: three students became regular and sometimes passionate bloggers. Two students only posted the one graded post, and the last  two never posted.
Wikis: Except the expected formatting issues in the beginning there were no major difficulties creating the wiki pages.
The “learning journey and reflection” idea: of the seven students, one changed her original topic completely, from antibiotics to an African parasitic disease. She attributed her change to a Discussion Board thread about neglected tropical diseases that seemed to be an eye-opener for most students. While the others worked on their original topic, there were changes in how they approached it. This was particularly true for the blogging students, who also tended to be the ones who sought most feedback and advice from me and the others. Interestingly, while several students stated in the beginning they were to write a paper on their topic, all went for either a wiki page or a powerpoint presentation.
What needs improvement?
  1. Having to log in and work in two different sites was probably confusing and cumbersome for students.  Although I had a Discussion Board for general questions in the official site, students would sometime request help/feedback in their wikis or blogs...and left waiting. I had to  monitor  all corners of the two sites regularly, and could still miss some postings.
  2. Grading rubrics that were not precise enough brought variable quality of both blogs and wikis. Some wiki pages had high quality content but could be too dry, with predominance of text, while other pages were more light-weight in content but visually attractive. 
The “social” aspects of collaboration.
I had a couple of issues with overzealous students editing other students’ wikis before the submission deadlines in spite of posted “etiquette” rules, and I could sense a generational difference.

And this is what students said regarding the assignment in their evaluations: 
The format of using discussion boards and class wikis to have the class engage with one another worked very well and the instructor provided excellent topics to encourage that interaction. I would have liked to have seen more timely feedback from the instructor on the discussion to guide class and raise the level of the discussion among some of the class members- perhaps some leading questions that would provide the opportunity for follow up and clarification among the group would encourage non-participants to engage; non-participants are always a struggle and so I am sympathetic with that challenge.   
Another student (one of the power users) said: 
It felt very beta for where the rest of the software for online publishing is now. The HTML coding is very limited and did not allow for common coding to make presentations clear and visually stimulating in a multimedia web environment. Not being able to embed from web sources is a major shortcoming.

In a summary, it was a good experience, with all the shortcomings included.  I am taking now a course on how to design effective online assessments, so I have some ideas as how to improve it (more on the next post). What are your experiences with online collaborative assignments, dear Readers? I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    From Boring to Blogging: An Educational Experiment, part 1

    In the next blog postings I would like to share my experience with moving from an "old-fashioned" summative assessment to a formative assessment in an online Microbiology class. The first part will give a background of the change and my plan to implement it. The second part will relate how did it go. In the third part I will add some recent thoughts about the assignment, thanks to a course on effective online assessments that I am taking now.

    “Changing a boring assignment into a formative one w/ blog and wiki for my coming online #microbiology course @UCSD Extension”. This I tweeted on March 27th. I was fired up.
    What did I have in mind?
    As most academics who go into teaching, for many years I taught the way I was taught (lectures, exams, and let the students sink or swim). However, in the past year or so  I have been increasingly drawn towards novel educational approaches.  A course that changed many of my perceptions of education and social media was Building Online Community With Social Media (BOCSM) This course is part of California’s @One Online Teaching Certification Program. Among the many insights I gained during that course, one that stood up was the requirement of writing regular blog posts  and a final essay describing our perception of the course. I grumbled at the assignment mainly because of my lack of time, but when I finished it (a version of which can be found here) it brought a shift in my perception of blogging. So when the time came to refresh an online course I have taught for a couple of years, I felt strongly about introducing this kind of assignment.
    This particular Microbiology course has a heterogeneous student population, usually a mix of science professionals who want to learn about microbiology (often chemists or geneticists), some pre-med or pre-nursing students, and occasional lay persons interested in microbiology (lawyers, teachers). In order to bridge this diversity I aim at a middle level of basic microbiology knowledge (evaluated through quizzes), and make the assignments personalized. Students usually complete 3 individual assignments related to different topics, and the usual format has been “written project.”

    What was implemented?
    I wanted the course to include a mixture of summative and formative assessments. The idea of a learning journey with frequent feedback and advice, and occasional stops for reflection was very appealing.

    This was the setup:
    • Assignment 1 was a “current microbiology topic”  during the second week of class. Students were asked to pick a topic and create a wiki page about it, and collaborate with each other commenting and adding/editing information. My main goal with this assignment was to get students familiarized with the wiki format while doing research on microbiology. As grading guidelines, I posted that grading would be based on 1) participation (new page, or more than 50% of an established page), 2) variety of sources (at least 2 types of contribution, text and something else: pictures, videos etc, 3) interaction (editing and/or commenting on at least 2 other topics).
    • Assignment 2 was about a microbial disease. Students chose a disease from a list (although if they had a personal preference they could discuss it with me), created a personal wiki page dedicated to it. Grading was dependent on the content of their page and comments on other students’ pages.
    • I considered Assignment 3 the “jewel” of my formative idea. I asked the students to post during their first week of class a topic that really interested them in microbiology  and why. I wanted them to reflect on how their understanding of that topic changed during the course, so I encouraged them to write weekly blog posts about the class, but required only one in the last week (which was graded). I also gave them the chance to choose a format for their assignment, such as wikis, articles, porwerpoint presentations etc. In my enthusiasm for the assignment I made the mistake of not writing a precise grading rubric stating the expectations of the assignment (more of this in the next post).
    Some practical issues
    Finding a platform to place the assignments was harder than I thought. The official course used a version of Blackboard lacking collaboration tools. I wanted to have the blog and wiki options in the same place. After some searching the solution came in the form of Coursesites, a website by Blackboard that allows educators to create up to 5 courses using the functionality of Bb 9.1. I adopted a Project-based course template and created 3 wikis and a blog.
    I had a very low enrollment, seven students, which in hindsight was probably a blessing. In early April, the course went live.
    (stay tuned for the next part about how did the experiment go, and what was the student feedback).

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    How to handle a big fat lab?

    Deshelled eggs in solutions
    Early on in my anatomy and physiology class comes a chapter with some of the essential concepts of cell biology: the cell membrane, and its transport and signaling mechanisms. In my early days I (wrongly) assumed that students knew the basics of this from previous classes, and I would quickly move forward to the deeper topics related to body systems. With time I realized the importance of spending extra time with this chapter: otherwise students will struggle the rest of the course to understand nutrient transport, membrane potential, effect of drugs and hormones etc. The lab exercises that usually accompany this topic are diffusion labs: filling small dialysis bags with different solutions, measuring their weight and testing what crosses the membrane or not. I got excited around a year ago when I saw a protocol involving deshelled eggs. Eggs left overnight in acid (can be simple vinegar) lose their hard shell as it dissolves, leaving them slightly gross and spooky. However they are a great and very realistic tool to show what happens to cells when placed in a hypotonic or hypertonic solution (swell or shrink). I remember the first time actually testing deshelling eggs at home, as I was not sure about their consistency. 
    The official lab (from the manual we use, Marieb's lab manual), includes several activities besides the dialysis bags and the eggs. Add a class of over 30 students (many of them not knowing what a beaker or measuring cylinder is), and you realize how complicated it gets. Over time I made short videos describing each procedure and specifically directed students to read the instructions, but as we all know, only few do that.
    The first time I set up this experiment, it was crazy. I explained what it was about, divided them in groups, and let them go. For the next 2 hours, I had a restless and confused mass of students running around with dripping dialysis bags or eggs in their hands, looking for reagents and asking questions. However, when we collected the data I was elated: the numbers actually made sense. We had sets of weight data in function of time. With so many groups, we could do basic statistics. We could make graphs. The numbers just looked beautiful. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to process the data in depth. 
    I ran the third iteration of this lab yesterday. As far as I know, I am the only one of my fellow instructors who teaches this lab, and I don't blame them. It is pretty intense. Luckily I have an angel in a lab tech who likes challenges and has been steadily improving his part of the equation (setup of materials, labeling). Yesterday I felt quite content with the results, and would like to share with you what we did.
    Inquiry based: I did not lecture the cell transport part before the lab. I wanted them to figure out what happens and why, so I merely introduced the fact that we would be exploring some parameters that affect membrane transport in the cells. Of course some students had previous knowledge, so I heard them talking to others about what was going on.
    Active-interactive learning: I experimented this group managing technique for the first time in the Critical Thinking workshops by Joel Levine, a charismatic Dean at Southwestern College. Once students are divided in groups, they choose "specialists" among them for different tasks. The tasks may be different aspects of the same topic, or in this case, different experiments. Then I have the "specialists" for each experiment come together, discuss, and check with me if they understand the procedure. When they return to the original group, they have the responsibility to explain the others and clarify any questions. This way they take responsibility for their learning process, reinforced by teaching the others. 
    Data collection: I projected a big excel table and directed students to record their data as they collected them. As the numbers unfolded in real time, students were paying attention, comparing their numbers to others', questioning if their numbers were very different, and already comparing their results with their expectations. 
    Processing and data analysis: after the lab we came together for actual lecture time. Now it was the time to talk about passive and active processes, diffusion, and osmosis. But instead of abstract examples, now I referred to what the students did and observed. Students deducted what happens when cells are placed in hypotonic versus hypertonic solutions. Then we went back to the numbers, and checked if the results corresponded to what they expected. Explanations for discrepancies were discussed. My hope was to include graphing/statistics, but we ran out of time. 
    I have always loved playing with numbers- making huge tables of numbers understandable through graphs was one of my joys as a researcher. When I look at this simple bar graph, based on a group of students who did this procedure the first time in their lives (and indeed, for many this was the first wet lab of their lives), I feel really proud of them. And what really made my day (or evening) yesterday was the student who in the middle of the lab exclaimed, with a big smile: "This is fun!"

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011

    Professor Site vs RateMyProfessors: great idea!

    Feline Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
    Last night, after wrapping up my Microbiology class I stopped to chat to the other instructor teaching the same course (we switch lecture and lab rooms). With the class winding down (this is finals' week) we shared some of the frustrations  with a small but usually rather vocal group of students. These are the students who do not do very well in class and approach us with comments such as "I have never done so bad in any other class,"  ask for extra assignments (while they obviously cannot cope with the current ones), or bluntly declare "I NEED to get a B in this class." While there are many reasons for their low performance, the majority of these students are simply not ready for science courses, even non-major ones, but somehow the system let them in. This is a big problem and I do not intend to talk about it now.
    The point is, there are always some students who are not doing well in my class. I have tried many things:
    • emailing my students weeks before class starts with "heads-ups", 
    • sending the syllabus, 
    • directing them to podcasts of lectures so they can start listening ahead, 
    • having a "pre-test" the first week so they can have a feeling of what is the level of knowledge required in the class, 
    • asking them to write reflections on their learning, 
    • sometimes almost forcing them to discuss with me in person

    ...and still, some of them fail, drop, or slowly disappear along the lines. And then one reads the comments in RateMyProfessors and gets depressed...
    This morning while going through the Twitterfeed, I stopped to read this interesting blog post by Scott MacLeod about the use of social media by educators, or in fact, some controversies surrounding it. The controversies are the same as always: how people become addicted to the new media and shun personal relationships, family time etc etc etc. For me, Twitter is a constant source of professional development through a continuous conversation/brainstorming with other educators. This conversation most often goes one-way, but sometimes it becomes an engaging conversation. 
    So I was pondering this morning how to address new students more effectively, allowing to "see me" before class in some online form, be able to figure out in advance if they are ready and if they have the skills/tools they need for the class. I was just trying to decide between a VoiceThread conversation, a FB group, or some other kind of online community, when Michelle Pacansky-Brock's tweet appeared announcing a Google Site template for a "Professor Site" that students can access before class. Basically, a Dr. Jekyll to match RateMyProfessor's Mr. Hyde. I leaned back with a big smile. While building sites from scratch has its appeal, it is also a big job, and I confess I am very happy to have this template available. One less problem to tackle... 
    And I found out thanks to my Twitter Learning Network..."nuff said"  :)

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011

    Why oh why...

    ... is it so hard for me to blog about the professional stuff?
    I teach and I think a lot about teaching. As I teach science, I think a lot about science and science education. I am slowly implementing more and more the flipped classroom idea- less lecturing, more dynamic stuff. I do case studies routinely, run experiments in class, force my students to do different things- lately it has been wikis and blogs. I am experimenting with Softchalk. So I do work the teaching stuff, but to write about it is a different ballgame. I came to science teaching from science, not from teaching. So there are a lot of buzzwords that I am not familiar with. It reminds me a bit of people who are good with the Bible and quote verses of it, which is very impressive (especially if you are not that well-versed in the Bible like me).
    The other day I visited a postdoc friend at a research institute. It was lunchtime and I overheard the conversation at the neighboring table. "Stem cells...differentiation...upregulate." All good science lingo. So thick that I am glad am not there anymore. When I teach about stem cells to my undergrads I will say "upregulate" and then add "increase the expression" right away. If the looks are still blank, I will add "more molecules will be produced." It took me some time to learn not to use a language that creates a barrier. 
    Is it the same with education and particularly, technology applied to education? I feel so. Take this example from an otherwise excellent educational blog: "In spite of the growing support for the social-cultural, situated, social constructivist, distributed, hermeneutic and dilogical nature of learning and cognition; educational, business and cultural practices remain firmly rooted in a paradigm of individualism.." Huh
    I believe that if I dedicated enough time and effort I could speak that way too- but I don't think I want to do that. Waste of my time, in my opinion. I wish only I had the courage of WorstProfessorEver to say so bluntly. 
    So going back to the beginning, why is it so hard for me to blog about the teaching stuff? I spent the morning in class, first in a Micro lab that I adapted to an accelerated class of 32 and a slightly frazzled technician (she is great but she is new, and the more experience tech just quit). To my amazement, things worked and students seemed to grasp what they were doing. Then there was a quiz, the usual pouting after the quiz, a lecture on epidemiology and a short practice with case studies. By then the class had wound down to less than 20. We were sitting tired in the classroom, discussing rice water diarrheas and nosocomial infections.  They were asking questions and commenting, telling horror stories from their families and workplaces. They were getting it. And I felt good. But it does not seem complicated enough to post about it. 

    Thursday, June 2, 2011

    AVP National Gathering 2011

    The New Zealand AVP song
    I spent most of the last weekend in Belmont CA, more specifically at the Notre Dame de Namur University campus attending the National Gathering of the Alternatives to Violence Project
    AVP has been an important part of my life since 2005, when I had my first workshop. I have been facilitating for a couple of years now, and am seriously considering becoming what it used to be a "lead" but now is named "team coordinator." For me, it is the next logical step. AVP has many flavors: it originated in prisons in order to decrease violence and provide inmates with tools to explore the roots of violence and how to handle it; it has been used in community settings to help people deal with conflict resolution and relationships, and it has been used for trauma healing and reconciliation in war-savaged countries such as Rwanda. 
    I have facilitated community workshops, but my main focus lately has been prison workshops in Spanish. In California, the number of Spanish language programs has been cut drastically with all the budget cuts. And AVP, as a volunteer program, does not cost to the prison system. 
    Doing AVP takes time, but it is so incredibly enriching...and besides everything else is a great reality check. There is nothing like stepping out of a prison building to feel the afternoon sun and be able to leave through the gates.  Makes one appreciate freedom and life. 
    Being in a gathering like this is like being with a close-knit family. As an all-volunteer organization, there is no financial incentive doing AVP: AVPers do it because they believe in it. It entails sacrifice in time and resources, so no wonder the majority of AVPers, at least in the US, are well-to-do retired people. One of the major current challenges for AVP is its lack of diversity, and there were many discussions addressing it. 
    My two agenda items for the meeting were the situation of Spanish language workshops and promoting social media within AVP. For the first I was part of a breakout session that brought together a group of Spanish-speaking facilitators, most of them working in Latin America, and a minority here in the States. I had met some of them and communicated with others through email and skype, and it was great to meet all of them in person. The fact that the next International Gathering takes place in Guatemala highlights the growing influence of Hispanic countries in AVP.
    The next item did not feel as successful. I had a strong deja vu of my conversations with educators about the possibilities of online teaching and the use of social media...not a lot of interest. Or skepticism. I guess I was too optimistic expecting enthusiasm.  I should try to make a list about the information one can find on Twitter similar to the one in a recent post by Scott McLeod, but directed to the non-violence/restorative justice/peace crowd. 
    Posada de Belen, site of the International Gathering in
    Guatemala, October 2-8 2011
    Other than that, it was a great event. Being an educator and an AVP facilitator overlaps in many aspects, one of them the possibility of making a difference and changing lives. During the Summer break I already have two workshops planned, and if my Fall schedule does not get populated soon I am seriously thinking on spending some time in Latin America around the International Gathering...