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...