Peace Education Summer Online Course

MLKQuoteDuring the second session of American University’s summer 2013 semester, July 1st – August 15th, I taught an online version of my edu-596 Peace Pedagogy course. This course had approximately 13 students, all DC area teachers. The course description reads similar to the other EDU-596 courses that were taught on-site. However, a different pedagogical approach was taken given the online format. Click here to download syllabus.

The course was a blend of synchronous (weekly partnered phone conversations and three, all-class conference calls) and asynchronous learning (weekly discussion boards and daily peace actions). I also provided weekly videos or podcasts summarizing key questions and insights each of the students made in the discussion forums. The entire course was hosted on my customized website, http://peacelearner.org.  This was an interested endeavor in that the in-person course, as one would expect, relies heavily on student participation, modeling, and face-to-face interactions and conversations . So, how was one to do this effectively online?

In this post I share some of the online pedagogical methods I integrated into this course that I felt allowed the spirit and skill development and sharing of peace pedagogy to thrive online just as it does on a face to face course. Also, you might be wondering why the picture above. There is an interesting story that goes a long with that, which I will share at the end.

First, if you want to get a pretty solid overview of what was covered during the course and what learning emerged, I recommend you check out the weekly blog posts on peacelearner.org that I put together. They involve videos or podcasts that I produced sharing my take aways from what the students in the course were sharing in the forums.

Week One – Building Peacebale Learning Communities

Week Two – Foundations of Peace Education

Week Three – Social and Emotional Learning + Positive Psychology

Week Four – Transforming Conflict Nonviolently

Week Five – Environmental Sustainability

Week Six – Yoga and Mindfulness

Week Seven – PeaceLearner Commitments

The course had five main activities/requirements that were used to assess student learning throughout.

Phone Calls with Classmates
Each week students were paired up with another course participant and the two would set up a time to discuss a series of questions over the phone about the materials and exercises assigned for that week.  The point was to have a vocal one on one conversation about what they are learning and thinking about. These phone calls also provided an opportunity for the students to learn more about their classmates and to share ideas. Lastly, in a course about peace pedagogy, expanding  opportunities to communicate with one another beyond online, text-based forums, I felt, was essential to activate some of the principles and tools that the course values. Student participation in these partnered phone calls were assessed based on the student’s ability to effectively coordinate times with their learning partner so that the phone call actually takes place each week and the quality of your contributions in the forums around what the phone calls helped reveal about what they were learning from the course material and their classmates.

During the end of course evaluation, this course requirement was one of the students’ favorite parts. When they first saw them as a requirements on the syllabus they were a bit skeptical, but they soon saw the value of having these phone calls.

Designing synchronous conversations this way also ensured that technology was not going to be a barrier to student participation. This is why I did not require that people link up using a webinar service, Google hangout or even video on skype. I have found that despite major advances in access to technology, the use of video communication is still too unreliable for my purposes. Phones, on the other hands, at least with the learners I work with, are accessible. Everyone has at phone in their home or a mobile phone and everyone knows how to use them.

Conference Calls
There were three, 75 minute, all-class conference calls during the course.  These conference calls were be set up and facilitated using a circle process and provided the class with an opportunity to explore a variety of questions with the entire class. The student’s participation in the conference calls was assessed based on them being present for each call and the quality of their contributions during the discussion.

The circle process that I refer to above is called “the clock method,” which I picked up from Kingian Nonviolence book club I had been a part of this year. In short, when people sign in to the conference call and the facilitator asks everyone to take out a piece of paper and a writing utensil and to draw a clock face – a circle with the number 1-12 going around it. Then the facilitators “checks everyone in” by calling out their name one at a time. When someone hears their name they choose a number between 1-12.  Then everyone else on the call writes that person’s name next to the number on the clock face. This way, by the time everyone has been checked in, they all have are “sitting at a number” around the circle. Having this visual of conference call participants sitting around a circle makes it much easier to use a circle process, remember everyone’s name who is on the call, and track whose contributing. I have gone on to use this clock method in several other applications. It has made me realize that conference calls DO NOT need to be these painful experiences where people are unsure when to enter the conversation, unaware of who is on the call, and unable to focus their attention to the call in the same way they would if the meeting were held in person.

Daily Peace Actions
At the beginning of each week everyone received an email that introduced them to a daily peace action they were asked to practice and experiment with every day of that week. These actions serve three purposes. First, they were actions that fostered and encouraged self-care. Second, they were actions that can be adapted and incorporated into various teaching contexts. And third, they were actions that take us beyond abstract, intellectual conversation and ideally create or acknowledge peace in our surrounding environments. These actions were relatively simple ways to experiment with how different exercises and tools can help create peaceable learning environments. Each action was connected to the theme that is being explored that week and was unpacked and discussed further in the online forums and during the partnered phone calls. Student participation in the daily peace actions were be assessed based of the reflections they shared in the forums about their experience with these actions.

The daily peace actions were as follows (copied from the emails I sent out every Monday at 5am):

Quiet Time (Week One) – Take 5 minutes each day this week to sit or lie down in a silent or quiet place, close your eyes, and try to focus on your breathing and nothing else. If you find that to be challenging try to focus and concentrate on how your breath moves through your body and how the process of breathing affects the rest of your body. You can also try focusing on the sounds that are present around you (e.g. the hum of the air conditioner, the birds chirping outside, the sound of cars driving along a nearby street, the chatter in the room next door, etc.). They key is to focus your attention to the present. If you find your thoughts wandering, don’t worry. Try some of the techniques above and stick with it.

This being an online course, I felt it was important to build into this learning experience something at the very start that takes us out from in front of our computer screens, helps us control the wandering of our mind, frees us from the myriad distractions we face each day, and asks us to be present and relaxed. I hope these actions bring a sense of peace into your week.

Make Someone Smile (Week Two) – First, create a list of all the ways you have the power and capacity to make someone smile. Using your powers try and accomplish this goal each day by making at least one person smile, be it a friend, family member, colleague, or stranger.

Keep a mental note of when you exercised this power and what it was like for you and the other person or people.

Gratitude Letters (Week Three) – Each day this week pick one person in your life to whom you are grateful. Take at least ten minutes to sit down and write that person an email or, better yet, a hand written letter or card explaining why you appreciate them and the way in which they have positively impacted your life. You are encouraged to provide in your letter a specific example or moment when you felt or recognized the gratitude and appreciation you had for that person.

What Went Well (Week Four) – This exercise is used in Dr. Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology class at the University of Pennsylvania – one of the most sought after and innovative courses in psychology. Below is a description of the exercise Seligman offers in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.

“Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well [emphasis original]. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

“Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause “God was looking out for her” or “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”

“Writing about why the positive events in your life happened might seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.” (Seligman, 33-34)

Savoring Beauty (Week Five) – Each day this week be consciously looking for beautiful things in your life. This could be a pretty flower outside your front door, a well prepared meal you are about to enjoy, a new book you got in the mail, the way the sunlight is shining through the clouds, or some graffiti on a wall — anything that you think is beautiful. Once you have identified this thing, scenery, or moment I ask you to do two things: First, stop what ever you are doing and savor that moment of beauty for five breathes. Second, if possible, take a photo of that thing, scene, or moment and email it to me.

I am going to collect all the photos that are sent to me and create a digital photo gallery that I will share with everyone on Sunday.

Yoga and Mindfulness (Week Six) – One of the readings for this week is part one in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace Is Every Step. In this chapter he describes several yogic and mindfulness exercises that you can practice at various times throughout the day and involve some of the most routine things like eating, driving, sitting, walking, etc. – he just invites you to experience those things with greater mindfulness and provides instructions on how to do that. You can pick just one of these exercises and practice it each day this week, or you can pick different ones and try them on different days of the week.

Online Forum Discussions
Participation in the online forums gave students the opportunity to process the materials (readings and videos) to which they had been introduced each week and the learning they have experienced as a result. The forums were also a communal place where all students recorded their learnings and shared them with the rest of the class. There was a specific forum for each week of the course and students were asked to contribute to those forums before the end of that week. There were specific reflection questions for each week’s forum that were based on the themes covered in that week’s module and the conversations they were having over the phone with their learning partner that week. Student participation in the forums was assessed based on their being present in each week’s forum, meeting the specific deadlines for posting and the quality of your contributions.

PeaceLearner Commitment
A PeaceLearner commitment was a pledge to one’s self, and shared with the learning community, to achieve a goal that seeks to build and foster peaceable learning environments.  This environment can be built in the classroom, your community, among your peers, with your family, in the work place, or for yourself.  The choice was theirs. The key was for an element of the course that resonated with them – skill, content, activity, attitude, technique, perspective, etc. – to bear fruit outside of the online space that was shared during the course. The final all-class conference call was a time for everyone to share their commitment with the rest of the class. Specific details on how to think about and craft your PeaceLearner commitment were sent out towards the end of the course. Student participation in the PeaceLearner commitment was assessed based their presence and presentation in the final, all-class conference call, where everyone was  asked to share their commitment.

So, why the MLK quote? First of all, its a quote that captures an ethic and belief that I, as a peace educator, hold true. Secondly, I took this picture in last August. I was with a friend of mine who herself is a peace and nonviolence educator. So, already the experience was a powerful one. As we were walking through the memorial, reading the different quotes, I saw a school group making its way toward to monument. There were about 20 or so elementary school children and two teachers. They were all wearing neon green shirts. I looked at one of the teachers and she looked back at me. It was as if we knew each other, but we had never actually met. Soon after that first look one of the teachers walked up to me and said, “Daryn?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “I am Shawanda. I was one of the teachers in your online peace pedagogy class. I recognize you from the short videos that you posted each week.” She knew what I looked like but I had actually never met or seen her in person. But that did not matter. We gave each other a hug and she thanked me for a great class and let me know that she was already incorporating quiet time with her summer students and was experiencing success with it.

Anyway, it was a great way to end the summer by breathing in the MLK spirit with a good friend of mine and totally coincidentally meeting one of the teachers who was in the peace education course and giving her a hug. That was a very special moment!

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