The Cave of the Crystal Maiden

“You’re young enough to be my grandson,” Phyllis confides to me in the bumpy van ride through verdant waves of palm, ceiba and tiger bush.  Our driver plows through muddied water of the washed out dirt road.  Phyllis frowns.  “I don’t like caves, and I’m not a good swimmer.”

Did the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave poster, complete with whip scorpions, skeletons of the sacrificed, and photos of tourists swimming into a murky mausoleum not deter her?  Nevertheless, I promise to stay close.  In my ignorance excitement boils over, blind to the path ahead that will harm both body and spirit.

In the potholed parking lot, rain pelts us as we don our plastic hardhats.  I am the lone Canadian in a group of older Americans.  A two-minute trail takes us to Roaring River.  Swift riffles heaving from the cloudburst betray a deadly undercurrent.  There is no bridge.

Student-inspired Presentations in Biology

Golgi guys

Students dress up as a Golgi apparatus for their biology presentation.

In the cell biology lab, I decided to scrap the pre-lab quiz one week and have students do brief presentations. Each partnership chose one electron micrograph to present. I gave some basic guidelines and encouraged them to be creative.

That day, our class awaited the arrival of two students. Their tardiness was quickly forgotten as they came through the door, dressed in full lab coats and covered in twisting balloons (the ones used to make balloon animals).  Collectively, they embodied a living, walking Golgi apparatus.

Meanwhile in the genetics lab, students were presenting meiosis.  

Nature and Learning

I recently took a large group of university students in first-year biology for a forest field trip. At the outset, I inquired as to how often they walked along a wooded path.  A few liked to take their dogs on the trails, yet the vast majority (over 90%) had never, in their life, gone into the forest.  I was astonished.

As a child, I made regular sojourns into the neighborhood wilderness.  Whether it be the park or ocean down the road, the local trails by the stream, or simply the small wooded area of our backyard, I lost myself in adventures of the imagination fuelled by being outside.  I found it hard to fathom that these young adults had abandoned the great gift of hiking.  Or perhaps, more precisely, that their upbringing had never exposed them to this experience.

Engaged and Embodied Learning: Ideas for a Philosophy of Teaching

In my experience, students arrive for their first biology lab simmering with nervous energy, whispering excitements and elusory dreads—if they speak at all.  Their pulsating uncertainty awaits the rules of the game and the freedoms the instructor allows within the confines of the classroom.  Being mindful of your power, set the stage for the semester in five key ways:

1. A foundation of patience and approachability
2. Engage in multiple creative approaches
3. Strive to inspire and involve
4. Employ movement and flexibility
5. Genuine and unabashed enthusiasm

How can we accomplish this?

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Building Community From the Ground Up

It begins with boxes.  Hundreds and hundreds of cardboard boxes snatched from Safeway, Camp Kwomais, and overflowing recycle bins.  We stretch them out, yank off the tape, and cover the rectangle of grass that is to become Alexandra Community Gardens.

Next the donated sawdust—in fact, everything is donated—is wheel-barrelled out, and then the wooden garden boxes placed in their rows.  Eight hours and thousands of shovelfuls later, and thirty raised beds are ready for seeds to reach their verdant heights.

Of course, this did not really begin with boxes.  It began with an idea, which came from the people, that germinated at a community gathering.  

Re-evaluating My Role as Educator

Something wonderful happened in the biology lab this past semester.  Stressed students began to laugh.  The shy felt comfortable asking questions.  They sometimes challenged my explanations.  This spurred curious debate and conversation, and a willingness for us both to explore beyond the lesson plan.  I shifted from a teacher of content to a facilitator of learning.

Post-secondary teachers are trained to be experts in their field.  Yet how do we provide a suitable framework for learning?  Many instructors, including myself, are put before students with scant preparation, our only model the example by which we were taught.  Knowing the photosynthetic chloroplast mechanism in intimate detail may be important; understanding the best method for engaging students with this complex organelle is vital.

Students complain that their classes are boring, that teachers teach from the book, that they are overwhelmed by essays and exams.  They complain because they are not inspired.   The central role of the educator is to provide an enriching—and perhaps transformative—learning experience.

My Journey Across CMS Platforms: From Blogger to Drupal, Radiant to WordPress

Over the last several months I bought my first Mac, dived into Drupal, toyed with the Mac OS Terminal, wrestled with Radiant, coded my first CSS, and tried not to pull out my hair (good thing I have a lot).

The PC-to-Mac switch proved relatively easy, and sensible.  Simple, intuitive, more stable, nearly virus-free, with quality hardware and design.

Now I want a new website.  For me, web design began a long time ago in a program far, far away called Microsoft Frontpage (easy to use but impossible to follow web standards).  Then I jumped ship for Adobe Dreamweaver (steeper learning curve but better-looking results).  I also threw the odd blog onto Blogger (straightforward but limited in scope, and often excruciating to implement the basics).

This time around, I want my CMS (content management system) to be powerful and open-sourced. 

How to Declutter and Find New Homes for Your Old Stuff

We live in a culture of excess. Clothes, food, books, and floss are necessities. Files, gadgets, decor, bobbleheads, Windex, hello kitty false fingernails—not so much. We are compelled to buy more, when we should spend less.

The past two years, my wife and I have sorted through every closet, box, and storage area. The result? Half our possessions set free. The experience is a cathartic—if arduous—process: choice after choice that ends in exhaustive relief. I kept certain items for decades in hopes of using them in the future. Instead, they became stale relics of my old self.

The five steps below, spoken from experience, help ensure each item in our house holds purpose.

My Relationship with Technology

In the brave world of new media, the technological jungle is full of digital snares and Facebook leeches.  The clear path is hard to find.  Distraction is as ubiquitous as termites in a termite mound.  Advertisements wave at you like cute squirrel monkeys frolicking in the foliage that turn out to be howler monkeys in disguise.  Amidst a constant din of spam and the glow of screens, finding clarity is a struggle.

I strive to find that clarity.  I don’t own a cell phone.  I delete chain emails and adorable kitten photos sent by well-meaning friends.  In the jungle ecosystem, there are far too many links and relationships to follow, and each one that I explore has the potential to keep me from the creative pause, that realm of stillness and imagination that provides the foundation for my creativity.