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AP Psychology-- forming a caring community
Bonnie Gonzalez, AP Psychology, 4/21/2011

Editor's Note from Susan Richman: Bonnie Gonzalez, a family therapist and homeschooling mom of three graduates, has been leading a 2nd section of AP Psychology with our PA Homeschoolers Advanced Placement Online program for a number of years now, involving students in both rigorous study of the field using a core text and the rich psychology resources available on the Internet, and even original research projects. But you'll see from this article that another type of learning and community-building can also go on in online AP Psychology-- a maybe surprising one. 

My father died this year.  No matter how old you are, losing a parent, especially a father, feels like the cornerstone has been removed from the building.  After a year's battle with lung cancer, we watched my Dad struggle to take his last breath very early on a Sunday morning.  And, on Monday, I had to go back to teaching my AP Psychology class.  So, I asked myself, “Do I tell my class, or simply go on silently as though nothing had happened?”  After all, in this world of teaching through technology no one really sees you crying, and your feelings aren't viewed via email.  And yet, my students had shared many of their battles, their joys and their triumphs. So on Monday morning, with great heaviness, I composed an email letting them know what had happened, if for no other reason than to explain why I might be mentally absent for the next week.

What I experienced over the next few days surpassed any class experience I have ever had.  Each of my students and many of their family members not only sent condolences, but also offered personal stories of losses, advice on grieving, and heartfelt prayers. 

I have often heard it said, “I would never want to take an online class.  It is so impersonal.  You never get to know the teacher or anyone in the class.”  To the scoffers, I say, join my class and you might change your mind about online learning.  My experience teaching online has been the formation of a close knit community.  In order to create this community I begin each class requesting that the students post a short biography and a picture of themselves. Some students are reluctant to do this, and no one is forced to provide any information, however, most do share at least a few things about themselves. I also post a bio, and a picture of myself.  Thus, we begin each year knowing a little something about each other, and this knowledge grows quickly through weekly chats, web board discussions, and emails.

Teaching the subject of psychology fosters discussion about the human condition.  In my class, students are given the opportunity to explore topics such as grief, memory formation, the origin of emotions, and personality development.  During weekly online chats, students are encouraged to share their ideas and thoughts about many of these topics.  Often our discussions are quite lively – with 10 or more students “talking”  at the same time, you can imagine the frenzy of 'chatting'.  And thus, the community of personalities and ideas begins to grow.  By the time we reach the chapter on psychological disorders and treatment, everyone begins sharing stories of people they have known who suffer from different disorders.  Not only are the chats lively, but our web board discussions are equally exciting ranging from debates on whether nature or nurture has more of an effect on our behavior, to discussing whether mental illness is really a myth.   The students have now become friends both with each other, and with me.  The learning environment and the joy of knowing about human thought and behavior has bound us together. 

 In the end, the human experience is a personal one and what better test of a bond, then to share a piece of our own humanity.  Yes, my father may have passed on, but the memory of my shared experience with a group of wonderful students will linger on forever.

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