ACE Faculty Interview with Palmar Alvarez-Blanco

30 April 2024

The CCCE recently interviewed Broom Fellow Palmar Alvarez-Blanco about her applied Academic Civic Engagement course, Spain Today, which partners with community partners and elders in Spain who experienced the Spanish dictatorship. Alvarez-Blanco developed this course over several years with her partners. Here she reflects on the course learning goals, logistical challenges, and how her teaching philosophy informed her process of scaffolding the learning experience for both Carleton students and the elder participants in Spain.

What goals did you have for this class, for your students, or for the community partners you were working with? 

SHARED MEMORIES is a co-educational and civic-engaged project that enriches my SPAN 244 course, ‘Spain Today,’ by fostering a civic partnership with elderly individuals in Spain. Through one-on-one conversation with those who experienced life under the Spanish dictatorship and beyond, students gained insight into the complexities of studying a nation grappling with historical trauma and contemporary crisis. The course aimed to achieve several key learning objectives: analyzing the construction of Spain’s official history, critically deconstructing this narrative through meaningful conversations featuring first-hand testimonies, providing elderly co-educators with a platform to critically reflect on and share their past experiences, and transforming students into witnesses of oral history.

Although reading and studying a country’s history can help anyone to be well-informed, listening to first-hand testimonies can provide students with new historical perspectives. One of my goals for the students was to better understand what life was like during the dictatorship in Spain and throughout the transition towards the so-called democratic period. In addition, the co-educators saw first-hand the effect that real-life testimonies have on the development of historical knowledge. In addition, it has been extremely rewarding for the co-educators to see themselves valued as knowledge holders and for everyone involved to see the growth of a coeducational model in which students and co-educators were challenged within the frame of intergenerational and intercultural conversations.

Were there obstacles to those goals being met, and if so how did you address them?

When collaborating with individuals from diverse generations and socio-political, economic, and cultural backgrounds, we encountered several significant challenges, including:

  • Establishing appropriate agreements between the community partners and Carleton.
  • Securing financial support for two technicians in Santander and Galicia.
  • Developing a comprehensive guide detailing the steps for conducting sessions, encompassing rules, boundaries, and considerations for socio-political, cultural, and linguistic differences.
  • Establishing a website to serve as a centralized repository for course readings and biographies of all participating individuals.
  • Conducting workshops to educate community partners in their respective locations.

My two community partners were two groups of co-educators, one based in Santander, Cantabria, and the other in Corcubion, Galicia. Not everyone had access to WIFI or the necessary devices for Zoom meetings. Thus, our initial challenge was to ensure that all participants were equipped with the essential tools. To address this, the Cultural Concejeira of Corcubión purchased tablets for the participants in Galicia. Additionally, thanks to a grant from CCCE, I was able to hire two technicians in each region- to assist with the process. These technicians played a crucial role in helping everyone connect to Zoom meetings. They were available before each session, offering assistance over the phone or even visiting participants at their homes when needed.

Our second challenge involved navigating the use of the tablets and understanding the role of a co-educator. To address these two components, I conducted workshops in each location over the summer. These workshops covered various topics, including information about Liberal Arts education at Carleton, details about my pedagogical approach to this course, and details instructions for participating as a co-educator. Additionally, during these workshops, we provided training on effectively incorporating tablet devices and zoom meetings into daily life.The first class at Carleton focused on explaining the civic engagement component to my students and guiding them on how to approach conversations with our co-educators, who are retired individuals not typically accustomed to technology.

In addition to conducting workshops in Spain and addressing the curricular aspects of the course, I further supported this process by developing a website. This website served as a central hub for resources and information. Additionally, I created guidelines for facilitating integrational and intercultural conversations, which were provided to both my students and the co-educators. Furthermore, I developed video-based scenarios designed to aid both students and co-educators in understanding and navigating the conversational dynamics.

Another significant challenge involved managing ideological conflicts that could lead to tension or conflict. To address this, we prioritized fostering an environment where diverse perspectives were respected, and we actively learned to navigate disagreements constructively. While there were occasions when tensions and disagreements were inevitable, we viewed these moments as golden opportunities to reflect on democratic cohabitation, fostering deeper understanding and mutual respect among participants.

Decentralizing the classroom challenged me as a professor. This challenge involved moving away from a teacher-centered approach to embracing a participatory and critically engaged pedagogy. This also required rethinking the layout of the classroom, shifting power dynamics, and allowing all the participants—students and co-educators- to take an active role in their learning.

Can you tell me about some of the different perspectives and roles (of students, community partners, or anyone else involved) that contributed to the knowledge sharing with this class?

Shared Memories is a project that benefits both community partners and students by providing a confidential space for conversations. Participants in Spain engaged with course materials, including readings, films, and documentaries, and were encouraged to share their insights based on their own experiences related to each week’s topic. They played a crucial role as co-educators in the room, and I believe this role had a positive impact on their self-esteem, as they felt deeply valued as holders of knowledge.

It was fascinating to observe how individuals who had never broached these topics within their own families gradually began to share their memories and express openly their thoughts. Often, these conversations sparked discussions within their own families, highlighting the ripple effect of our engagement and the broader impact of our project on fostering dialogue and reflection within their own communities.

On the other hand, students emphasized that conversations were pivotal to their learning experience in this class. Through interactions with co-educators, students found themselves engaging in profound reflections on Spain’s history. Moreover, dialogues with co-educators illuminated how history continues to shape the present. Both co-educators and students demonstrated a deep comprehension of the material through these exchanges. Additionally, they gained insights into the significance of historical memory and learned to value intergenerational connections. Above all, these conversations provided students with a broader, more nuanced perspective on the history of Spain, enriching their understanding and maturity.

How does this class intersect with other work you’re doing, or other work you see happening elsewhere, at Carleton or in the broader community?

This project embodies key principles central to my teaching philosophy, each contributing to a comprehensive and enriching educational experience that I strive to implement in all my classes:

  • The intergenerational conversations always help building an inclusive learning environment where diverse perspectives need to be valued and respected.
  • The experiential learning component through hands-on experiences and active civic engagement provide the students and the co-educators with a deeper understanding of the course material by applying theoretical concepts to a real-world context. I believe the insights usually extend beyond the classroom setting.
  • The collaborative learning aspect of my courses promote collective problem-solving and help develop interpersonal skills essential for effective teamwork and communication.
  • The critical analysis/thinking is at the center of every assignment and conversation. The design of my class materials encourages students to question assumptions, evaluate evidence, and develop informed perspectives, enabling them to navigate complex issues with discernment and nuance.
  • The variety of assignments always look to accommodate different learning styles allowing students to demonstrate their understanding through various mediums.
  • The idea of learning extending beyond the classroom motivates me to seek channels for bridging academic knowledge with real-world life experiences and partnerships. This pursuit usually embarks me along with the community partners and the students on journeys marked by mutual respect and collaborative educational processes.

This is the second time I have conducted this course with its current civic-engaged component, affording me a comprehensive understanding of its worth. Feedback from both students and co-educators has been overwhelmingly positive, solidifying my resolution to persist in this venture. As part of concluding this phase, students have written and personal evaluations, which I intend to share personally with the co-educators during my upcoming visit to Spain in July.