Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What Constitutes Meaningful Service for Spanish Community Service Learning?

The latest newsletter from the National Youth Leadership Council is chock-full of great information. (Thanks, Val, for posting it in the Ning group. Your links are so useful and always lead me to reflect--and act!--on my practice.)

If you're interested in community service learning, then I'd suggest reading through the whole newsletter. Here, I'd like to make some connections specifically to Spanish community-based learning.

Of the eight K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice, one article in this newsletter focuses on the first standard, "Meaningful Service" and lists the indicators for meaningful service. Although these standards are for K-12, they certainly hold truths for university educators doing community service learning as well.

I will focus on these indicators in this post and then explore the rest of the article in another post.

Meaningful Service Indicator #1: Service-learning experiences are appropriate to participant ages and developmental abilities.

Specific Issues of Concern for Spanish Community Service Learning (CSL): Spanish CSL instructors must determine two specific areas of students' developmental abilities: their linguistic abilities and cultural knowledge. Simply put: if students' Spanish fluency and accuracy is not high enough to successfully communicate with the Spanish-speaking community members, the service will not be meaningful for anyone involved. Students will be frustrated. Community partners' credibility may suffer. For example, if students produce written materials in Spanish that are full of mistakes and literal translations, their Spanish-speaking clients may view that organization as a place that does not meet their needs. Worse, bad Spanish could actually cause costly mistakes, accidents and mishaps. A lack of cultural understanding can lead students to work at cross-purposes with the clients. It can also cause them to simply confirm their pre-existing cultural stereotypes. (Darcy Lear and I have an article forthcoming in Hispania that addresses these potential problems.)

Meaningful Service Indicator #2: Service-learning addresses issues that are personally relevant to the participants.

Specific Issues of Concern for Spanish CSL: In theory, any student who has chosen to study Spanish beyond a language requirement would have a personal interest in a service project that involves speaking Spanish and learning more about Hispanic cultures. Beyond that, data I collected in 2008 shows that many students choose service projects that allow them to combine their love of Spanish with work that connects in some way to their professional goals and/or personal interests. So I think the take-away here for Spanish CSL instructors is this: community partner/project choice. Each semester I have about 10 community partners that students can choose among. This, of course, increases the administrative load--more community partners equals more communication, trouble-shooting and coordination.

Meaningful Service Indicator #3: Service-learning provides participants with interesting and engaging service activities.

Specific Issues of Concern for Spanish CSL: Each student has a different opinion about what is interesting and engaging. But in general, I find that students respond best when their actual duties in the community allow them to speak with native-speakers of Spanish, often. Although we know that students need to develop all four skills of their second language--speaking, listening, reading and writing--my hunch is that students prioritize speaking and listening. (Students, leave a comment to let me know if I am right or wrong!)

Meaningful Service Indicator #4: Service-learning encourages participants to understand their service experiences in the context of the underlying societal issues being addressed.

Specific Issues of Concern for Spanish CSL: While I certainly agree with this indicator, it sometimes feels like a huge burden to me. Latino immigration is at the axis of so many "underlying societal issues" that it can seem overwhelming. What policy issues should I teach? What must I leave out? How do I combine the teaching of these societal issues with the lesson plans that are necessary to simply gear students up to successfully serve in the Latino community, in Spanish and in culturally-appropriate ways? If students need instruction in how to take accurate telephone messages in Spanish, how do we go from that level of learning to the meta-analysis level of why so many Latina/o clients are leaving messages about court issues, translation needs, housing problems, etc.? Finally, I have often seen some students' eyes glaze over or become defensive when I ask them to link their work to deeper societal issues. Some students (not all!) seem to have completely divorced their interest in "Spanish" with the political issues that are tied to the language in our country, our state, our community.

Meaningful Service Indicator #5: Service-learning leads to attainable and visible outcomes that are valued by those being served.

Specific Issues of Concern for Spanish CSL:
I plan to devote some real thinking to this indicator and develop some activities around it. Too often, I find, "visible and attainable outcomes" are thought of as big outcomes or as the end point of a project. Instead, my students are engaged in on-going, day-to-day operations of the organizations where they work. So do they think their service has visible and attainable outcomes? Frankly, I don't know. How small can a unit of service be for students to still feel that it is a "visible outcome?" Greeting a client in Spanish? Filing a document correctly? Helping a student read one book? One page? And how is the outcome made visible to them? By the client's smile? Being told, "Gracias"? By seeing the test scores improve for an ESL student that they are tutoring?

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