Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Can We Effectively Filter Students from a Community Service Learning Course? Should We?

by Ann Abbott
image by James Baigrie

One of the TAs teaching "Spanish in the Community" this semester has approached me about a problem that all of us teaching community service learning face: a student whose work in the community may be harming more than helping.

That's serious.

Ideally, we would handle it this way:

  1. First , the TA would tell the student that his behavior is inappropriate and potentially damaging.
  2. I would contact the community partner to ask for their assessment of the situation.
  3. The student would come talk to me so I could reiterate the same message and decide whether or not to pull the student out of his community work.

I am convinced that this is an isolated case. The vast majority of our students are responsible, caring individuals who use their common sense in the community and follow the lead of their community supervisors.

But how can we prevent future cases like this?

My TA suggested that we do more filtering of students who get into the class. Below I'll list the ways in which we already do filter students. And I hope that readers will suggest new ideas.

Before the list, however, I do want to point out that we do not want to "over-filter." How can a student know for sure if he/she will perform well in a community-based learning course if they have never done it before? How can we know that? Many students who might have been filtered out end up rising to the challenge even better than students who have jumped through all the previous hoops. So, we do need to filter students, and then--as in any course--if students are not performing well, we need to discuss that with them.

Filter mechanisms in SPAN 232 "Spanish in the Community"

1. Course title. The title should alert students that they will be involved IN the community. However, I realize that students are not expecting a university course to involve community-based learning. Many probably interpret the title as being ABOUT Spanish in the community. A course title like, "You Will Work Independently in the Community" would be clearer, but not possible.

2. Course description. The on-line course description explains the course requirements fairly clearly, I believe. However, I know that many students choose their courses not by the course description, but by the schedule. In other words, if they want to have Fridays with no courses, they will look and see what Tuesday/Thursday classes have seats available. Some students may enroll in the course without ever having read the course description.

3. Prerequisites. As you can see from the on-line course description (link above), students must have taken Oral Spanish before taking this course. Their spoken and written Spanish don't have to be perfect, but they do need a minimum proficiency level so they actually contribute to the work of our community partners and advance their own language learning. Otherwise, they might just give up because it's too hard to understand and produce comprehensible language. This means that students have had at least five semesters of college Spanish (or the equivalent) before taking the course. Most of them have actually had more than that and have even studied abroad.

My TA noted that many of our students come from programs like computer science, business, engineering, chemistry, etc. and report that they have never even had any class where they talk about culture, ethnicity, language, etc.

I have a few comments about that:

  • First of all, I am extremely happy that students from those backgrounds are taking Spanish! They add unique perspectives to the classroom discussions and valuable skills that they can contribute to our community partners.
  • However, even though students may say that they have never even had any class where they talk about culture, ethnicity, language, etc., that's not true. It's impossible that those issues have not come up in their previous Spanish classes and in the books they used. (Remember, they have all had at least five previous semesters of Spanish.) Or if it is true, then that is a huge failing on the part of Spanish curricula everywhere!
  • What is possible, however, is that those issues were never brought up in the context of putting that information to use in a real-world setting. They never had to actually experience it. When culture is presented "in a box" in a textbook, you don't have to use it. And when ethnicity is presented as a couple of photos in a book that show Afro-Hispanics or indigenous Latin Americans, they haven't really experienced "ethnicity." So, when they are confronted with these issues for the first time in the community, they may feel as if they have never learned about these issues.
  • It has been suggested that we add an additional pre-req of some kind of course (from anthropology, sociology, political science, or other fields). Aside from the logistical nightmare of hand-checking all those pre-reqs for every student who signs up, I'm also not sure that merely taking a course in which those topics are discussed translates into actual cultural competency.
  • This brings me back around to one of my frustrations with a one-semester Spanish community-service learning course: we're expected to teach it all! We simply can't.

4. E-mail. I have shared the e-mail I send to students when the semester starts. I hate to come off so heavy in my first contact with students, but it has proven to be an effective filter for some students. When asked to truly consider their time commitments, some students do drop the course. I can add something about responsibility to vulnerable communities in the e-mail as well.

5. Wiki. Again, I wish that didn't have to always be so stern with students as they begin this course, but a serious tone does convey that their responsibilities in the course are serious. As you can see from the information on the wiki in which they choose their community partner and self-schedule, we send the message again about the extra responsibilities this course requires.

6. Quiz and contracts. I added something new to the course this semester: an on-line quiz about the course policies. The quiz includes the following:
  • questions about what constitutes poor behavior in the course and its consequences
  • a course contract that outlines their responsibilities and their duty to respect the privacy of all the clients/students
  • a program dismissal form that stipulates that they may be dropped from the course for failure to comply with policies of the course and the university

7. First lesson. The very first lesson in the curriculum is entitled, "¿Deberías tomar este curso?" It asks the students to do the following:

  • Identify what they know or think they know about the course.
  • Analyze the kind of student they are in other classes and compare that with what is required of students in this class.
  • Make a decision: should you stay in this class or drop it.
8. TA monitoring. A TA in our department recently implied to me that it was unfair to choose TAs for this course based on whether or not they have already taught it. I do believe that each semester I need to have at least one experienced TA to serve as a "peer advisor" to the other TAs. Just as taking this course requires different and extra responsibilities, so does teaching it. In addition to teaching and grading, my TAs need to be alert to possible "problem students" all during the semester. Hopefully, it will be rare that we discover a bad situation at the end of the semester. Students' performance on the following class components should warn us early on about problems: in their reflexiones, classroom activities, tests and work log.

9. Community supervisors. We don't send students out to work alone. Our community partners have supervisors who watch over the work our students do. Those partners may indeed make a decision to let a student operate independently in a certain context, but only if in their professional opinion it is warranted. I trust their expertise and sound judgement. Whenever there have been problems with students, although rare, my community partners have certainly alerted me--(1) a student who was teaching questionable English expressions to a grade-schooler; (2) several students who arrived late or weren't fully "plugged in" with another community partner; (3) students who are scheduled on the wiki but don't show up; usually, they have dropped the course without informing anyone.

10. Research/Publications. The issues my TA raises are important ones. Ones that should be researched and reported in order to advance the practice of Spanish community service learning. Darcy Lear and I are researching and publishing on several different issues related to students' learning and attitudes in a Spanish CSL course, but much remains to be investigated!

11. New curriculum materials. As we learn more and more about our students' and our community partners' needs, we need to develop corresponding teaching materials. From my TA's comments and concerns, I see the necessity to build a lesson plan around the issue of vulnerable communities and students' responsibility to avoid potential negative--even though unintended--impact.

Conclusion. I'm always on the lookout for ways to improve the administration and teaching of Spanish community service learning. Effective student-filtering is certainly a big part of that. However, my biggest take-away from this is a reminder of the need to be explicit with our students. Explicitly tell them why we're filtering them. Explicitly remind them to connect the issues they face in this course to concepts they were taught in other courses. Do activities with them that have them face--explicitly--the harm they can do to individuals and the entire community.


  1. Wow, Ann! This post sure show how much work you have done and continue to do to run a big Community Service Learning program. Something I see throughout the program you describe as well as within the post itself is *transparency.* You are clear and honest with everyone involved (students, TAs, community partners) about every aspect of the campus-community relationship. There's a clear reason, justification, and solution for almost everything! Kudos and keep up the good work!

  2. Darcy,
    If you have time, I'd love for you to just write up a brief description of your minor at UNC, maybe just borrowing from our Language Educator piece. I know you go through many of the same administrative issues with that program as I do with the Spanish & Illinois program.