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Friday, August 21, 2009

How Long Should Spanish Community Service Learning Last?

by Ann Abbott

I always look forward to the National Youth Leadership Council's quarterly newsletter, The Generator. The latest issue focuses on "Duration & Intensity," one of the K-12 Service-Learning
Standards for Quality Practice
.

All in all, the information in "The Generator" and my own experiences lead me to this answer to the question in the title of this post with another question: "For whom?"

Students need to dedicate enough time to a service learning project (not just a service project) so that they can work through the entire experiential learning process. There are many process models that you may follow or adapt (Kolb's model of experiential learning, the Inquiry Process, or the activities listed in Indicator 1 of "Duration & Intensity"). But whatever model you adhere to, students should have the opportunity to work through the cycle at least once. However, not every step has to take place in the community. Reflection and celebration can take place in the classroom or on-line, for example.

Community Partners need students' skills and manpower long enough to accomplish the project as they had envisioned it. Realistically, it is not always possible to complete a project. Something that on paper seemed reasonable and doable, may end up going in different directions due to glitches or a perceived need to adjust the plans. That is part of the "fuzziness" that makes communitiy service learning time consuming and even frustrating for some participants. But it's also the nature of real-world, complex problems that our classrooms cannot adequately simulate. Community partners also need the project to last long enough that they can develop trust in the program and the individual students and evaluate whether or not the costs of the program (their time, effort, patience, training programs, etc.) are worth what they gain.

Program Coordinators and/or Instructors need the project to last long enough to be worth the energy they expend in setting it up. If the CSL work is being researched and used to gain tenure, promotion, grants, etc., then the project needs to last long enough to gather useful data and to prove real outcomes regarding student learning and community impact. Although in Spanish departments at Research I universities, this kind of work and research is not valued in that way (subject for a future post!).

Obviously, there is not one answer to the question of how long and how intense a CSL experience should be. We need to look at this in terms of how much time in one course should be dedicated to CSL, how many courses across the curriculum should involve CSL and how long a particular CSL program/project should last through the years.

These are the indicators so far for the duration and intensity of the Spanish CSL program at the University of Illinois:


  • It has been running for five years so far.
  • Students work in the community every semester (but only occassionally in the summer).
  • Each student must work in the community 28 hours throughout the semester (not all at once).
  • Almost all community partnerships have continued semester after semester.
  • I have written three research articles (co-authored with Darcy Lear) about the program and students' learning outcomes. Two articles have been published; one is still under review. Additionally, I have written descriptive pieces in various publications and presented details about the program in numerous conferences and workshops.
  • Our community partners have been able to complete projects and enhance their on-going work with the students' help. I could do more to document this.

Do you have an answer for the question in the title of the post? How much time do your students dedicate to their CSL projects? Do you think there is anything unique about how long Spanish students need to dedicate to their CSL work because of language acquisition issues? Leave a comment and let me know what you do and what you think.

4 comments:

  1. I find that projects and needs vary so much in the community that it is impossible to answer how long community service learning should last.

    A big problem that I run into over and over again is the clash of calendars. We are on a strict 15-week academic calendar. Community partners rarely are. In fact, they usually face all the real-world crazy delays of "this can't go there until it's approved by the boss, but that position is in transition so we don't even know who the boss is, etc."

    The closest thing to a solution: meeting with community partners to discuss realistic ways to "chunk" projects. I also try to say "these students will be in and out in 15 weeks & are gone in the summers; I may not always be the instructor; but you can plan to partner with this course long-term if you want to."

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