Saturday, September 5, 2009

Concrete Images of Spanish Community Service Learning

by Ann Abbott

"The Generator" newsletter always provides food for thought--and material for several blog posts. In a previous post I commented on the main theme of the Summer 2009 issue--the duration and intensity of service learning. (If you haven't subscribed already, I suggest that you do.)

This issue also led me to think about visible versus invisible community service learning (CSL) work.

What is an example of "visible" CSL work? Just open up the newsletter and look at the image at the top: rubber boots, brightly decorated with images from the local natural environment. That object (the boot) and the image (animals, plants, swamps, etc.) are concrete and easily-recognizable symbols of the wonderful "Wetland Watchers" project for Louisianna middle-schoolers. The images are bright, positive and make you feel that good things are happening.

These students have planted more than 3,900 trees (p. 3), they wear matching bright green t-shirts, they can tell you the salinity of the water, and the program director can take a reporter to their work sites and sweep his arm out to show "an area that is now teeming with life — 200-year-old palmetto fan trees, engaged students, and native 'critters' like baby alligators that are the teaching tools of this reclaimed wilderness."

Those are powerful images and numbers.

That's part of the reason why, I'm sure, Monsanto and Shell Oil contribute resources to the project.

So how can we "show" Spanish CSL work?

Fill a piñata with bilingual dictionaries, globes and Mexican candies? Cheesy.

Unfurl a flag (Mexican? Guatemalan? the stars and stripes?) and have students and community members autograph it? Ugh.
Sombreros? Just shoot me.

Fill a backpack with "welcome" items (dictionaries, coupons, maps, university t-shirt, etc.) for recently arrived latino immigrants? Warmer.

Obviously, this isn't just about copying the shrimp boots idea. It's about symbolizing the importance of our invisible tools of Spanish CSL: words and cultural knowledge. And while I don't have this fully thought out yet, I do understand its importance.

The university (and students, too, in a way) measure success with deliverables, quanitifiables. So, while I understand the importance of my program's numbers (number of student participants, community partners, and total hours of service), it's harder for me to show visible results. I can't point to trees that weren't there before. I can't show you rising (falling?) saline levels in the water. And I can't tell Monsanto, "In exchange for your resources, I will give you photos for your annual report and corporate social responsibility webpage."

Maybe you can "see" Spanish CSL more clearly than I can. What concrete objects could symbolize Spanish CSL? What items could we measure and quantify to show the "before" and "after?"

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