Friday, December 4, 2009

Hazard! Protect All Involved in Community Service Learning

by Ann Abbott

What's your worst fear about teaching a Spanish community service learning (CSL) course?

Your students could behave unprofessionally and ruin the community partnership you worked so hard to build.

Your students' Spanish could be inadequate to the task, making mistakes that have real negative impacts.

Someone's safety could be compromised as they travel to and from the community partner's location.

One of your students could be a peeping Tom?

Maybe it's an urban legend, but I did hear that this actually happened at one university.

Obviously, it's impossible to avoid every risk that CSL involves. It wouldn't be as effective if it didn't push students in new directions. But there are some things that we can definitely do to help minimize risks. Follow your university's insurance, safety and documentation policies, and consider these options as well:

Before your course begins

  • Prepare contracts for your students to sign. Download Comunidades' Instructor's Resource Manual for some ideas about what to include in students contracts.
  • Make sure your deparment, college and university know what you're doing.
  • Show your partners the students' contracts. One time one of my community partners had problems with my students--they showed up late, didn't seem to care, etc. After I told their supervisor about the course contract they had signed, she told me, "I wish I would have seen that contract. I could have leveraged that in my conversations with them."

During the semester

  • Explicitly teach your students about the special precautions we need to take when we work with vulnerable populations. Don't assume your students know about this. What makes them vulnerable? What can students do to avoid causing problems for them?
  • Explicitly tell students that they are a team, and that there should be accountability among team members. You're not encouraging snitching, but you do want the students to have a safe, anonymous way of contacting you about potential problems. On the other hand, always remember--"innocent until proven guilty."
  • As always, check in with community partners frequently.

End of semester

  • Remind students that they can share their fears, doubts and suspicions with you in an anonymous format. During the semester, students may fear that speaking up will hurt their grade or cause them to lose face among their classmates. Giving them this option after grades have been assigned can assauge their fears.
    Any other suggestion?

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