Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lesson Plan about Messy Problems in Community Service Learning

by Ann Abbott

In their seminal book, Where´s the Learning in Service-Learning, Janet Eyler and Dwight E. Giles, Jr. identify the learning outcomes of service learning. Eyler and Giles explain that well-designed service learning forces students to confront "ill-structured problems," which they define as "complex and open ended; their solution creates new conditions and new problems. Such problems require, first and foremost, the ability to recognize that the problems are complicated and are embedded in a complex social context, the ability to evaluate conflicting information and expert views, and the understanding that there is no simple or definitive solution" (16). "Traditional academic programs," they state, "however, have not resulted in moving most college students to the levels necessary to cope with complex issues and information (King and Kitchener, 1994)" (17). On the other hand, their research on service learning indicates that, "The quality of service-learning, including application, opportunities for structured reflection, and diversity and community voice, was a predictor of reports of critical thinking, ability to see consequences of actions, issue identification, and opennes to new ideas" (127).

Today, we tackled messy problems in my classes. Students confront them every day in their CSL work. For example, a CSL student who tutor an ESL student might suggest that they stay for extra help after school, but if the student doesn't take the bus, he/she has no way to get home. Or he/she has to work after school to contribute to the family income. These are just a few of the many examples my students see every day in the various places where they work.  But I wanted to bring that into the classroom today. So this is what we did.

    1. Social Security Numbers. I said mine out loud. I asked students to raise their hand if they had theirs memorized. (Everyone raised their hand.) So we did a "fuga" (like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat") in which one person starts saying theirs, the next person starts, the next person starts, etc. Students had fun with that and recognized that they have memorized their Social Security numbers because they use it so often.

    Video. We watched this video about drivers licences and undocumented immigrants. After the video I divided students into small groups, gave each group a large ficha and asked them to draw a large circle on the ficha. They then had to represent the issues presented in the video in the form of a cycle, or vicious circle. (They did a great job.) We then commented on a quote from the video, "Dios no hizo fronteras."

    2. Poverty simulation. Then students opened up their laptops and smart phones, and they went through an on-line poverty simulation (unfortunately it is in English; if anyone knows of one in Spanish, please let me know). Some worked individually, but others made decisions together in small groups. They were very engaged in the activity, perhaps the most engaged I have seen them all semester. We then discussed the hidden "costs" (ethical, medical, social, etc.) in the decisions they had made in order to save money. We also talked about the importance of relationships, because asking for help (and not paying certain bills) was really the only way that they could make it through the month.

    3. Connections and conclusions. We ended the class with this question: What is the connection between the video we watched at the beginning of the class and the simulation they did at the end of the class.  There were many very good answers from the students, but I was happy to see that one conclusion they reached was that life is a series of "ill-structured problems" (even though they didn't use those words), not only, but especially when you have few resources.

    4. Follow-up. In Thursday's class, students will use the structural model from the poverty simulation and create their own "problems and solutions" that undocumented immigrants face.  I'll let you know how it goes!

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