Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lose the Atlas Complex and Embrace Spanish Community Service Learning

Community service learning educators can share the load.
by Ann Abbott

I'm not going to lie: building, expanding and maintaining a Spanish community service learning program is not easy. 

But it's doable. I did it. Others have done it. 

Many people I meet, though, while genuinely interested in this pedagogy, stop short of actually putting the pieces together. Of getting started.

The Atlas Complex, I've now come to realize, is at least part of the reason people are afraid to take the final step and get the CSL course going.

The Atlas Complex is the belief that many educators have that they, like Atlas, have to carry the entire weight of students' learning on their shoulders. Finkel & Monk explain it very clearly with examples in "Teachers and Learning Groups: Dissolution of the Atlas Complex." Jim Lee and Bill VanPatten start the very first chapter of Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen with an explanation of the Atlas Complex. It's that important. And insidious. Unconscious.

Here are some questions I have received, how they reveal the Atlas Complex, and how we can share the responsibilities of CSL among all parties.

How can you know that students are actually showing up at the community partner organization and doing their work?

Atlas Complex. 

We assume that without our presence, things cannot function and that students will not do what they are supposed to do. (This begs the question, do we think that we are actually controlling students' behaviors when we are present?)

CSL Solution. 

Yes, we need to make sure that students actually put in the hours with the community partner organization. And your community partner is just that: your partner. Your community partner needs a sign-in and authorization system that gets reported back to you at pre-determined moments in the semester.

I don't know enough about [immigration reform] to be able to teach a class like yours. How did you learn all of that?

Atlas Complex

We assume that we have to be the knowledge experts and transfer our knowledge to the students. In my case, it's usually about immigration. But whatever subject you teach, engaging with the community will lead you into at least some unfamiliar territory.

CSL Solutions. 

Community Partners. Again, our community partners should be our true partners. So ask them what the issues are. Ask them to guest lecture. Ask them at the middle of the semester to identify some key information/skills/approaches that your students are missing. 
Students. But then don't assume that you have to turn around and immediately become the expert on all of the information your community partners shared. Hand those issues off to your students as research projects. Spend class time letting them research and present their findings. For the final exam ask them to produce an annotated reading list for next semester's students.
Resources. Don't assume you have to build all of this on your own. Read this blog for lesson plan ideas, students perspectives and other resources. Have your students use my textbook, Comunidades: Más allá del aula, as the basis of your CSL curriculum. After all, the information in it is based on what I saw my students needed. Yours probably will, too. Read the bibliography I provide on this blog (left hand column) and reach out to those experts, too.

How did you start your CSL program?

Atlas Complex

Although I totally understand the question, it is built around the assumption that I did it all by myself. I didn't.

CSL Solutions. 

You are part of a larger community; just listen and you will find CSL opportunities. Drop by your local United Way and ask them what organizations work with Spanish speakers. When you read your local newspaper, what news do you see about local Latinos? Those news items often reveal the Latino community's needs. When you shop at Latino-owned stores, strike up conversation and ask them where and how your students might be able to plug in and help. You're also part of a university community. Find others on campus who do CSL. Could you graft your program onto theirs? What is your university's mission? If public engagement is one of them, ask for resources so that you can help your unit meet the university's mission.

These are just a few of the questions I regularly receive, and just a few of the ways that we can shake off our Atlas Complex regarding CSL. You can do it. And in many ways, our students, our communities and our profession need you to do it.

I have outlined an article manuscript that I want to begin writing about this topic. What do you think I should address in the article? How does the Atlas Complex hold you back? What solutions have you found to share the responsibilities for learning in your CSL courses? Please share in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. Love this apologia and explanation for the intellectual and community work of teaching service learning. I'd love to see a campus-wide discussion of the Atlas Complex across campus. Do Accountancy and Engineering teachers run into the same logistical and soul-searching questions that humanities teachers do?

    Thanks for this post!

    Andrew Moss