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Posts Tagged ‘service learning’

Protecting the Privacy of Undocumented Students

In the spring of 2017, I taught a course on the education rights of undocumented students (I discussed it a bit in a past post). As might be expected with such a topic, there were multiple undocumented students enrolled in the course as well as others with an interest in the issue. Throughout the semester, the course used powerful narrative accounts of what it is like to be an undocumented student to help all of the students better grasp the issue. It was also a service-learning course. Through the service component of the course, students gained firsthand knowledge of the struggles faced by non-citizen students as well as the types of services available to them in the community. Some students chose to volunteer with the immigrant services organizations while others became involved with an advocacy group run by undocumented students that is active in Connecticut. Still others focused their attention on policy work, conducting research on the sanctuary campus movement and presenting their findings to campus administrators. The uniting factor of these activities was our weekly meeting, where students shared their experiences and reflected on how they connected to the course material and their own lives. As a service learning course, reflection (specifically, journal writing) was a primary component of the course. Within their weekly journal entries, many students disclosed their precarious citizenship statuses, reflecting on their own histories and how their lack of documentation continued to present challenges in their daily lives. As an instructor, these journal entries presented a larger predicament: when our courses deal with sensitive and personal themes, and we are aware of how these themes overlap with our students’ experiences, how do we balance the desire to help our students learn from each other with the need to protect student confidentiality?

Although the students were incredibly forthcoming and open about their statuses in their journal entries, I wasn’t always sure if they were open about their undocumented statuses with their classmates. Although I normally draw from journal entries as a way to illustrate the diversity of opinions in the class (e.g. “One of you wrote about x, while someone else felt y”), I hesitated to do so in this course. Even though learning from each other’s personal experiences would have provided an invaluable learning opportunity, I wanted to make sure that I never revealed anyone’s status without their permission.

Instead, I found myself trying to encourage students to share where they felt comfortable while making it clear that sharing was not required and not related to participation grades. For example, we would often start off the class talking about that week’s journal prompt. Although many students did choose to share their experiences, in other cases, I found myself wishing that a student would speak up when they didn’t. In one case, for example, a student revealed their detailed struggle with the application process for DACA. When, a few weeks later, another student asked a question about the process of applying for DACA that I couldn’t answer, I desperately wanted to hand the question over to the aforementioned student – knowing that they would be able to provide an answer. But I knew that I couldn’t do that, so I asked in a general way, “I’m not sure – does anyone have an answer to that question?” No one spoke up, and so I moved on. It was hard to watch a potentially valuable learning experience slip away, but it is our ethical responsibility to value our students’ safety and privacy over collective learning.

Although this is just a small issue, it’s one of the many that we must consider when we think about how best to support our students in times where their safety and privacy may be in jeopardy. The following resources provide other useful tips for supporting undocumented students:

Continued Support for Undocumented College Students

Top 10 Ways to Support Undocumented Students

How Teachers Can Help Immigrant Kids Feel Safe

 

Trials and Tribulations of Sending Students to Public Lectures and Events

Teaching on an active campus with lots of public lectures and events allows for opportunity to enhance our courses. Yet opportunities can come with some unintended costs. When we see the schedule come out for upcoming events of the new semester it is tempting to pack our classes with them. Typical approaches send students to these lectures as extra credit assignments and some “require” that students attend on their own time. Often students have to write some sort of reflection piece to show they attended the talk. Sometimes the course schedule may align, or partially overlap, with the time of the lecture, yet at most institutes of higher learning schedule alignment seems to occur once in a blue moon.

As teachers we know the magic of students exploring new topics that ignite a new passion. We know that speakers can be inspiring and can lead students to pursue new avenues of research or to investigate a brand new subject matter that we did not have the expertise to address in class—especially true in the interdisciplinary world of human rights. We ourselves have been inspired, why not them? However, in human rights, and many other fields for that matter, sending students to public lectures unprepared can lead to headaches for all involved.

Paul Krugman speaking to a stadium at UMass on Oct. 26, 2017. Photo credit: Jack J. Barry

In my time teaching at public universities and private colleges I have tried a few different approaches to utilizing public lectures/events happening around campus. Some have been more successful than others. At first I would follow the approach I was most familiar with: sending students to public lectures for extra credit and having them write up a “reflection.” This worked okay but I found only a certain subset of the students would pursue it: (A) Students who wanted to boost their grade (and usually not the ones who REALLY needed that boost) and (B) students interested in the topic with the time to attend who would likely be going to the lecture regardless. Furthermore, this approach ranked out some students from attending, namely those with less schedule flexibility that often work and/or have caregiving responsibilities. Overall, to me it felt that this approach proved a little hit or miss for influencing how many students would actually attend and our resulting discussion about the lecture in class was often disjointed for the full class. In attempts to remedy this I have brought full classes to public events, as well as brought in guest speakers to my class when they were on campus for an event. These latter two approaches I felt were more effective yet also come with pitfalls of which to be wary.

Here are some tips that I’ve gleaned from my experience with public lectures/events and listening to student responses after attending them:

(1) Prepare students as much as is feasible for the upcoming content. Students like to have warning about what the talk is going to be about and if possible go over some of the jargon the speaker is likely to use beforehand. Of course, that is difficult to predict, but a good faith effort goes a long way and sometimes really pays off as students tend to pickup on more than they would have otherwise, especially key if the speaker will be visiting your class.

(2) Be careful about sending them to a lecture pitched at too high a level (especially for international students who may have difficulty with the English language). I have certainly made the mistake of sending my class composed of many international students to some events that were clearly pitched at a niche audience, a deadening event for all involved.

(3) Consider interactive events rather than only formal lectures. With research now displaying that college age student attention spans for dense topics withering after 10-15 minutes of lecture (Burke & Ray 2008)[1] sometimes other events beyond the typical 50-minute lecture may add real value. For instance, I oriented and scheduled my class this semester around a human rights film series, which included some initial remarks, a film screening, and an ending discussion with Q & A, which kept the flow of the event moving. There are many opportunities around campus for more non-traditional and interactive events. Be on the lookout for events such as job fairs, student organization events, concerts, poetry readings, political protests, and field trips if possible. All of which would get them outside the classroom, interacting with people, and then reporting back about their experience. My guess is years later they will remember effective interactive, outside of class events involving experiential learning, more than many topics taught in our classroom (sorry “sage on a stage” model). Feel free to check out previous posts on this blog that discussed the power of experiential learning approaches including trips down the US Eastern Seaboard during election week and exploring advocacy in D.C.

(4) Don’t overburden them. We are well aware that students’ time is under threat from all sides. If many of your students work or have other outside responsibilities, such as caretaking, be aware of that when scheduling. I have made the mistake of over scheduling outside events and I could tell the students felt overwhelmed. If you cannot schedule events into your class time and have to go the extra credit route be sure to have multiple events at different times and/or days of the week. A few targeted events, at different times, that are talked up beforehand in class may be better than simply listing many with assumed equal importance.

(5) Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, be sure to describe academic rules of etiquette. Ever been to a lecture where half the student audience leaves when the speaker is about to field questions? Of course reminders about appropriate tech usage and what is expected in terms of format helps and will make your students feel more comfortable. You never know if this is the first event of this type they have attended in college.

Don’t forget to have fun with lectures/events and do not lose sight of the magic that can happen through them. One may never know what will ignite students’ passion, but as teachers we can do our best to give them as much grounded electricity as we can. In other words, minimize short circuits!

Feel free to comment here on your experience incorporating lectures and events into your courses—I am sure there are many creative approaches out there! We would love to hear about your experience.

 

References: [1] Burke, L.A., Ray, R. (2008). Re-setting the concentration levels of students in higher education: an exploratory study. Teaching in Higher Ed. 13(5), 571–582.

Author: Jack J. Barry, Ph.D. University of Connecticut.

Building Empathy by Seeing the Self as Other

In her book, Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks states, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” In a service-learning course, students share their own personal stories and reactions to the work they are doing as a method to connect what they are learning inside the classroom to the work they are doing outside of it. But the connections constructed in service-learning classes have the potential to extend well beyond the classroom walls. Through guided reflection, students can learn to recognize their own stories in the lives of others and in the communities in which they live and work.

In January of 2017, as part of a year-long initiative focused on the rights of non-citizens, the Stamford campus of the University of Connecticut sponsored a course titled, Special Topics in Human Rights: Citizenship and Education Rights. The goal of the class was to explore various theories of citizenship and describe the multiple layers of policies that affect immigrant students living in Connecticut. Through the service component of the course, students would gain firsthand knowledge of the struggles faced by non-citizen students as well as the types of services available to them in the community. Some students chose to volunteer with the immigrant services organizations while others became involved with an advocacy group run by undocumented students that is active in Connecticut. Still others focused their attention on policy work, conducting research on the sanctuary campus movement and presenting their findings to campus administrators. The uniting factor of these activities was our weekly meeting, where students shared their experiences and reflected on how they connected to the course material and their own lives.

One of the more memorable reflection assignments came midway through the semester during a week when we were studying theories of citizenship. The reading for the week focused on the concept of “lived citizenship,” or “the meaning that citizenship actually has in people’s lives and the ways in which people’s social and cultural backgrounds and material circumstances affect their lives as citizens” (Hall and Williamson 1999, 2). After completing the reading, students were asked to describe in their journals a time where their social or “lived” citizenship did not match their legal citizenship. In essence, this assignment asked students to recall a time when they, like undocumented immigrants, did not have an equal voice within a particular political community. Some students struggled with the prompt, with two writing that they had never been in such a situation. Many others, however, were able to identify and relay their past experiences.

In the classroom discussion for the week, students were encouraged (but not required) to share what they had written in their journals. This exercise was particularly useful as students had interpreted “social citizenship” in such a wide variety of ways. The activity sparked a lively discussion, with students going beyond what they had written in their journals to share additional examples of their “lived citizenship” experiences. In fact, both students who had initially written in their journals that they had never experienced a dissonance between their social and legal citizenship were, after listening to the discussion, able to contribute examples from their own lives.

This ability to “other” oneself, to see oneself as having some of the same vulnerabilities as the group being served, while still acknowledging the existence of differences, becomes a primary component of building empathy among students. In the reflection exercise described above, students were encouraged to think of a time when they felt frustrated because their political voice was not heard due to an aspect of their social situation. For the openly undocumented students in the class, this assignment was straightforward. But for the US citizens, the assignment pushed them to examine their own vulnerabilities, revisit the emotions they felt in that situation, and then, through guided classroom discussion, recognize their own experiences in each other. Students learned that the category of “other” is fluid and context dependent and that even they can be othered under the right circumstances. All of these experiences become important components of the construction of identity, and, in turn, the bolstering of sustained civic engagement.

Human Rights Service Learning / Internship

Professor Tina Chiarelli-Helminiak

University of Connecticut

Syllabus