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Jamin Rowan talks about using reflective writing to help his community engagement students articulate their own professional and personal competencies.
Community-engaged learning is “learning that takes place in and with communities” (Cornell, n.d.), ranging from internships with community entities to service projects structured as learning experiences. Educators pair community-engaged learning with experiential design and focused, reflective writing to create more meaning behind projects and greater leadership and team skills for involved students.
As its name suggests, community-engaged (CE) learning derives strength from the diversity of the community, where varied teams of faculty, staff, students and community members address global or local issues and help build a “more sustainable, just and collaborative future” (Cornell, n.d.). Usually, this learning takes place in projects that address a specific community interest or problem in tandem with a community partner, and often frames the experience as a form of education and sets time apart for structured, documented reflection (Cornell, n.d.).
According to the University of Utah Bennion Center (2021), CE learning is a form of experiential education where students address “human and community needs together,” coupled with the chance to openly reflect on and integrate their experiences into their everyday lives. Ultimately, CE learning should seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for students. In doing so, students will be able to link “personal and social development with academic and cognitive development” (Bandy, 1970).
Basics of Practice
Cooperative connection is an essential part of CE learning. An agentic and equal relationship which maintains conversation between educator, student, and community is necessary for a functioning project.
This cooperative connection also requires specific roles and responsibilities to be set apart for each party. For example, the educator and/or student might maintain the research on the project’s potential impact, while the community (a local school, a charity) may clarify the proper procedure for the project or provide experts to oversee the process.
Educators should consider liability concerns in advance. This may include “drivers insurance and licensing for those providing transportation, van certification, site/agency insurance for volunteers” (Bandy, 1970), or other logistics.
- Create goals: Incorporate community partners and even students into the creation of project goals. Then create written syllabi, roles, and schedules for students and community partners to fulfill. This could sometimes include a letter of agreement, but should always give concrete clarity to each member's responsibility.
- Measure progress: Ensure regular progress reports from both students and community partners to maintain a beneficial relationship.
- Prepare for tasks: In preparation for a project, train students properly for their role. For example, if a project includes construction, students should be given safety and equipment training.
- Prepare for learning: Give students opportunities for reflection early on. Educators should ask students to think critically about their experience, question their beliefs, and consider the broader applications. When educators prompt students to consider, for example, their personal goals for a project before it begins, students will be prepared for the project in greater detail. See examples of writing prompts below.
- Reflect throughout: In addition to providing students with ample opportunities for work during a project, provide students with chances for reflection everywhere. Daily writing prompts during or after a day of work can enhance students’ learning.
- Host a final dialogue: Leave community partners and students with an opportunity for a final conversation after a project’s conclusion. This will enable greater reflection and clarify future opportunities for a project’s maintenance and improvement.
- Celebrate achievements: Noting or commemorating important milestones during and after a project helps both students and partners to reflect on successes and feel proud of their work.
Teaching Materials and Resources:
- Writing Prompts for Community Engagement
- Template for creating a writing-based curriculum
- Template for managing a writing workshop
- Template for creating a journal writing exercise for an experiential class or program—short form
- Template for creating a journal writing exercise for an experiential class or program—long form
Bandy, J. (2011). Community engaged teaching step by step. Vanderbilt University Center for Education. Retrieved [May 2021] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/community-engaged-teaching-step-by-step/.
Cornell University. (n.d.). What is community-engaged learning? Retrieved [May 2021] from https://oei.cornell.edu/resources/community-engaged-learning/.
The University of Utah Bennion Center. (2021). Community engaged learning at the U. Retrieved [May 2021] from https://bennioncenter.org/faculty/archive-faculty-section/learning/.
Felten, P., Gilchrist, L. Z., & Darby, A. (2006). Emotion and learning: Feeling our way toward a new theory of reflection in service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12(2), pp. 38-46.