(Moderator note: This piece was written by Jayne Blodgett, a guest contributor to Service Learning Librarian).
The University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM) is a small, residential liberal arts college located in West Central Minnesota. While the school is part of the University of Minnesota system, each system campus has its own separate Carnegie classification and different mission. UMM is known for its commitment to sustainability and social justice issues. As such, UMM has an Office of Community Engagement (OCE), and a number of faculty have successfully integrated service-learning into their classes.
The first incarnation of this class was designed as a study abroad class to El Salvador. My colleague, Heather James (Marquette University) and I knew we wanted to partner with an NGO in-country. After conducting research and meeting with two organizations in El Salvador, we agreed an NGO based in Chicago working with schools in El Salvador was the best fit. The NGO, Contextos (www.con-textos.org), works in a number of schools around El Salvador training teachers and developing libraries. It was an excellent match for the goals we had for our class. We both thought it was pedagogically important to integrate library and literacy theory with practice, and while there are some problems with service- learning projects in developing countries, specifically avoiding the “white savior” problem, we believed working with Contextos would give our students an amazing experience.
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, we were unable to teach the class. However, most of the readings and assignments had been designed, so I adapted the proposal and submitted it as a first-year seminar class without the study abroad component. It was accepted to the slate, and I taught it for the first time during the Fall 2013 semester.
Beyond Shushing: Libraries in the 21st Century
The class was 2 credits, and we met for 50 minutes two times a week. I divided the schedule so we focused on libraries and literacy theory on Tuesdays and the service- learning project on Thursdays. The class explored a number of questions ranging from the importance of libraries and literacy to the social implications of service-learning and volunteerism. Over the course of the summer, I worked with our OCE coordinator, Argie Manolis, to determine which programs would best fit the needs of my class. We came up with four projects: story time at the public library, story time with evening ESL students (k-3), library instruction at Briggs Library (UMM’s library) for adults in the ESL program, or computer literacy sessions with senior citizens. A fifth project, a usage study of Briggs Library (UMM’s library), was not coordinated by the OCE.
Early in the semester, sponsors from each program spoke with my class. The students then filled out an online survey indicating their top three choices as well as explaining why they were interested in their first-choice project. I also asked about experience working with the populations represented, and if there was any project with which they specifically did not want to work. I also asked about Spanish language skills for the ESL projects. While fluency wasn’t required for either class, the project sponsors did want speakers with intermediate skills. I wanted to accommodate the students’ interests as much as I could with their first choice, but I also wanted to have some say over how the groups were organized. Since it was a small class I had a good feel for the students, and I was able to create groups that would have the best chance for success. In the end, only three of the projects were selected: ESL story time (k-3), computer literacy for senior citizens and the Briggs Library usage study.
I designed the course with assignments to keep them on schedule, since my greatest concern was they would leave all the planning to the very end. The assignments consisted of the following and constituted over 60% of their total grade. Each assignment came with a longer explanation of expectations as well as a rubric for grading.
- Email to sponsor indicating that you will be working on the project and setting up an initial meeting with them. (10 pts.)
- Rough draft of group charter (10 pts.): A group charter allows you to define the projects goals and parameters as well as important due dates and contact. It is an excellent way to avoid “scope creep.” I will provide you with a template to work with.
- Periodic Check-In Reports (10 pts. each = 30 pts): At periodic points during the semester I will ask for 200-300 word summaries of how you think your group is doing on your project, what questions you have, what you are concerned about, etc. A response of “Everything is fine” is not acceptable.
- Final draft of group charter including approval of the sponsor (30pts.)
- Lesson plans for each session (rough draft – 10 pts.; final draft – 40 pts. = 50 pts.)
- Presentation of project: I will be in attendance at each of your presentations and will grade you on what I see. (75 pts.)
- Response paper: Part of service-learning is reflection on the process, so you will write a 5-7 page reflection paper on all aspects of the project. (75 pts.)
Each assignment had a specific purpose beyond keeping them on schedule, as well. The check-in reports were my way of making sure one student wasn’t doing all of the work, since many of the students expressed concern about that. The lesson plan assignment required them to have research to support their plan, so we went to the library for two information literacy sessions and research time. We also had practice sessions that were not graded, but gave the students the chance to try out their lesson plans before the actual event. I had mixed feelings about spending so much in-class time working on their projects; I was concerned that spending class time on more practical, hands-on
skills might take away from the academic mission of the course. This was not the case. Spending that time gave them time to ask questions and work through issues with others in the class, and I think helped them to combine the practical and theoretical portions of the class. The final reflection paper gave the students the chance to synthesize their work over the entire semester. Many talked about how much they learned about group work and needing to consider the needs of the community partner. They also explored how class readings and discussions affected and influenced their planning and implementation. The reflection papers gave me the opportunity to see what went well in their projects and where I may need to make adjustments.
What the students learned
Overall, the students enjoyed their service-learning projects. In their final reflection papers they expressed how having to do a project allowed them to see theory in practice. I don’t think the students realized how much enjoyment they would get from their projects. For example, the story time group focused their readings on writing, reading and finding books. For one session they read Tomas and the Library Lady, which focused on Tomas, the child of a migrant worker, who spends his summer in the library. This book inspired the students to ask to bring all of the ESL students (k-6) to Briggs Library for the chance to use the library. Ahead of time, the students were able to get library cards so they could check books out. While it was a bit chaotic, it was fantastic to see how excited the students were to be checking out books.
The students who worked with the senior citizens were surprised by the interest the attendees had in not only developing their computer skills but in getting to know the students. One of my students, an international student from China, was very concerned about his language skills, specifically the seniors’ ability to understand his English. The seniors loved the chance to hear about his life growing up in China and what he thinks of living in rural Minnesota. The senior computer literacy project was an excellent outreach project, with all parties leaving the sessions knowing more about each other as well as about how to send photos through email.
The last group, the Briggs Library usage study, had a different experience than the other two groups because they primarily worked with UMM’s library staff. They did have the opportunity to conduct two focus group sessions to better understand how students use the library. While there was some marketing that had to be done, this project was not as focused on community outreach like the ESL and computer literacy classes. The students’ final reflection papers indicated that they were happy with the outcome of the project because they could see tangible results. They gave the library hard data about what parts of the library students used at specific times during the day, which will allow us to move furniture to better meet student needs. The focus groups generated suggestions for how the library can better meet student needs as well as information on what the library is doing well.
What I learned
I was impressed by my students and the fact that they took their projects seriously. While they didn’t always do all the assignments or readings for class discussion, they were committed to delivering an excellent experience when it came to the work with their constituent populations.
I vacillate between wanting the course to be 4 credits or 2 credits. This first time teaching it, the course was 2 credits, primarily for my own well-being, since this is an overload. However, I could do much more with it as a 4-credit class. In addition to the service- learning project, the students had to write a research paper exploring some aspect of the future of libraries. Unfortunately, because of time limitations, their papers didn’t get as much attention as they should have. When I teach this again, if it remains 2 credits, I want to keep a more theoretical paper as part of the class, but it will not be a full-blown research paper. My thought is to have smaller response papers based on the readings and class discussions, which should also get the students more involved with the readings.
We spent a great deal of time talking about how to avoid seeing the service-learning projects, especially those working with minority populations, as the solution to larger social issues. I wanted the students to explore the larger implications of small volunteer projects. I had the students read part of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed to open up the dialogue. They seemed to understand that teaching one ESL class or helping the students find a book in the library wouldn’t solve the larger issues immigrants might face. They were keenly aware, though, of how volunteering even for one class could open up a dialogue and create an environment where larger, more complicated issues could later be discussed.
While this class was a lot of work, more than other courses I’ve taught because of the need to work closely with each of the small groups and attend each of their project session, it was one of the best classes I’ve taught. As I mentioned earlier, the students took their projects very seriously, which meant I didn’t have to prompt them to meet with their community partners or worry they wouldn’t show up on their project days.. I also had the chance to work with students who were interested in libraries and access to information. They asked insightful questions and thought deeply about the challenges and opportunities facing today’s libraries. Due to work requirements, I may not be teaching this again in Fall 2014, but I want to teach this course again. I would encourage anyone who is thinking of incorporating service-learning into a library class to do so. It was a fantastic experience for all the stakeholders – me, the students and the community partners.
If you would like to see a copy of my syllabus or have questions about the course, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.