by Tracey Burke, School of Social Work

Context of the Inquiry

 SWK A243, Cultural Diversity & Community Service Learning, is the required “diversity” course for social work majors and minors.  It also serves as a diversity selective for Early Childhood Education majors and a social sciences general education class.  In a typical semester, about half of the 20-25 students are social work majors, close to half are early childhood majors, and a handful come from other fields.  

Within the social work curriculum, 243 is a key course for demonstrating accreditation competencies related to diversity and social & economic justice, and should lay for the foundation for how students think about these issues later in the program.  While other programs are uninterested in social work professional competencies, they value the attention to diversity and oppression as civic issues.   Social work students generally are sophomores or juniors; non-social workers come from all years.  

What I hope students gain from the course is an appreciation of two things.  First, “diversity” is not a neutral concept; there are power differences associated with race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, etc., such that social problems differentially impact members of some social groups more than others.  The power differences may reflect history more than current attitudes and intentions, but they are nonetheless consequential.  Second, we cannot look at aspects of diversity in isolation; how race, class, gender, and the rest come together in different ways matters for individuals and for the social institutions of we all are part.   

Service learning is a powerful means of communicating these overarching lessons.  I have a long-standing relationship with Food Bank of Alaska, which is headquartered in Anchorage and has partners around the state who distribute food.  Students get an introduction to hunger issues and responses to them, and they serve in a variety of capacities within the hunger-response system.  The bulk of their hours – about 16 out of 20 – are spent interacting with people in the community who are hungry.  They see for themselves that although anyone of any background can be hungry, there are patterns as to who is more likely to be.  The reflection activities, a new model for which is the focus of this inquiry, provide a structure for students to consider their own and others’ roles in perpetuating or resisting these patterns.

It has taken me several years to develop the service-learning activities that comprise the heart of the class.  I was handed this course my second semester on the faculty.  It was then one of the only courses on campus that included a mandatory service-learning component, and I was utterly unfamiliar with service learning as a lens or a pedagogy.  I have become quite familiar with the considerable literature on service learning since then, and in retrospect, I think I intuited some key insights about the approach.  However, implementation was a problem through several semesters.  Briefly, I first partnered with a local agency serving homeless people. For two semesters over two years, the Executive Director and I tried to develop a project in which students and clients would engage as peers.  We failed.  Students were considering mutiny – or so it felt – when I stumbled onto an alternative service opportunity that second semester.  A friend of a friend worked for the Food Bank, and knew that I taught social work at the university.  He was in charge of recruiting volunteers to collect data for a hunger survey.  Might my students be interested?  We all jumped at the chance for them to fulfill their required hours doing something else.  

Since then, the partnership with the Food Bank has grown and solidified.  The course, which I offer now in both fall and spring and once in the summer as well, provides a steady stream of volunteers to the Food Bank, its partner agencies (e.g. pantries, soup kitchens), and the Alaska Food Coalition.  The Coalition sponsors Food Stamp Outreach in an attempt to increase the food-related income of poor households, and students help with outreach activities.  Students also are invited to participate in a Food Stamp Challenge, in which they shop and eat for a week on a Food Stamp budget.  


Course Artifacts

Focus of the Inquiry

 Hypothesis: The DEAL model of reflection is an effective mechanism for prompting students to deepen and articulate what they are learning about diversity, oppression, and privilege.


I have been frustrated by the quality of the students’ learning.  “Reflection” is supposed to be the mechanism through which the learning of service-learning occurs.  Having spent several years refining the community-based activities of the service-learning (see Context), I turn to the associated assignments to make them more focused and rigorous.  I have adopted Patti Clayton’s DEAL model of reflection.

For several years, the service-learning portion of the course has accounted for over 50% of the grade, and that remains the case.  Before, students were to write a brief (2-3 pages) paper each time they served.  Since it depended on student schedules and program needs whether a given “shift” lasted for 1.5 or 7 hours, the total number of papers per student varied.  They were to provide some description of the service as context, but mostly they were to analyze what they did and what they observed in light of class themes.  Reference to at least one assigned reading was necessary for an A.  Not surprisingly, students provided lots of description and relatively little analysis, although I gave enough feedback along the way that most papers improved over time.  There were only a handful of students whose integration of the readings did not seem forced.

I introduced the DEAL model for the first time in fall, 2009, and have used it consistently since then.  Students enrolled spring, summer, and fall 2010 were invited to formally participate in this study.  My impression is that students learned much more, and they know what they learned.  Although my IDEA scores have been uneven (3-5 range), qualitative comments support this.  For the first time, students commented not only that they found the number of required hours to be a problem, which they’ve always said, but that they learned a lot and it was worth it – and not to reduce the hours.  


Course Artifacts

Course Design and Implementation

 The DEAL model of reflection (Ash & Clayton, 2009) includes three phases: a Description of service performed, and Examination of elements of the service guided by the instructor’s prompts, and a statement of Articulated Learning linking the service to specific learning domains (Personal/professional, Academic, and Civic).  The developers of the model, leaders in the field of service learning and reflection, encourage faculty to adapt it, but they also have responded to years of faculty frustrations with insipid assignments by writing manuals for students and faculty.  Here they outline the model and provide initial prompts and examples.  I have an instructor’s manual which I use as a starting point.  I put a student version on reserve at the library but do not know if students have used it.

In my class, I use three different technologies with different feedback mechanisms for the phases.

I set up personal blogs within Blackboard for students to Describe their service.  It has become clear to me, as it became clear to the DEAL developers, that students want to tell me about what they are doing.  This is where they log their hours, verifying that they are serving the required 20.  After they post, I comment briefly, acknowledging the hours and, for example, encouraging them to provide more detail or to continue noticing certain things, or suggesting a line of questioning that will be fruitful for the papers.

Four times during the semester, we go through the Examination and Articulated Learning process (see attached instructions).  The first time we focus on a personal theme, something the students learn about themselves.  The second and fourth times, we focus on academic themes, where students make explicit connections to readings and class discussions and lectures.  The third time, we focus on a civic theme, where we focus on something beyond the individual and the profession to the “bigger” world outside.  

Each time, we spend half the 3-hours class engaged in small-group Examinations, using prompts to structure the students’ analysis with each other.  I mingle among the groups and give at least one member of each group concrete feedback on her/his comments about the service in light of the theme.  Following the small groups, students post an additional blog entry summarizing the highlights of their discussions as they pertain to individual experiences and lessons.  I respond to this post with feedback about the direction they are headed in for their papers.  The students have a service-learning participation grade, and it is the overall grade for their blogs and small groups.

Each Examination leads to an Articulated Learning paper on the same theme.  These papers get individual grades that currently are equal to the overall service-learning participation grade.  The topic of the paper is not the service per se; rather, they address how they learned something through the service, with the lesson learned the focus of the paper. 

Forty-two students across three terms (spring, summer, fall 2011) signed the attached consent form on the right, allowing me to use their blog entries and Articulated Learning papers as data for this project.

Findings

Findings:

I did not systematically evaluate the reflection assignments that I used prior to learning about DEAL.Thus, I cannot say directly that student reflection papers are stronger – more focused, more analytic, more thoughtful – with DEAL than they were before.But my professional judgment, honed by teaching this class for some eight years and having used DEAL for almost two of them, tells me that in fact in fact recent student papers are stronger.

Even if I cannot make a legitimate comparison to previous student reflections, I am pleased most Articulated Learning papers.Just a few of are included in this website.Although not everyone was this articulate or insightful, I have received many more papers like these using DEAL than I did before.

Course Artifacts

Reflections

One of social work's "founding mothers," Jane Addams, wrote in her first book Democracy and Social Ethics about the importance of "choosing our experiences."A white, middle-class woman who came of age in the late 1800s, Addams founded the best-known settlement house, Hull House, as part of choosing to live in urban Chicago.What she learned about her fellow citizens in the neighborhood, mostly recent immigrants struggling to earn a living in factories and sweatshops, changed her understanding of social relations and mutual obligations.Had she chosen the conventional path for women of her class and time, her assumptions would not have been challenged and she would not have become "Jane Addams."

I would like to think that this class, with its integrated service and reflection activities, serves a similar function for my students – albeit on a much more modest scale. The situation is not parallel; by requiring a service experience in a class which is itself required for many of the students who take it, I am choosing on students' behalf.It is not uncommon for a non-social work major to drop the course after the first meeting, thereby choosing not to have this experience.Nonetheless, the modal feedback I receive through the reflection assignments and from students directly is that interacting with people who struggle with basic needs, in the places those people frequent, changes how students think about the people, and the systems they are involved in, and the students' own participation in those systems as professionals and as citizens.Like Addams, most are more sympathetic and less hasty to judge.Most indicate they intend to choose comparable experiences in the future.

It was my consistent impression before that few students were critically analyzing their service experiences.Mostly they described what they did, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and the occasional, isolated "aha!" moments.The DEAL process evokes much more consistent analysis of students' assumptions and prompts students to make more deliberate links between the service and the academic content of the course.The downside for me as an instructor is that I am providing daily feedback to blog entries as well as extensive feedback on papers.I could not manage with class sizes larger than 22, and I wish I could limit the course to 15.Nonetheless, I am increasingly convinced that the time and effort are worth it.

"We had the experience but missed the meaning." T.S. Eliot

 

Course Artifacts

Faculty Contact

Tracey Burke, Associate Professor
School of Social Work
College of Health
GHH 106
3211 Providence Drive
Anchorage, AK  99508
907.786.6905
tkburke@uaa.alaska.edu