Happy New Year. It’s been hard lately attending to this blog in any meaningful way–if anyone noticed. I really don’t want it to fade into oblivion, though; so in the spirit of the new year, I’m going to try to muster the energy and inspiration to infuse new life to it. We’ll see. The time I’ve spent away from the blog, as of late, has been occupied by planning a spring semester of service-learning. This will be the third year running now that I’ve used a service-learning approach to teaching my Composition II course–the research writing course at the College. It’s been a lot of hard work the past two years, and each year I tend to bite off a little more–attempting to make things bigger and better than the year before. The results of the hard work have proven pretty fulfilling–for most of my students, I believe, and for me as well. In fact, last year the College saw fit to award me the Master Teacher award for the service learning work I’ve been doing through my classes. This was an honor that I did my best to receive humbly.

The time is right to push forward with service, advocacy, and action.

This year, I’m continuing to press forward, and am really excited (if not a bit nervous) about the things we’re putting into motion. I’ve joined forces to some degree with the faculty coordinator of The Democracy Commitment (TDC) program on our campus. I think this is a great pairing, not just because I enjoy working with the individual, but also because the College is very much behind TDC. Strategically, it makes sense, and pragmatically, it will help in pushing the my service-learning program forward. In fact, many forces are aligning to make service learning more doable on campus: a relatively new “Center for Sustainability” on campus and The Democracy Commitment–both of which come with staff, budget, and a commitment from the administration–a new college president who swears to put the community back in the community college, and an increasing number of faculty infusing civic engagement and service-learning work into their courses. Momentum is building all around this as is a great deal of support. The time is right.

With over 30 service-learning options, students will find their fit and make an impact.

This semester my efforts are expanding to include a more intensified service experience for my students with over 30 service options that I have prearranged for students before the semester began. That, alone, I believe will make this work in the course a lot easier to pull off. While it’s important to me for students to learn how to make these professional contacts and arrange opportunities with minimal “hand holding,” there are many other things to get done in the course, as well, so I’ve compromised on this point some, to get the students immersed from the outset of the course without having them deal with the logistics of arranging the service opportunities.

Also, this semester, we’ll be using a theme to tie our research, writing, and service learning activities all together: Poverty in America. It’s a broad theme suggested by our TDC coordinator, but I think it will work very well. The theme will provide a much needed unifying element, but it is also broad enough to allow for a lot of exploration into connected issues such as education, employment opportunities, the housing crisis, food insecurity and urban food deserts, homelessness, wage inequality and the working poor, the poverty of isolation amongst the disabled and the elderly, healthcare struggles, and so on. We’re building a semester-long program around this theme that goes beyond the classroom to involved our campus community.

actout 2014

Again this year, my students and I will organize the ActOut service-learning and volunteer fair. We’ll invite local, non-profit, volunteer-driven organizations to host information tables so people can learn how to get involved. We’ll have a number of speakers talking about matters of service, advocacy, and action. And students will showcase their own service-learning work from the semester.

deliberative dialogue

In keeping with the “flipped” classroom model (which I’m continuing with this semester), we will be engaged in significant acts of collaboration during our classroom time. One prominent method we will use this semester is something called “deliberative dialogue.” This established methodology (from the National Issues Forum Institute), in some ways, is an alternative way to think about argument (a topic of our course). The NIFI describes what they do and the dialogue process as follows:

National Issues Forums (NIF) is a nonpartisan, nationwide network of locally sponsored public forums for the consideration of public policy issues. It is rooted in the simple notion that people need to come together to reason and talk—to deliberate about common problems. Indeed, democracy requires an ongoing deliberative public dialogue.

These forums, organized by a variety of organizations, groups, and individuals, offer citizens the opportunity to join together to deliberate, to make choices with others about ways to approach difficult issues and to work toward creating reasoned public judgment. Forums range from small or large group gatherings similar to town hall meetings, to study circles held in public places or in people’s homes on an ongoing basis.

The deliberative dialogue is also a way through which students will bring to bear their research and apply it to the dialogue. It is a method widely used by many community groups to bring people together on an issue, to discuss it carefully and methodically over several sessions, all of which will result in “real world” action. I’m hoping we can bring some community leaders and/or elected representatives to the table for our culminating “action forum” discussion.

reacting to film

A key text of our course this semester is the Joe Gantz documentary American Winter. The film follows eight American families over the course of one winter season, each struggling in the aftermath of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. We will screen this film publicly, use it to further our deliberative dialogues and our writing for the course, but we will also put together a student panel discussion on the film to be held in a public setting and attended by community members as well as other classes. (See live-event learning below.)

live-event learning

To further what seems my continuous effort to move student learning beyond the classroom, we’ll also be engaged in several campus/community-wide events this semester. The ActOut fair described above, of course, will ask students to publicly exhibit their work beside the organizations they have worked with. I will also ask representatives from my student groups to speak to the audience about their service-learning experiences. The film panel discussion gives students the chance to participate in an academic, intellectual, and public discussion of issues raised by the film. The final deliberative dialogue will also be a public live event, so by the end of the semester, each student will be involved in at least one campus event—whether it be a panel discussion, a showcase or exhibit of their work, a community dialogue/action forum, or a service-learning fair. The idea is to thrust students out of the classroom and into a more public sphere, so they can put their developing educations to immediate action, while sounding their voices and beginning to understand the real power they have.

I’m excited about this semester. I believe this service-learning, civically-engaged, teaching-and-learning-outloud approach is going to create a learning experience for us all that none will soon forget. On top of that, we’ll make a positive impact on the troubling issues of poverty, in our community, and on the lives of others. That’s the idea anyway.