Community engagement can be a powerful tool for both connecting classroom learning to real life experiences and supporting community change efforts. In this our last post on community engagement in teaching, we want to address two questions: : 1) How can teachers attend to ethical concerns that may arise throughout community engagement projects?; and 2) How can teachers integrate routine reflection as a strategy to assess student learning throughout community engagement projects? Reflective activities create a critical space for us to capture the ethical issues arising with students and to reflect on our own ethical practice as instructors for community engaged courses. And we could not discuss ethical concerns without students being able to reflect about specific issues. For this last post in our community engagement series, we will focus on the ways we made sure to support student learning by exploring potential ethical issues and creating regular reflective opportunities.
Ethical Considerations When Engaging Communities
The ethical issues you must attend to are both community- and student-focused. Returning to the community engagement spectrum from our previous two posts (Preparation and Implementation), the ethical considerations broaden as students become more immersed in communities. For example, we both had concerns about communities being exploited for the sake of students’ learning. To address this concern, Jenny (service learning) spent time with community partners prior to her course to gain an understanding about what would make the project meaningful to them and built mechanisms into the course to attend to those needs. Katie (photovoice) built guidelines for students’ photos into her photovoice rubric, spent time in class talking to students about ethical photography, and encouraged students to ask questions they may have about their photos.
We both felt it would be unethical for students to engage with communities without first considering the impact their own identities and expectations on their work. We made sure students thought about privileged and oppressed identities, assumptions they hold about communities that they might engage with, and how they might manage or interpret challenging experiences. Overall, we focused students on reflecting as an ethical imperative to ensure the experience worked well for community members and for students, but also as an assessment process to enhance student learning.
Reflection for Learning in Community Engagement
Reflection can be a useful tool for both students and instructors to more fully understand learning during community engagement activities. We both used multiple tools for reflection based in course objectives, both formal and informal, and creatively responding to the unexpected elements of this work. Below, we highlight how you can prepare to incorporate reflection into your community engagement efforts, along with some helpful tips for doing so that we derived from our own work
A) Reflect Flexibly Toward Course Objectives
If you’ve already elected to use community engagement as part of your course, you should consider how it will match up with course objectives. This can be very direct if you’re reading an article or bringing in a speaker about a particular topic, but may require more scaffolding if you’re integrating an experience like photovoice, service learning, or study abroad. Here, it’s essential to anticipate multiple student experiences of community engagement work. Make sure that reflection prompts are broad enough so that all students can participate, but still focused enough they are reflecting back toward the overall project and course objectives. For example, in Katie’s course, she had a full class dedicated to reflection incorporating definitions, examples and an assignment using a reflection tool called the “Ladder of Inference.” These activities taught students how to identify their own learning and thinking changed about particular issues, preparing to do deeper reflection in their photovoice project, and further connecting back to the overall course objectives of examining how concepts of power and oppression relate to social issues.
B) Reflect Informally and Formally
It’s essential to provide a spectrum of ways students can reflect on their learning. This spectrum builds a comprehensive culture of reflection in your course and provides multiple windows into student learning during community engagement and beyond. Providing informal reflection spaces help students build up to more formal, graded reflections on their work. These informal reflections could include short discussions, posing quick questions to students after explaining something, and/or having students keep a journal of their thoughts during community engagement work. And eventually building formal reflection into the course provides a culminating space for student to think about their learning across community engagement experiences. Final papers or projects can provide a powerful picture of what students experienced and continue to validate both the community engagement work and the importance of regular reflection in connection to it. Whatever mixture of formal and informal reflection you decide on, make sure to integrate the results of the student reflection into your instruction moving forward. Through lectures and learning activities, demonstrate you’ve heard and are thinking about what students said.
C) Reflect Creatively
Reflective activities and assignments don’t have to fit within the bounds of traditional assessment strategies. There is plenty of room for creativity in setting up these activities.For example, Katie hosted a photovoice gallery in her classroom where students could explore their peers’ interpretations of the activity. Then, students had the opportunity to engage in discussion to reflect on what they’ve learned as a group from participating in the process. Doing this in both a big group and individually can speak to multiple learning styles. It also provides a space for students to generate new understandings of their experiences.
D) Reflect on the Unexpected
Realize that reflections may go beyond the scope of your course objectives and be prepared to facilitate learning that departs from expected directions. Community engagement can be both messy and beautiful. Leave space for unpacking the complexities.
We hope this series of blog posts helped remove some of the mystique regarding community engagement in the classroom. Getting students to connect course topics to what is going on around them can be rewarding and exciting! As you continue to consider incorporating community engagement into your own work, what ethical concerns do you need to consider? How important is reflection in your course? What reflective activities could you do to prepare your students for engagement and to assess their learning? We are always looking for new ideas so please share with us in the comments below!
Katie Gregory is an ecological-community psychology graduate student at MSU. As a Michigander born and raised, she is passionate about mentoring students while keeping them engaged with local issues and policies through courses in community psychology and human services internships. Her research interests focus on gender-based violence, specifically on how multiple systems respond to survivors of intimate partner violence. Free time? What’s that? Katie is a parent to twin toddlers.
Jennifer Lawlor is a graduate student in MSU’s ecological-community psychology program, where she studies collaboration networks among community stakeholders. She has taught courses in community psychology and research methods, sparking her interest in working with undergraduates. When she’s not geeking out about communities and teaching, Jennifer enjoys figure skating, baking, and playing board games.