Describe what you are trying to accomplish with the specific project or teaching practice featured here.
I am currently one of the co-directors for the learning community program at IHCC. Learning communities allow students to take a combination of courses, usually around one theme. A typical learning community might combine a reading or writing course with another discipline class, such as history, psychology, sociology, or communications. However, we also offer learning communities that are geared toward students in specific career programs; so we have a criminal justice learning community and a pre-health science learning community. The overall goal of a learning community is to help students understand interdisciplinary connections within a diverse cohort of courses. Learning communities also offer students an opportunity to form richer connections with their instructors and deeper relationships with their peers. These connections occur not only because students spend more time together in classes, but they also have more opportunities to connect with one another through out of class assignments and activities. In fact, faculty in each learning community plan at least one out of class experience. This may take the form of an outing to a play, museum, or other public event. Some learning communities may host a speaker; some of our cohorts also embed community-based learning projects within their out of class experience. One of the goals is to get students to think about larger problems and opportunities within their community.
One of the key outcomes of learning communities is to give students disciplinary tools to solve problems. We want them to feel like they are a part of their community and they play in role in improving their community. I teach in a learning community that combines English 1108: Research and Writing Skills with a Lifespan Psychology course. This learning community is called “18 and Nowhere to Go” and it focuses on the foster care system. Students learn about psychological concepts in Lifespan, as they also read a non-fiction book in my class about the foster care system in New York. We connect that particular learning community with a community-based learning assignment where we partner with a non-profit adoption agency called Ampersand Families which works to find permanent homes for teens in the foster care system. As students learn about the foster care system, they also meet some of the youth who have been adopted as teens through Ampersand. We invite the youth to our class and students get to hear these young people’s stories and experiences navigating the foster care system. Students will often comment that this is one of the most powerful experiences they had in the class: hearing the real-life accounts from people who experienced a system that students may only know theoretically. It’s a way for them to see how that system impacts real lives. The community-based learning project culminates in a letter to a stakeholder in the foster care system. Several students have written letters to their state senator about some issue related in foster care – whether it’s requiring more trauma-based training for foster families or more funding to help youths aging out of the foster care system. Other students have written letters to the directors of Human Services in Dakota County and Ramsey County, requesting improved training for Child Protection Workers. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos both received letters last semester. Students learn about the system, they meet youth impacted by the system, and then they advocate for these youth via letter writing. It’s a good way for them to integrate what they learn in their psychology class—about development, trauma, and memory—with the persuasive writing techniques they learn in an English 1108 class.
When you said that one focus was to help students solve problems, by that are you meaning problems within their own discipline or their own technical program, or problems more like the one you just described where you have a community problem that we’re solving together?
I think that varies by learning community. I think our community worked really well for talking about a social problem. There are learning communities such as the criminal justice and pre-health science learning communities that will address more discipline-specific problems. Overall we are teaching students to develop problem-solving skills so they have the tools to create change.
How does this project or practice influence student learning?
I think learning communities influence student learning by helping them acquire real multidisciplinary tools. Students discover the ways each disciplines might approach a certain topic, the lenses these disciplines will use, and the language each discipline will apply to concepts and knowledge. Students in learning communities have an opportunity to practice these skills in their first semester of college, skills that many of us didn’t develop until we were much further along in our education. As such, learning community courses are often more challenging than a standalone class because students are asked to stretch their thinking in multidisciplinary ways. They are also asked to work closely and collaboratively with peers in ways that may be different from a standalone class.
What specific student skills are developed through this project or practice?
I focus on helping my students develop their writing voice by understanding how to connect to a variety of audiences. I want them to recognize the rhetorical situation at play in any assignment they may encounter. I want them to learn how to shift and adapt their writing as needed. As they practice how to write and research for multiple audiences, we address such questions as: what does an academic paper look like? What writing conventions are expected for an academic audience? What are the expectations for a persuasive letter? How does an analysis differ from a summary? When can one use the “I” voice and when is it best to steer clear of informalities? What type of sources will an academic audience expect to see in academic argument?
The outcomes being focused universally on developing skills – analytic skills, deeper thinking – have you seen a change, one way or the other in your student’s ability to grasp those, or develop those skills in your English class? Your learning community English class versus a standalone English class that you’ve taught.
I definitely do because the analytical skills that they’re developing rooted in a certain discipline. This means rather than reading essays about general topics, I’m reading essays that are more richly integrated with the knowledge and concepts of a particular discipline like psychology. To write these kinds of papers, students must understand sometimes complicated psychological concepts, then they need to apply these ideas to the book they have read in their English course, and then they are required to synthesize all of it into a college-level, research driven essay. We know these types of assignments challenge students, but the learning community model—the close relationships students build with their instructors and peers—also provides ample opportunities for support and resources. It’s a sort of a high expectations/high support model.
What comments have you received from students about this project or practice relative to their learning? Do you have a direct quote from a student or students that addresses this?
Often times what students will say is they just never knew much about the foster care system and the learning community opened their eyes. We’ve had some powerful reactions in which students will say “I didn’t realize that I could have a role in advocating for people”, and then the next semester, they join a club like VIBE [Volunteering Individuals Brings Empowerment] or they do more community based learning projects. Occasionally I’ve heard from other instructors that one of our former students is still wanting share their knowledge about the foster care system. They continue to write essays or give speeches or present at our annual research conference on the topic.
A few years ago, we offered a learning community in which students read an excellent book by Bryan Stevenson entitled Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. And after studying that book and theme, there were several students who saw themselves pursuing a career in the legal system. In my learning community, there were several students who wanted to be social workers and learning more about the foster care system they felt even more compelled to pursue a career in social work
Students also develop stronger connections with faculty, so oftentimes, we hear feedback about instructors who take extra time to help students or we hear that students have a better understanding of the variety of resources on campus whether that’s the writing center, accessibility services, counseling/advising, the library etc.
You can read more student perspectives on learning communities here: https://www.inverhills.edu/DegreesAndPrograms/LearningCommunities/index.aspx.
How has this project or practice changed the way you teach, or made your teaching better?
I think when you teach in a learning community, you’re invited to rethink everything, which is both terrifying and also nourishing. I’ve been teaching in learning communities since 2006, and I’ve had different learning community partners and any time that I get to collaborate with another faculty member, I’m invited to rethink my course material. When I taught in a photography class, it was an opportunity for me to learn much more about how to be visually literate, and so I began to integrate a little but more about reading image along with text. And, I’ve learned from my colleagues about how to pose questions, how to create more engaging assignments. Teaching can be a very isolating profession. We are with our students more often than anyone else and they are our community. Sometimes we face genuine challenges in the classroom and having a partner means you can share those challenges. You can share the joy of teaching, but you can also share the struggles, so it’s not so isolating.
When I teach with a photographer, I get to learn more about the craft of photography and I get to learn about new artists. When I teach with a psychologist, I get a chance to re-see my class material through lens psychological lens. All of these partnerships allow me to continually reboot and rethink. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always perfect, but it is energizing. I think there’s nothing better than hearing a colleague say “wow, that’s really cool, I’m going to try that!”
How does this project or practice relate to assessment in your course(s)? How do you assess whether the project or practice has been successful/useful in the above areas – such as impact on student learning?
I think one thing that we know about [learning communities] is that we see students the next semester, and we see them involved in the larger campus community in many ways. I’ve spotted quite a few of my Fall learning community students presenting at the Research Conference in April. I’ve had students who come back and say “well, I’ve joined a student club and I’m doing more community based learning.” So, we see that they’ve remained on campus and that they’re fully engaged in campus activities. I think another way that we know the program is having an impact is because they continue to come back to us. I see them in the writing center and the library and many of them will poke their head in my office and simply tell me how they are doing.