Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Drawing Parallels between Aesthetic Experience and Life Experience—Danny Anderson (2006)

Overview

Adding a service-learning component to a Spanish literature course helped students connect aesthetic and life experiences.

Background

I became interested in the possibility of teaching a service learning class in Spanish because many of the potential service projects are relevant for the everyday use of Spanish in Kansas and because I am often searching for ways to motivate student interest in the reading of literary texts. In terms of social changes, there is a growing Spanish-speaking population that has become visible in Lawrence; in addition to promoting study abroad opportunities among Spanish majors, I wanted to promote cross-cultural opportunities in our own community. This opportunity strengthens Spanish majors' motivation for improving their Spanish, gives them opportunities to use their Spanish in everyday contexts, and also contributes to our local community. In terms of reading literature, my sense is that students often find it difficult to understand literary texts as social actions, as the words of authors trying to have an effect upon readers through the aesthetic experience of reading. I hoped that the service opportunities would allow my students to explore representations of Latino and Latina identities in literary texts while they were also struggling to understand the identities of the Latino communities they encountered in their service activities. In short, I wanted to see if the parallels between aesthetic experience and life experience would change students' motivation for reading literary texts.

Implementation

I organized this course around a series of literary and non-literary readings, as well as films that examine the diversity of Latino identities in the United States. Students wrote two papers (one pre-service learning and one post-service learning), wrote a reflection journal (weekly entries), worked as volunteers for a minimum of two hours each week for ten consecutive weeks, turned in homework assignments and took quizzes, and prepared a major oral presentation in groups.

During the semester, guest speakers had a dramatic impact on students in this course. Students learned more about Latino/a diversity, Latino/a identities, and the social factors that have contributed to shaping individuals' experience and their understanding. The guest speakers' topics influenced students’ presentations later in the semester. After students completed their service learning work, the semester ended with a decompression discussion. We talked about how they were handling no longer having that service contact and how they would deal with the possibility they would not maintain those relationships. In the last week of classes, the students responded to a variety of course evaluations, surveys, and a 40-minute class evaluation conducted by a KU service learning representative. On the final exam date, we had an unorthodox meeting and last course exam. I gave the students questions ahead of time that summarized the facts of the course, and during the final, they had to record their answers to all these questions.

Student Work

One of the key elements in a second language class is motivation. The level of motivation in this course was dramatically different, far more intense than anything I have ever experienced in the undergraduate classroom. Students had commitments and personal missions that were driving their questions and desire to improve their Spanish.

I wrestled with grading and the criteria for grading, especially because I gave a lot of A’s and B’s as grades. On one hand, I think everyone went overboard in the amount of time that they put into their projects, and that they earned their points. On the other hand, I worry about pressures to check grade inflation when I have a class with all A and B grades. Sometimes I hear colleagues describing service learning as a less rigorous way of studying, and I worry that high grades feed into that perception. However, I believe that the students' level of motivated expression is the best that I have ever had in any class I have taught. When I looked at the quantity of work that the students had completed and especially the quality of their group presentations, I was profoundly impressed by their achievements. Service learning gave the students a genuine motivation to analyze literary texts and social situations and to express what they discovered through critical thinking. In terms of content, the group presentations were the best that I have ever seen in a course at this level; in terms of language mastery, their communicative success was dramatic and their grammatical accuracy was far above average. The effectiveness of their rhetorical strategies for organizing ideas in a persuasive manner and the energy of their public speaking personalities were the best I have seen among Spanish majors. This is also reiterated by the reflection journal entries that I interpreted as demonstrating how profoundly students had responded to the course.

Reflections

Adding service learning to this course was very rewarding. I would encourage other faculty members to consider ways that a service learning component could be added to an existing course; not all courses need to be devoted entirely to service learning, but in many classes service learning projects could be important options or even requirements.

I made lots of changes along the way to respond to class needs, but overall I believe that the proposed course really “clicked” with students. They worked harder than in any other class I have taught. They expressed interest in and insights about literary works that were more profound than what I have encountered in other undergraduate classes. It is often a struggle to respond to students who say, “I am not interested in literature,” or “I do not like reading.” One of my goals in this course was to show students the relationship between literary texts and human experience, to help them see literature not as a distant object enshrined on a pedestal but as a voice in an often contentious dialogue, a voice that is competing for their attention and their commitments. For the students in this class, I think it worked! The most surprising detail after the class was complete was the relation between literary understanding and personal experience. Whereas I had expected the students to call upon aspects of personal experience as evidence to use when interpreting the short story in their second paper, the opposite seemed to occur. The students all tended to use their understanding of the literary text as a way to come to terms with their own experiences. I will try to make greater use of this practice in future assignments to explore a bit more the nature of student interest in literary works.


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Background

I became interested in the possibility of teaching a service learning class in Spanish, because many of the potential service projects are relevant for the everyday use of Spanish in Kansas and because I am often searching for ways to motivate student interest in the reading of literary texts. In terms of social changes, there is a growing Spanish-speaking population that has become visible in Lawrence; in addition to promoting study abroad opportunities among Spanish majors, I wanted to promote cross-cultural opportunities in our own community. This opportunity strengthens Spanish majors’ motivation for improving their Spanish, gives them opportunities to use their Spanish in everyday contexts, and also contributes to our local community. In terms of reading literature, my sense is that students often find it difficult to understand literary texts as social actions, as the words of authors trying to have an effect upon readers through the aesthetic experience of reading. I hoped that the service opportunities would allow my students to explore representations of Latino and Latina identities in literary texts while they were also struggling to understand the identities of the Latino communities they encountered in their service activities. In short, I wanted to see if the parallels between aesthetic experience and life experience would change students’ motivation for reading literary texts.

Given my interest in a possible service learning class, I was excited to see the announcement for the Center for Teaching Excellence’s Service Learning Institute (SLI) in Summer 2005. I was initially hesitant, but decided that the SLI would provide the structure to help me develop an effective course. I was especially interested in advice about how to manage the logistics of volunteer activities outside of class.

During the SLI, I was surprised by the breadth of projects that faculty members had proposed. Sometimes the projects proposed by other faculty members sparked creative ideas about possibilities for my course. The presenters were especially helpful in giving me a structure for resolving my questions about logistics and liability.

The financial support from the CTE grant was also helpful, as these funds made it possible for me to purchase books and videos for the class. One of the best investments was having the right resources at my fingertips for developing a new course. Some of the materials I purchased, using both my own resources and the CTE grant, were technical studies about the social role of foreign language educators and foreign language education. Other materials were documentaries, such as the eight-hour The New Americans or the fascinating study in community conflict over immigration, Farmingville. Other documentaries include Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary, Mojados: Through the Night, and La ciudad/The City (the exact genre of this last film is open to debate). Feature films that I considered for this course and its possible future versions and sequels include El Norte, El jardín de Edén, Gatekeeper, Bread and Roses, Espaldas mojadas, and María Full of Grace. I also did extensive additional reading about identities at the border (especially the work of ethnographer Pablo Vila); about displacement, travel, and diaspora (especially the work of James Clifford); contextual writings about globalization, economic changes, cultural changes, and immigration; and many books about changing Latino identities and communities in the United States.

Before designing my class, I did some reading in an anthology entitled Construyendo puentes: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish, edited by Josef Hellebrandt and Lucía T. Varona, a book about service learning classes in Spanish. None of the models fit my own situation. I ended up skimming other books in the American Association of Higher Education’s series on service learning and finding essays in other volumes that sparked my thinking.

With departmental approval, I decided to offer the course on a trial basis using a special course rubric that is sometimes used to accommodate new course topics, SPAN 494 Special Readings: Spanish through Service Learning. The department also agreed to allow this course to satisfy elective hours in the major. I offered the class for the first time in spring 2006. The class filled quickly during pre-enrollment with 20 students, mostly junior and senior Spanish majors. Many had a double major with Latin American Studies, social welfare, or education.

Influence in my own scholarship
In terms of my own scholarship, the first pair of readings from the course became the focus of my presentation at the Latin American Studies Association 2006 international conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico in March. I discussed Mexican author Enrique Serna’s short story “El desvalido Roger,” perhaps best translated as “Helpless Roger,” and Ivan Illich’s 1968 speech circulated under the title “To Hell with Good Intentions.” In this presentation I examined the image of the U.S. do-gooder.


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Implementation

I organized this course around a series of literary and non-literary readings, as well as films that examine the diversity of Latino identities in the United States. Students wrote two papers (one pre-service learning and one post-service learning), wrote a reflection journal (weekly entries), worked as volunteers for a minimum of two hours each week for ten consecutive weeks, turned in homework assignments and took quizzes, and prepared a major oral presentation in groups. I also evaluated their participation in class.

I required students to put in a minimum of 20 hours of service learning work. Some probably put in three to four times that much, with only two or three students completing the minimum number. One paperwork concern was getting back the student evaluations from the service learning supervisors. At the end of the semester, it took three weeks for me to receive 16 of the 20 evaluations. Whereas I had hoped to receive biweekly evaluations, in the end I felt lucky to get a single evaluation for the ten-week period.

The students during the semester served in the following places: ESL classroom volunteers at Hillcrest Elementary School; after-school tutors for elementary students through a program sponsored by El Centro, Inc. of Kansas City; personal tutors for individuals and families through KU’s Project Bridge and the community-based Small World; translation of materials for Women’s Transitional Care Services and Douglas County AIDS Project; Mother-to-Mother as medical translators during prenatal examinations; Latino Community Coalition working on a variety of projects such as children’s health fairs, community safety events, facilitating access to the public library and the bilingual story hour, informational newsletters, and updating directories of services for Spanish-speaking communities; state and federal income tax declarations sponsored by legal aid groups and private tax services; and CAMP (College Assistance for Migrants Program).

Given this range of placements, the actual student duties also varied widely. Some activities, such as medical translating, required some mandatory training. Agencies such as Women’s Transitional Care Services and Douglas County AIDS Project require training about confidentiality. Students who did translation of documents often sought other activities in order to have more direct personal contact with Latino community members. Most individuals involved in educational activities worked with individuals or small groups; on a few occasions, these individuals served as interpreters during parent-teacher conferences in the schools. The activities sponsored by the Latino Community Coalition tended to be more focused on meeting a deadline for a sponsored event. The main tax preparer in our group was overwhelmed by interest in her skills and service during the weeks leading up to the April 15th deadline for filing income tax returns.

Most Fridays we had time for group discussions about the service activities. After a few general discussions, we divided into smaller groups based on the kinds of activities, so that students could discuss in greater detail their shared experiences. These small groups were crucial for establishing the communication patterns that also led to effective small groups for oral presentations.

Guest speakers had one of the most dramatic impacts on students in this course. The first speaker, Richard Rodríguez of the School of Education at KU, has a polished presentation about Latino/a diversity. After his presentation early in the semester, we had three different days in which young Latino/a peers from KU and the community visited the class to discuss their experience of life in the United States. Often at the end of a presentation, class members left wanting to cry—the presentations were usually extremely emotional. A task in later class meetings would be to put the presentation into focus through critical thinking about how these individuals have experienced their Latino/a identities and the social factors that have contributed to shaping both the experience and their understanding of it.

The semester ended with a decompression discussion. The service activities were complete by that point, and we talked about how students were handling no longer having that service contact and how they would deal with the possibility they would not maintain those relationships. This was important because many of the students became attached to the people with whom they worked, and they were sad about the conclusion of the interaction. Besides the personal emotions, I wanted them to think about how their reactions involved politically structured feelings. My own scholarship in cultural studies has links to these ideas: personal reactions we think of as personal and private often go unexamined when, in reality, such reactions are structured by a larger context that is both social and public. I promoted critical thinking about the implications of how the students both experienced and understood the division between personal/social, private/public and how these divisions structured what they perceived as the possible actions they could or should take in our society and in our world.

In the last week of classes, the students responded to a variety of course evaluations, surveys, and a 40-minute class evaluation conducted by a KU service learning representative. On the final exam date, we had an unorthodox meeting and last course exam. I gave the students questions ahead of time that summarized the facts of the course, and during the final, they had to record their answers to all these questions. The purpose was to provide one more chance to pull all of the course material together in a record of what they had learned and accomplished. In theory, everyone should have been able to make a 100% on this exercise, and it did not carry a huge weight in the course grade.

Course surveys
I also had the good fortune of discovering that a Ph.D. student from the School of Education, María Alonso, was in the beginning stages of work on a dissertation that will include a significant focus on service learning in Spanish; she collaborated with me in the course to conduct surveys about the relationship between service learning, cultural stereotypes, and the development of cultural sensitivity. Her survey was the pilot for a project that she will conduct for her doctoral dissertation; during this semester she conducted the survey at different levels and in courses without service learning. She also maintained contact with a colleague who is administering the same surveys at another university.


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Student Work

One of the key elements in a second language class is motivation. The level of motivation in this course was dramatically different, far more intense than anything I have ever experienced in the undergraduate classroom. Students had commitments and personal missions that were driving their questions and desire to improve their Spanish.

Grading
Throughout the semester, I experienced ambivalence about how to make my grading criteria clear and ensure that I upheld the expectations of quality that I associate with a course at this level. At the end of the semester, my ambivalence was even stronger. All my students made As and Bs, which is not a typical grade distribution for one of my classes. But, when I looked at the quantity of work that the students had completed and especially the quality of their group presentations, I was profoundly impressed by their achievements. Service learning gave the students a genuine motivation to analyze literary texts and social situations and to express what they discovered through critical thinking. In terms of content, the group presentations were the best that I have ever seen in a course at this level; in terms of language mastery, their communicative success was dramatic and their grammatical accuracy was far above average. The effectiveness of their rhetorical strategies for organizing ideas in a persuasive manner and the energy of their public speaking personalities were the best I have seen among Spanish majors. I've included here the grading rubrics for Paper 1 and Paper 2.

It is hard to measure the quality of the service activity performed outside of class. From the reflection journals I had some sense of what took place each week. (The reflection journals were evaluated with this rubric.) Getting supervisor evaluations back was not easy, which is regrettable, for their observations could have helped me understand what learning took place. But, this situation is also understandable and the supervisors in many cases accepted volunteers to collaborate with them because they were already overextended, and they had only limited time to dedicate to writing evaluations of the volunteers. The oral presentations gave good insight into how much effort students had dedicated to their projects. In the end, the final assessment for the actual service learning activity took into account what students had revealed in their journals, what supervisors commented about the volunteers, special circumstances associated with different service activities, and evidence of having fulfilled or exceeded the required time commitments.

Student group presentation topics

  • Resources for Latinos in the United States and specifically in Lawrence, Kansas.
  • Latino women as immigrants. The students looked at their plight as immigrant women regarding their roles of wife and mother. The students discussed issues women face, such as fitting into this society, handling pregnancies (without the ability to pay for medical care), and mental health issues. It was a moving presentation. The group members were proactive, as evidenced by a flyer they prepared for women to learn about agencies available to meet their needs.
  • Hillcrest Elementary School and English as a Second Language learners.
  • Translation of AIDS materials for Douglas County Health officials. The students did a shortened version of this health presentation in class.
  • Stereotypes and adjustment to life in the United States. This turned out to be the most emotional presentation. The group members discussed what they expected to encounter through the service learning project, what they learned, and what the families expected from them. They synthesized the course materials well. As part of the presentation, they showed a video in which they interviewed the children and their parents regarding their experience of living in Lawrence. It was a very personal entry into a very private world.

Student work
I have included four student papers, two examples each of paper #1 and paper #2. For each paper, there is one example of a paper that was well done and one that needed improvement. Unfortunately, the examples of a paper that needs improving in both paper 1 and paper 2 were written by the same student. This student (student # 1) worked hard, but the writing skills just weren’t there. The examples of papers by students #2 and #3 both received 90%, which was a good grade for these papers. Please look at this explanation of my grading shorthand (pdf) to help interpret my comments.


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Reflections

Adding service learning to this course was very rewarding. I would encourage other faculty members to consider ways that a service learning component could be added to an existing course; not all courses need to be devoted entirely to service learning, but in many classes service learning projects could be important options or even requirements. Please see my service learning evaluation survey for more information on how I evaluated the effectiveness of that part of the course.

I have some ambivalence about how to make my grading criteria clear and ensure that I uphold the expectations of quality that I associate with a course at this level. All my students made As and Bs, which is not a typical spread for one of my classes. I usually have some students drop along the way because they are making an F, a few Ds and a group of Cs. I immediately looked at this class and wondered if I was inflating grades, or if service learning is a teaching model that inflates grades. The first major paper was mixed in terms of quality; when I teach this class again, I will structure the assignment more explicitly to give students a framework that will probably make the task easier. I gave more structure for the second paper, which had better results. I am uncertain, however, whether the second paper was better because of my instructions, students’ experience with me and understanding of what I was asking of them, or the actual service learning nature of the second assignment and its explicit call to use personal experience as a central element in the act of literary interpretation.

I made lots of changes along the way to respond to class needs, but overall I believe that the proposed course really “clicked” with students. They worked harder than in any other class I have taught. They expressed interest in and insights about literary works that were more profound than what I have encountered in other undergraduate classes. It is often a struggle to respond to students who say, “I am not interested in literature,” or “I do not like reading.” One of my goals in this course was to show students the relationship between literary texts and human experience, to help them see literature not as a distant object enshrined on a pedestal but as a voice in an often contentious dialogue, a voice that is competing for their attention and their commitments. For the students in this class, I think it worked! The most surprising detail after the class was complete was the relation between literary understanding and personal experience. Whereas I had expected the students to call upon aspects of personal experience as evidence to use when interpreting the short story in their second paper, the opposite seemed to occur. The students all tended to use their understanding of the literary text as a way to come to terms with their own experiences. I will try to make greater use of this practice in future assignments to explore a bit more the nature of student interest in literary works.

What I'll keep:

  1. Reflection journals. In a future version I would keep the reflection journal without penalizing students for the quality of their Spanish; they make lots of mistakes but succeed in communicating sophisticated ideas. I would like to see students writing better, but I believe that worrying about polishing the grammar too much can hinder the creative flow of ideas that goes along with a journaling activity. I do want to develop a more structured format for feedback.
  2. A few major papers. In these papers, I will expect the students to polish their language use.
  3. A required, extended period of volunteer activity.
  4. Group oral presentation project.
  5. Fridays as small group discussion days. During the ten weeks of the service period, I had students work in small groups to discuss the service activity and their experience, a practice that was successful.

What I'll change:

  1. Increase the theoretical readings early in the course. I especially plan to focus on “experience,” “ethics,” and perhaps shift the course from “Spanish through Service Learning” to something like “Latino/a-American Literature through Service Learning.” I am also considering expanding the focus to include literary selections from Spain.
  2. Add a more structured grammar component in order to work with continued language acquisition for advanced students. I now have a sense of what they need to improve, which I did not know when I set up the course. I was surprised to discover that the points that created the most problems were these: ser/estar confusion (especially with the ways that students mistranslate passive voice structures from English to Spanish), direct and indirect object pronoun usage, and por/para preposition confusion. Structured attention to these points will significantly improve the quality of Spanish if future groups are similar to this one.
  3. Have a mid-term and final exam rather than quizzes and homework. I would like a more structured measurement of the mastery of basic facts and course content. It is easier to see the analytical mastery and critical thinking in the papers and presentation.
  4. Prepare an effective grading rubric. For my own personal development, I would like to prepare myself to better assess major papers. I used grading rubrics, but I am not satisfied with them. I am still uncertain about how to balance points among the areas of (a) grammar, (b) organization, (c) analytical content/critical thinking, and (d) understanding of experience.
  5. Focus on developing a more structured approach to using the journal writing to improve language skills.

Curriculum reform/ Department response/ Plans for next time
I would like to repeat this course and also develop a sequel. I had many queries from students who wanted to sign up for the course in future semesters. I expect that I will modify the present course and offer a new version of it in spring 2007. In terms of a sequel, the materials from the present service learning course have given me the basis for an ideal follow-up course, a senior colloquium on the topic of immigration, SPAN 540 (Im)Migrant Images in Latin(o) America. For the SPAN 540 class, rather than require a service learning activity of all students, I plan to structure one major assignment so that students have the choice to do library research or experiential research for their writing.

I initially proposed to revise the one-credit hour SPAN 329: Intermediate Spanish Conversation II class as a service learning course before implementing service learning in Spanish 494. The conversation class, SPAN 329, had typically been taught as a course in which the instructor creates opportunities for in-class conversation. Usually the instructors and students are frustrated because it is hard to get students simply to converse unless there is real motivation for involvement. A typical conversation class is taught with an anthology that covers a controlled body of vocabulary and a series of supposedly provocative topics. One of the real dilemmas is that repeatedly, from the introductory Spanish language class through the advanced language class, the same bodies of vocabulary and the same supposedly provocative topics are covered. Instructors are often tired of the topics and students seem bored by them. My hope is that my three-credit hour service learning class may serve as a model for revising intermediate level conversation, that it will create a model for future three credit hour courses, and that it will establish modules that could be adapted to other courses that may not have service learning as a main focus.

As a result of talking to departmental colleagues, we are redesigning a class with a variable number of credits that can be taken as an individual (independent study) or class offering. My colleagues are also interested in learning more about service learning. We are considering adding service learning to SPAN 216, the fourth-semester course in the basic language requirement sequence for the general student population; in addition, we want to make it available as a Learning Community offering. We also discussed that it is not necessary to have the entire class structured around service learning as I did with this class; instead, it can be a part or a module of the overall focus.

Teaching responsibilities
Teaching this class in spring 2006 made me very aware of the relation between my class and the political context. During these months, Kansas legislators debated repealing the law providing in-state tuition for immigrant children who meet specific qualifications. Furthermore, candidates were gearing up for an election year when new members would be selected for the state board of education, a body that has debated in the past issues of immigrant children and English instruction. The local newspaper, the Lawrence Journal-World, reported a discussion of a watch-dog law called the “Professor’s Bill of Rights.” Nationally, our country looked like it might have been prepared to discuss the so-called DREAM Act, but in reality we have been engaged in a debate about comprehensive immigrant reform. The U.S. Senate was looking at proposals for guest worker programs, and the House considered proposals for building walls and criminalizing undocumented immigrants. There were protests across the U.S. in the middle of the semester, followed by the “Day without Immigrants” protest toward the end of the semester. All of these issues were directly related to themes explored in the course. The only responsible way to educate is to provide a space where students can inform themselves about the issues, learn ways to critically examine positions in the debate, and make decisions about how to exercise their civic responsibilities.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu


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