Creatively Hanging Out
Siena Heights anthropology student Brittani Wilson (back, at left) and international student Vera Alvarez (at right) hosted Michener Elementary School fourth-graders on the SHU campus this fall as part of the community-based learning program.
SHU's Community-Based Learning Program Works as a 'Gift Exchange'
(Note: This article appeared in the January 2009 edition of "Campus Connection," a collaborative publication of colleges and universities in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.)
She calls it “creatively hanging out.”
For the past nine years, Siena Heights University Professor of Anthropology Linda Easley has embedded her sociology and anthropology students into local elementary schools and youth organizations to participate, observe, learn and then report on their experiences. For eight weeks, two hours per week, Siena Heights students visit and document their experiences with elementary students, teachers and staff.
SHU students first worked with students at McKinley Elementary. Efforts shifted to Michener Elementary when McKinley closed. Nine years later, the program has expanded. Siena Heights now has students from other programs such as sport management and psychology – six classes in all – participating with not only Michener, but also with the local Boys & Girls Club and The Daily Bread of Lenawee.
Easley said this is not an internship or a volunteer program, but a required part of her classes. The results have been informative – if not transformative.
“A community organization defines what they need,” said Easley, who prefers the term “community-based learning” over the more common “academic service learning,” to describe the program. “Yes, students benefit, but by and large this is a partnership between the university and the community organization. But it is defined by the community.”
“Students come in and observe behaviors and conversations,” said Annie Howard, the art teacher at Michener. “They basically are in my room to interact with the kids and be positive role models.”
“They work with students who may need a little extra help mastering academics or just having an older brother or sister (figure) to give them some extra attention,” said Michener Elementary Principal Deb Risner of SHU’s students. “The kids just hang on the students; that’s how much they’ve bonded with them. … The kids just love spending that time with them. It’s really cool to watch.”
Easley learned about this community-based approach from the Michigan Campus Compact, an organization that promotes Michigan college students to be more civically engaged citizens. She decided to focus on the east side of Adrian, Mich., typically more ethnically diverse than other areas of the city. Fifty-one percent of Michener’s 374 students are either African-American or Hispanic, and that diversity has provided a cross-class, cross-cultural experience for her students, Easley said.
Because of the hands-on philosophy of community-based learning, Easley has cut her reading requirements for her classes in half.
“I’ve always had an applied component to my classes, which means students were always doing something with their information and learning from applying,” Easley said.
Students must also keep reflective journals of their visit experiences, and then present summary reports of those journal entries both written and orally to the elementary teacher and principal at end of the semester.
“That’s probably the key thing that makes this such a different (program), is the reflective piece,” Easley said. “You reflect on it and think about it in light of your discipline.”
According to Risner, that reflection/feedback is invaluable.
“It’s a great tool for me to look at,” Risner said of the students’ reports. “Sometimes it’s made me and the teachers sit back and reflect, ‘Is this how we are perceived?’ ”
“We provide them with data that points them in some new directions,” Easley said. “It’s unique. We take. We give. It’s reciprocal.”
Easley said her students benefit from the learning “gift exchange” in many ways.
“Our students say they are really surprised, because they are treated as an adult for the first time in their lives there,” Easley said. “And they are ambivalent about that. … My students learn as much from the teachers there as they do from anything else.”
“(SHU students) come in very shy and need direction,” Howard said. “But at the end, I find they are conversing with the kids. There is no hesitation. They’re into it.”
Easley said community-based learning has room to grow at Siena Heights, possibly involving the university’s international student population.
“The whole philosophy behind this is that how you come to know something is as important as what you know,” Easley said. “Hopefully our students become better citizens. The aftermath is they become more socially engaged.”
Professor of Anthropology Linda Easley (at right) calls the interaction between her anthropology/sociology students and Michener Elementary School students “creatively hanging out” in the hope that co-learning can occur between the two groups.