April 2010


Seminar in the Sociology of Education, Fall 2009

Community Based Learning Project


Can you describe the class and how CBL was used?

I taught a seminar course in the Sociology of Education for the first time in September 2009 and began to think about assignments and criteria for assessments in the summer. The class was small – 14 students who were mainly Sociology majors or Sociology/Education double majors but also included Business and Neuroscience students.  All students were Juniors or Seniors and a great group.!

The CBL component of the course began with an idea to have my students involved in a research study of benefit to an educational institution. I began investigating research partnerships with school districts in the area.  I met early September with the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Avon to present my idea of a research partnership between my class and the school district. They were very supportive and welcomed the idea. We established a research partnership to look at existing school data and to carry out interviews with students to learn more about their school experiences. The CBL component became approximately 50% of the work we did in this class – and required some out of class time scheduled for interviewing students and analysis of the quantitative data.

Why did you decide to try using CBL as part of the course?

I wanted my students to gain a number of skills and knowledge as a result of this project. First I wanted my students to see this as an opportunity to learn about the role of a sociologist – working closely with an educational organization to collect data, analyze the results and distribute the findings. I wanted them to understand what it means to abide by the code of ethics written by the American Sociological Association and our own Institutional Review Board.

I encouraged them to see this as an opportunity to learn different methodologies often used within Sociology – secondary analysis of existing data and qualitative interviews. With this came learning about interview design and interviewing techniques as well as learning to use the software program SPSS to analyze the quantitative data. Students also had a chance to draft the IRB application and the Parent Consent Form.

Another key issue for me was that students learn how to work as a team to produce one final report – the CBL required students to work together on all aspects of the project.  Finally the students had the opportunity to learn what some of the key issues are and questions educators in the field would like answers to – and to help them find answers that could inform policy and formulate further research questions.

I thought it would be interesting, challenging, and meaningful and would engage them in a Sociological research project that was important and valuable to an outside educational organization.

Tell us a little bit about your relationship with the community partner? How did you find them and what was their role in designing the project?

Our relationship was and continues to be very positive with the Avon School District. The Faculty in our Education Department – Professor Karen Anderson and Professor Kathleen McNamara were both very helpful in initially finding contacts to approach. I met with the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent of Avon twice – once to outline the partnership and ask for their support and a second time to discuss possible research questions.  After the focus of our research study was agreed my class began to create the data base and design the research instruments. Regular contact was established through e-mail, and phone conversations with the Superintendent.  Regular contact was also established with the Principal and Assistant Principal of the Middle/High School in Avon.

How do you think students experienced CBL and the course?

I asked for feedback from the students in October and then again at the end and the final comments seemed more positive than mid-semester although at both times the students expressed concern about the amount of work expected and also about how they were to be assessed.

A brief summary of the comments include:

Midterm Comments:

“I think the thought and plan for it sounds good but we will have to see how it will work out”

“I am excited about the project. I think it is both interesting and exciting! I just wish we had more time to do it.

“I can’t wait to start working on this project. It is the first time we can actually do field work for Sociology and I know I will learn more about this with this project than any other Sociology course.”

“While the research project is a very exciting opportunity I do not think that this class/semester was the best time to introduce it. I think it is subtracting from our class discussions and other topics.”

“In theory it’s a great idea and definitely worthwhile however I think it has gotten almost too big for us to undertake. There are so many aspects of the project…I feel very pressured.”

Final Comments at the End of term

“I think participating in this assignment gave me a true perspective on what it is like to be a Sociologist. It was cool to apply what we have been learning in other Sociology classes to an actual study.”

“I learned that a literature review is an important starting point when doing research because it can help focus your study – what’s missing and what I need to know more about.  I learned also that the wording of a form matters a lot. Everything has to be clear and nothing can offend anyone- the language must be sensitive.”

“I think this project gave the class insight into the design, preparation and implementation of a research project and along with this – all of the obstacles and set- backs that may occur. It was a valuable experience”

“I thought the assignment was really challenging and at times overwhelming because I did not know what would come next or what I would need to be preparing to do. I learned so much about the school system and its good and bad traits. It made me even more excited about getting into the school system as a counselor.”

“I was amazed by the amount of time and work that goes into a study. We were only able to complete a preliminary report and even that was time consuming. I learned so much about what goes into a Sociological report and I learned how valuable group work is!”

Despite the many challenges of community-based research, what do you think students and community and faculty gain from the enterprise?

I think the student comments above reflect what they gained and the challenges they faced.

I learned not to assume that students had prior learning of research methodologies and data analysis. In particular, I realized that while I saw this as a real opportunity for students to take on the role of a Sociologist and to partner with an educational organization to do research that is important and meaningful for them – I realized that not all of my students saw this as an “exciting opportunity” – it took them some time to warm up to it!


Successes/Challenges:

Success is that students did get a chance to participate in this research partnership, to carry out both qualitative and quantitative data analysis, to discover some preliminary findings and to write them in up in one draft report. They worked really well as a team and did learn about the research process.

The challenges were particularly time – it took a lot of time to write the Interview Guide, the Parent Consent Form, the IRB and to create the data base, and to get a CORI background check  – all before we could even begin data collection and analysis. Interviewing students was a challenge as the school did not want to pull students out of any classes so we had to fit in when students had study time – for some this was at 7:30am – not a popular time with my students!

Follow-up:

I have a student from the class who is continuing to work with me on interviewing students and data analysis this term as a Directed Study this term. Also I received a SURE grant to continue this work in the summer with another student. Both students will be involved in writing up the final report and will have the opportunity to join me in presenting our findings at a regional conference. All students from the CBL will be acknowledged as contributors in the final report to the school and have a copy of the final report if they wish.

I have also talked with the school about future research partnerships and they are very willing to see our research partnership continue.

An Overview

       When I first began teaching Mediated Communication Theory (one of our Department’s capstone classes), I structured this course around a semester-long research proposal assignment.  I soon realized that this project felt rather anti-climactic as a capstone experience; in fact, I recall students commenting in my course evaluations that the theory-driven material was “dry” and “boring” (I vaguely recall the word “snoozefest” mentioned!) As a result, I began working with Professor Ron Leone (who also teaches sections of this course) to develop a community-based learning (CBL) component that combined media theories, media literacy, and young people from outside the Stonehill community.  What evolved from this shared vision was a CBL component in which our students currently serve as media literacy facilitators at local after-school programs. Since the Spring of 2009, my CO419 students have volunteered at Davis Commons, an after-school program in Brockton where they serve as “media literacy facilitators.” This partnership requires my students to create and lead lessons and activities with young people between the ages of 10 and 14, with the goal of encouraging the after-school students to think critically about media messages.  There are several components to this semester-long CBL project, each which I briefly describe below. 

 

A Closer Look at the CBL Project

       First, as noted above, each week my students prepare lesson plans and activities that guide their visit at Davis Commons.  Their lesson plans relate to topics covered in our class (e.g., gender portrayals in media, television violence, deceptive advertising, Internet safety, etc…).  Our CBL program lasts ten weeks and I typically have three groups of Stonehill students visiting weekly for a total of 30 visits per semester. We spend considerable time in the beginning of the semester discussing age- and topic-appropriate lesson plans.  It is the responsibility of the entire group to give careful thought and consideration as to the preparation and facilitation of their weekly lesson plan. Each group is required to turn in their weekly lesson plan, as well as a reflection/evaluation of their performance each week.

       Second, throughout the course of the CBL project, my students create a media product that documents their experiences at Davis Commons.  In the past, CO419 students have created videos (one documentary; one mock newscast) that have fulfilled this requirement. Incorporating a media production component has several benefits.  Not only does it allow my Stonehill students to gain hands-on skills in the area of video production, but it also piques the interest of the Davis Commons youth and motivates them to be active participants in our media literacy partnership.  Further, since I am not on-site at Davis Commons with my students, having them create a video project that chronicles their experiences allows me to see first-hand the wonderful work they are accomplishing at Davis Commons. 

       Third, a project of this nature requires consistent reflection and evaluation, both through written work and oral presentations.  Throughout the course of the semester, students reflect on their CBL experiences and connect them to course readings and discussion.  This comes in the form of lesson plan evaluations, a media literacy critique paper, a final self-evaluation document, the media production group project, as well as consistent participation in class discussions.

       Finally, as a way to celebrate the students’ capstone experience, the class coordinates an on-campus end-of-the-semester celebration for the youth of Davis Commons. This event typically involves a campus tour, a film screening of the CO-419 video, and a pizza party.  The CO-419 students are responsible for carrying out the necessary event-planning tasks.  In the past, this event has truly served as a “capstone” experience, whereby all involved (my students, the Davis Common youth, the after-school program coordinator, and myself) are able to celebrate our collective accomplishments and the benefits derived from our CBL partnership.

 

Challenges and Benefits

       A semester-long CBL component, such as the one described above, poses several challenges, many which are logistical in nature.  The initial challenges include locating a CBL partner, discussing respective objectives, and determining whether the match is a “good fit.”  However, we are lucky at Stonehill to have people like Corey Dolgon and Kate Rafey to help in the initial planning (not to mention Nuala Boyle, who played a key role in introducing me to the Davis Commons site).  Beyond these initial challenges, there are certainly other challenges to consider, including scheduling logistics, lesson plan and activity discussions, and questions of how to “measure” the success of my students as well as the youth at Davis Commons.  While the first semester of my CBL experience proved somewhat challenging due to site-specific obstacles (e.g., cancellations by our CBL site, miscommunication, etc.), we addressed and resolved these issues during our partnership’s second semester. 

       While obstacles do arise, the benefits to all involved are much more plentiful.  First and foremost, my students are able to apply the theories we discuss in class to their experiences at Davis Commons.  Further, they are able to serve as mentors and media literacy facilitators, thereby allowing them to apply the material and share the knowledge that they have acquired during their time at Stonehill.  This experience also affords them the opportunity to serve the community and interact with a far more diverse population than what they are accustomed to at Stonehill.  Further, I find that my students truly invest themselves in the CBL project and are eager to discuss their experiences in class, which allows for a dynamic and productive classroom environment.  Best of all, I firmly believe that my students play a fundamental role in helping the youth at Davis Commons to increase their level of media literacy, a skill which is vital in the current media landscape. 

Looking Ahead

       While I am very pleased with all that my students have accomplished through their CBL endeavors, I also realize that there is always room for improvement and growth.  For this reason, in the Fall of 2010  I will be taking part in Stonehill’s Teaching and Learning Strategies Seminar (TLSS) to explore ways in which I can expand upon and strengthen my course’s CBL component. Specifically, I believe that my course’s CBL partnership would benefit from a more structured media literacy curriculum and the creation of an assessment tool to measure the effectiveness of our media literacy work at Davis Commons.  Participating in the TLSS will provide me with the opportunities to read additional literature pertaining to CBL, curriculum development, and assessment strategies, as well as engage in discussions with other professors about these topics.  Further, strengthening my course’s CBL component will enhance the educational experience of my students, and improve the learning experience of the Davis Commons youth.  Needless to say, I look forward to continuing to reevaluate and reinvent this partnership to maximize the benefits of the CBL experience for all involved.

–Angela Paradise