Welcome To Our Blog

Complexity, Connection, and Communication (3 Cs): A Blog for CSL Partners and Instructors

By Alison Taylor

We know that Community Service-Learning depends on relationships and that communication between students, instructors, and community partners is important to the experience for all parties.

In our 2013-14 program evaluation, 51% of CSL instructors surveyed said they felt there was adequate communication with their community partners. Continue reading


Collaboration & Insight: Reflections on CSL teaching and learning

by Laura Servage (U of A instructor) and Hussein Sugulle (EMCN)

What has been your CSL experience?

Laura: I taught my first CSL course, Engaging Youth Labelled at Risk, in spring, 2014. The course emerged from a funded research project that brought Edmonton youth together to create, implement, and evaluate an engagement framework. The framework was designed to empower youth – especially those who for many reasons might be marginalized by society – to voice their needs and concerns. The process was youth-led, so helped the young people involved to develop leadership and research skills, too.

Hussein:  I am EMCN’s homework club coordinator at Queen Elizabeth High School.  We support newcomer youth to adapt to the school culture and to succeed in their studies.  Often, parents cannot help their youth, but they want their youth to succeed.  CSL students help students with homework on Tues and Thurs through one-on-one work.  My job is to match Queen E students with certain subjects and volunteer strengths.  Over time, volunteers build strong relationships with newcomers and they take off where they left off from one week to the next.

What do you think made CSL work well?

Laura: My class brought together a range of students: first-year students right through to fourth-year criminology majors. What they shared was a willingness to learn about, but also learn from youth who experience marginalization. 20 hours of CSL placement in various community organizations serving youth were thus central to their participation in the course. Because it was a smaller class of only 12 students, we had the luxury of being able to devote lots of class time to seminar style discussions, and we used that time together to discuss the ways in which field experiences confirmed or contradicted the “book learning” part of class. I also designed assignments for this class to help students make these connections, as well as reflect on their own values and perceptions about youth, and the way society views youth.

The best part of my CSL experience was hearing students describe the insights and self-confidence they gained by having the courage to learn in unfamiliar settings, often with and from people whose cultures and backgrounds differed a great deal from their own. I loved how students were able to draw personal meaning from course content by connecting it to their field experiences.

Hussein:  For the first meeting, we explain what the homework club is and what the students are looking for.  We explain that there is a spectrum of English ability, including students who have no English and have never been in school and those who have graduated from ESL and are in regular classes but still struggling.  There is also a spectrum of subjects and subject levels.  We remind the CLS students that different ELL newcomer students have different school experience histories.  And we remind them not to assume students know things – there are knowledge gaps, especially cultural knowledge gaps.

I welcome interactions and reflections about the experience the CSL students have.  Some students initiate this. Some share their amazement at the commitment the students have – they really want to learn.

What were/have been the benefits of CSL for you/your organization?

Laura: I learned a ton too! Part of the Engaging Youth Labelled at Risk course brought us together as a class led by the youth developing the Engagement Framework. It was perhaps the first opportunity I’ve had to work on a genuinely equal footing with my students, and I found distinctions between “teacher” and “learner” blurred in enlightening ways. CSL has taught me a lot about the value of experiential learning, has deepened my respect for my students, and has helped me to build more reflective learning opportunities into my class activities and assignments.

Hussein: The students get extra help with their English and school subjects. They adapt to the new culture in the schools, build relationships with the volunteers and improve at school. I appreciate how, as a group, the CSL students ask questions, which shows engagement and makes my job easier.

Nora Hurlburt Volunteer Coordinator (EMCN) also thinks that the collaboration between UofA staff, students and university professors is valuable on many levels. Not only does EMCN get wonderful volunteers to help the immigrant youth in our homework clubs, but we have learned that we can work closely with professors  as co-educators.

Reflections on community service-learning

By Ann Babb (ABC Head Start, photo below left) and Wendy Hoglund (Department of Psychology, University of Alberta, photo below right)

What do you see as the purpose of CSL? What ideals captured your imagination and initial attention?

Ann: I see the purpose as giving students the opportunity to connect with their community in a meaningful way, enhancing their academic learning. We certainly benefit from the work that the students do in our classrooms but also from having access to the latest in research directly related to the services which we provide. It excites me to know we are building a future of understanding of the issues which families and children living in poverty face.

Wendy: A key goal of community-service learning in my class is for students to gain experience working directly with children or adolescents under the guidance of their community supervisor. In this way, students are learning not only from the instructor and their supervisor at their placement but they are also learning from the children or adolescents with whom they are directly working with. In this sense, students are co-creating their knowledge with the children or adolescents while contributing to the capacity of community partners to support children’s healthy development.

Ann Babb Hoglund

Why is it important for CSL instructors and community partners to develop strong relationships?

Ann: By being connected in a strong and supportive manner, both the instructors and agency partners are in a positive position to offer meaningful opportunities to CSL students, including a clear understanding of potential learning opportunities. This close relationship also provides an environment for creative planning and even, in some cases, an opportunity for research beyond the CSL program.

Wendy: To collaborate well with others, all participants in the collaboration need to contribute the development of a mutually respectful relationship. In the context of community-service learning this includes CSL instructors, community partners, and students. Without a mutually respectful relationship among all participants it is difficult to maintain the CSL connection and to support the learning of all participants. With a supportive, respectful relationship it opens the door to continued collaboration and research opportunities.

What are some of the challenges (institutional and personal) in this work? What are some things that have worked well from your experiences that you would like to share with others?

Ann: I agree with Wendy’s comments about the need for more communication between the partners and instructors, especially because our direct supervisors do not always have time to communicate with the instructors. As program supervisor, I usually take on that role but do find the “one step removed” system isn’t always effective for the students.

Wendy: The biggest challenge in most community-university partnerships is finding the time to connect with partners on a regular basis. Part of this challenge is because students are often working at multiple sites with a different supervisor who they work with on a regular basis and who are not necessarily the primary partner who coordinates the CSL placements with the CSL instructor. Regular communication would help both community partners and instructors better co-contribute to students’ learning, however this is a challenge give the work load of the supervisors and instructors.

Reflections on Project Citizenship

What do you see as the purpose of CSL? What ideals captured your imagination and initial attention?

Nancy: CSL provides students with opportunities to consider their academic learnings in a practice environment. Within the context of Project Citizenship students engage critically with issues related to citizenship, belonging, inclusion/exclusion, marginalization among others in collaboration with citizens who experience disability and Skills Society employees who support them. The ideals of partnership, possibility, and valuing of all people drew me to this project.

Ben: Partnering with CSL students, and U of A researchers like Nancy Spencer-Cavaliere really has helped to push our thinking and boost the quality of our support at Skills Society. We learn so much from the students and professors we partner with. At Skills Society we want innovation and better quality of life for the people with disabilities we serve and often when we look outside our silos we get fresh ideas that turns into action. CSL Ben and Nancyhelps us look outside our silos and imagine better. We’re grateful for that.

Why is it important for CSL instructors and community partners to develop strong relationships?

Nancy: As a research partner through CSL with the Skills Society, having a strong relationship creates opportunities to take risks, to challenge and to be creative in ways that are supported.

Ben: When you seek out creative collaborators and work on a project together everybody wins. Often you end up with unexpected learning that takes a project to the next level and leads to further collaboration. For instance, we first started with documenting stories and then through collaborating on that with instructors, students and researchers, it led to the idea of creating the Citizen Action Hall course, which takes place on the U of A campus. So, we learned it’s important to be open to new ideas and connections that often emerge from working on a project together and building relationships.

What are some of the challenges (institutional and personal) in this work? What are some things that have worked well from your experiences that you would like to share with others?

Nancy: The challenges I experience are mostly tied to ‘keeping up’ with the people at Skills. They have so many amazing things on the go, I just wish I had more time to spend ‘going’ with them! Mostly importantly, aligning intentions is what creates opportunities for meaningful engagement between students, instructors, researchers and community.

Ben: I’d recommend that any non-profit trying to make change and better their community should connect with a researcher and with U of A CSL. Bounce around ideas together and come up with a social change project that involves diverse partners and students. It will push your organization forward, improve the quality of your work and help the people you serve. We have always been blown away that quite often CSL students have been citizen role models we can really learn from and collaborate with.

Developing Activist Tools Through Service-Learning and Community Engagement

Daniel-Samantha-photoBy Daniel Johnson (CSL 100 instructor) and Samantha Estoesta (Alberta Public Interest Research Group)

Daniel: In order for community engagement to be more than surface-level, hit-and-run encounters with ‘the other,’ CSL must strive to accomplish three things: a structural critique of the issues that communities are already facing head-on, an honest examination of the charity model and the non-profit industrial complex, and create the tools for radical activist grassroots social movements that aim to transform society. How do we take the work we do in the classroom — readings, discussion, critical reflection — and use this co-created knowledge in a way that can be applied to community activism? Samantha, as a partner at a community organization, how would you answer this question?

Samantha: Through community placements, CSL students receive first hand knowledge of how non-profits work, how to mobilize in the communities that they are in, and offer a place for them to apply theoretical frameworks in a real-life setting. In academia, it is very easy to learn how to apply complex theoretical concepts to specific case studies; very rarely are there means to apply such concepts to current occurring and real events.  Community partners expect a certain amount of understanding (this is where knowing applicable theories, such as critical race theory, feminism, etc. come into play). We have created programs that take these theories and then apply them, be it consensus decision making, non-hierarchal systems, anti-oppressive hiring, sliding scales for services, or even accountability measures that place power dynamics into the equation. The goal of CSL is to give students access to these applicable frameworks while demonstrating understand of theories to the non-profits they work with.

Daniel: In addition to the theories you mentioned, as an instructor in Treaty Six territory I emphasize community engagement and activism in terms of the treaty relationship, settler-colonialism, and Indigeneity, as well as an analysis of the political philosophy of anarchism (with its emphasis on direct action) and harm reduction, so as to critique and dismantle the charity model of community service and move toward a more radical, structural critique of society and creating greater autonomy and interdependence among co-existing communities. Directly tied to this in the classroom setting is creating the world we want to see, that is, learning in a less hierarchical environment where we are all teachers and learners, co-producing knowledge in a dialogical setting. In terms of developing an activist ethic in CSL, what is the most important thing you’d hope a student in a CSL class and community placement to come away with?

Samantha: My biggest goal would be having students come out with more than just a set of words, theories, and recitations, but actual understandings.   We can give you words, the theory behind the words, and basic templates of how to be “unoppressive,” but it goes beyond that – it has to be a way of life. If I can, through a placement, interaction, guest lecture, etc. demonstrate to a student how to actually live, not just recite, these principles then I have accomplished my goal as a community engager.