Community-engaged learning in a time of social distancing
By Mary F. Price, Director of Faculty Development, Center for Service and Learning
A friend of mine, who also happens to be an adjunct faculty member in English took up a daily practice in response to COVID-19. She has begun posing a daily Facebook query across her friend network: What has COVID taught me today? Her question is directed as much to herself as to us. While I regularly check in on responses to Felicia’s query, I have yet to post my own. When it comes to Facebook, I’m more of a spectator than an active contributor. Nonetheless, her question continues to stick with me. As the campus looks to close out this spirit-rattling semester with an eye to planning for a remote summer and “TBD” fall semester, it seemed like a good time to take up her challenge. Here’s what COVID has been teaching me and some of my colleagues about community-engaged learning in a time of social distancing.
The experience of community is intimately connected to the work of healing and the task of learning. But in a time when we are expected to limit physical interaction, how do we forge community and harness its powerful effects to foster solidarity, learning, growth and well-being? What’s one to do when what and how we teach is rooted in community engagement?
- Take a minute. We all need one.
Be flexible and patient with yourself as well as learners, peers and partners. Make time to take stock of what you are experiencing and develop your own self care strategy. Signal the importance of doing this to your students. Encourage it with peers when prompted. Touch base with community partners to see what their capacity is and if a project needs to be sunsetted and how to do this humanely. Rather than viewing this as a crisis response, commit to making these practices a regular part of your teaching routine.
- Focus on what’s meaningful, not only what’s expedient.
While circumstances have had us hyper-focused on immediate needs like public safety, getting students through the spring semester and shepherding the transition or closing of projects, looking ahead to summer, it’s important to ask “What is worth prioritizing at this time? What is most important for us to model with our students right now?”
How we respond is not only a question of methods. Our choices reflect the ethos we enact with learners, colleagues and the communities we live in, study and serve. As the contours of the “new normal” unfold over the coming months, now’s the time to consider, if we haven’t already, which values matter most to us as a community of learners in the real or virtual classroom as well as in off campus settings. Use these values to help set priorities. Here are some alternate teaching and learning strategies specific to civic and community engagement that may help.
- Make time to share stories and to listen.
Looking ahead, many of us are mulling over how to improve our community partnerships and enhance engagement in online and hybrid settings. What worked this spring? Where did we stumble? What did our community partners and students teach us? What could others learn from our experience? Alongside vignettes of anxiety, stress, suffering and annoyance brought on by the current crisis, there are matched stories of connection, collective creativity and stewardship, further illustrating community engagement as a strategy not only for healing, growth and resilience but for combating the specter of civic loneliness.
For too many of us, teaching can feel like a very solitary activity. It doesn’t have to be. Regardless of our community affiliations on or off campus, we each share in the experience of navigating uncertainty and coping with varying degrees of isolation and alienation. Whether expressing success, regret or possibility, stories provide the information and inspiration to reimagine how we teach and problem-solve together, and most importantly to recognize our shared humanity. Whether it’s a Zoom coffee hour, a social distancing friendly parking lot car talk or a virtual story circle, create time for collective story sharing.
My colleagues and I in the Center for Service and Learning are eager to listen to and learn with you. Whichever end of the spectrum your story falls, consider sharing your story with us. Over the coming months, the Center for Service and Learning will sponsor an online series devoted to teaching and community engagement in a time of social distancing, showcasing the insights, reflections and co-creative approaches that community organizations, faculty, staff and students are taking to reimagine a new normal for community-engaged learning.