Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Grading the CBL reflection papers

Grading has been going slowly, largely because the children are sick, and I haven't been able to get away from the house much. I have learned, however, that grading is actually less stressful than dealing with a cranky, feverish 3 year old who throws floor tantrums at the mere mention of Daddy leaving the house.

In any case, I just finally read the reflection papers from the Community Based Learning project in my environmental class, and I wanted to post some about the feedback I have received, if only for use as notes to myself.

The feedback was almost all positive, but as usual, the positive feedback was not nearly as educational as the negative feedback. The nicest bit of positive feedback came from the student who said "It is assignments like this that keep me in school." For the most part, though, the compliments were the ones I expected. Working with organic farmers gave students the chance to see the interaction between agriculture and the environment in person. One student noted that working with the Bennetts was especially useful for understanding an ethic of stewardship, a point which made it into one of his papers as well. Also, everyone loves working with Dulli from Birdsfoot. She is truly an inspiration for how to live a happy, harmonious life. You can get a good sense of what it is like to work with Dulli from student journal entries, such as this nice one by Caitlin.

But there are still problems, both philosophical and practical. On the practical level we simply aren't organized enough to get students enrolled and out with the community partners for all the hours we are expecting of them. There are serious problems with delegating authority. Students were not clear who was in charge of what--me, Brenda or Elizabeth. I was only supposed to deal with the educational aspects of this, but I didn't even know where to refer students when more logistical questions came up. It is easy to blame student irresponsibility when commitments aren't met, but we should look at our own practices too. Example: Am I going to get CBL partner feedback forms before Christmas? They are supposed to be a part of the grade.Update: feedback forms received.

A more serious philosophical problem is that most of the actual day to day work is not directly related to the course. While students liked seeing real farms at work, spending several hours planting garlic didn't contribute to the experience. One student noted that he learned as much from the one day field trip to the Greenwood farm as he did from the entire placement at Bittersweet. Right now, I wish I could use the CBL resources to arrange more field trips like that, rather than doing as much community placement.

Of course, we all have this intuition that physical labor, in the right context, is redemptive. So is helping people out. There ought to be something about going and physically helping people that is educational. Most of the time, though, physical labor is just physical labor. And working on a farm can seem to students like a Maoist reeducation camp. It doesn't help that the university actually does use community service as a form of punishment. One of my students was unable to complete her CBL requirement because she also had to follow the SLU grounds crew around as punishment for some minor dorm-room infraction. In general, I'm finding that that school's heavy handed approach to discipline often conflicts with its educational goals without actually solving the perennial problems it is supposed to address, like undergraduate binge drinking.

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