The community as teacher
Fort Lewis College kicks off civic engagement effort

Students of Fort Lewis College’s Eco Texts class take part in a field training day in conjunction with Durango Nature Studies at Southwest Conservation Corpts held last Saturday at Chrits Park, north of Durango. The students are being trained to lead winter naturalist hikes for area schoolchildren as part of FLC’s civic engagment effort./Photo courtesy Durango Nature Studies.

by Missy Votel

Fort Lewis College students have been getting out more than usual this semester, but not in the way one might expect. As part of the school’s newly instituted civic engagement effort, dozens of students have been going where their predecessors have seldom gone before: soup kitchens, senior care facilities and community shelters.

“I think it’s nice when we can turn a learning opportunity into a chance to give back to the community,” said Sarah Roberts-Cady, an associate professor of philosophy and women’s studies.

As part of her Moral Philosophy class, Roberts-Cady is requiring that each student spend four hours volunteering at either the Volunteers of America Community Shelter, the Manna Soup Kitchen or the Four Corners Nursing Home. When done, students are required to write a paper on their experience and what their ethical obligations to society are, based upon theories studied in class.

“The premise is that everyone has values. The question being asked is whether or not you have a reason for your values and whether yours are better than another’s,” she said.

Roberts–Cady said the hope is that by putting students into a real-world situation, they will come up with real-world responses. “The hope is that by doing this, the theory will come alive and make them genuinely reflect,” she said, “They can seriously think about what their community service obligations are and reflect on whether it’s really important or not.”

Along with several FLC faculty and community members, Roberts-Cady attended a conference last October that introduced and outlined the idea of community-based learning. She said she was excited to implement what she learned. “It seemed like a really great new learning tool and fit really well with this class,” she said.

Earlier this winter, the school announced the new program, which will fully incorporate service learning into the curriculum, with a target of 100 percent student participation by 2010.

“The goal is to have 100 percent of the freshman class entering in 2010 to have been engaged in community-based learning and research upon graduation,” said Kalin Grigg, FLC sociology professor who is heading up the civic engagement effort. “It will, in the long run, be a substantial program that can position FLC as one of the premiere liberal arts colleges in the West.”

Grigg said the idea is part of FLC President Brad Bartel’s broader vision for the college. He said Fort Lewis will strive to entrench service-learning throughout campus life, in everything from student affairs to academics. “We’re trying to embed it in such a way that students encounter it in a natural way, so it doesn’t feel imposed,” he said.

He said the benefits of such an approach can be twofold. Not only does it help to improve the community, but it enriches the learning process and instills a sense of social responsibility in students.

“It links coursework and applies learning in real ways, to real issues,” he said. “The end of the year isn’t seen as passing a test or a course. It ties learning to more responsible ends.”

Already, Roberts-Cady said she has heard positive things from her first round of students, who turned in their papers this week. “The students who have gone said they were really glad they did it,” she said.

FLC visiting instructor for the writing program, Karin Becker, also has begun implementing civic engagement in her curriculum. Students in her upper-division elective, Eco Texts, have been working with Durango Nature Studies to become trained as naturalists and lead “snow ecology” hikes for local fifth- and eighth-graders.

“The class centers around concepts of sustainability and interactions with the environment through selected historical texts,” she said. “This allows the students to go out, observe nature and ask questions.”

The students recently completed four in-class training sessions with DNS instructor Becky Gillette as well as a field day at Chris Park last Saturday. The next step is to lead actual hikes with schoolchildren and complete a research project and write a paper on their experience.

Not only does the project offer great community outreach, but it has also broadened the horizons for many of Becker’s students, she said. “I was surprised when we went out, most had never snowshoed or been to Chris Park,” she said. “It was good way to show them how to interact with their own environment.”

For FLC Professor of Teacher Education Gene Taylor, civic engagement is nothing new. “I’ve been doing service learning for 30 years, it makes perfect sense,” he said.

Currently, he is engaging students in civic involvement in his Introduction to Education course, whereby students are working one-on-one with Riverview Elementary students to build birdhouses. The birdhouses will then be installed along a trail being built by Phoenix program students at Escalante Middle School, in conjunction with the Division of Wildlife. Taylor said the houses are meant to replace habitat lost to development and drought.

In addition to providing a community service, Taylor said the project is giving invaluable, early-on experience to prospective teachers. “It gives students a real opportunity to get to know a kid and learn the importance of teaching and doing things that teachers do,” he said. “It gives them the opportunity to become engaged in a school early on. These are things you sometimes learn in a senior level course.”

As part of completing the class, each FLC student is required to create a page with their younger partner, which will be compiled into a book. In addition, they will help the students research birds using the internet, poetry and art work, and assist in the actual construction of the houses.

It is active involvement such as this, Taylor said, that enriches the learning experience far beyond what can be learned only in the confines of a classroom. “The way to the head is through the heart and hands,” he said. “If you give them something to become emotionally attached to and then give them something to make with their hands, it goes to their heads. It lets them know that everything we do is not for ourselves.” •

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