Family Life Education with Diverse Community Partners

Overview of Implementation

Our Family Life Education (FLE) course is two semester hours, and it was reshaped eight years ago into a service-learning course that engages several community partners annually. Incorporating service-learning was an excellent choice for this course because students consistently struggled with motivation in FLE in previous semesters. Sometimes they became disinterested because the course emphasized public speaking skills that already are strengths of their Samford education. Other times students found little inspiration in a contrived (e.g., classroom, dorm, sorority) setting. The redesigned course transformed students’ motivation as they connected with actual community needs, and they were thus required and expected to provide professional-level education. This outcome was consistent with research on service-learning and engagement of students in the classroom experience (Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000). We also discovered four additional benefits that are consistent with high-impact practices.

J. Davis (*) • C. Hill • K. Chandler

Department of Human Development and Family Life Education, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, USA

© The Author(s) 2017

T. Newman, A. Schmitt (eds.), Field-Based Learning in Family Life Education, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39874-7_11

First, students learned about the importance of flexibility and communication in collaborative relationships. This flexibility is modeled by the instructors in-course assignments via flexible project-based due dates that depend upon when the project can realistically be accomplished at the community partner’s site. And, flexibility is extended to relationships with community partners, who often provide services every day of the year and don’t fit neatly into a semester-by-semester calendar. The community partners also show flexibility in offering training to our students; as an example, they might provide training and orientation for our students at a special time, or waive their normal requirement that volunteers commit to the organization for an entire year.

“Why would a homeless person waste so much money buying cigarettes?!”—opportunity for modeling and teaching skilled dialogue

Flexibility, however, does not extend to altering the purpose of our course or our community partner’s mission. The boundaries of flexibility are clarified in communication during the planning phase of the course and throughout the implementation (see below).

The central importance of communication is obvious to the students throughout the course. This lesson is also both experiential and didactic: students might encounter community partners who don’t return emails, or they discover that their expectations about a project are disappointed after misunderstandings of roles. Sometimes students witness miscommu- nication within a community partner’s agency that also provides a valuable glimpse into the often frenetic world of small nonprofits.

Second, students gain familiarity with skilled dialogue (Barrera & Kramer, 2009; Duncan & Goddard, 2012) to facilitate communication with diverse others. In our view, the related high-impact practice (i.e., experience with diverse others) must be accompanied by guidance and deliberate attention to avoid unintentional consequences (e.g., reifying students’ prejudices). We provide the needed guidance and attention via other high-impact practices: classroom discussions about aspects of the students’ experiences that are surprising, frustrating, or confusing. We frame these sensations as signals of an opportunity for learning.

Often, such opportunities cause us to reflect on the key aspects of skilled dialogue—respect, reciprocity, and responsiveness (Barrera & Kramer, 2009; Duncan & Goddard, 2012). This kind of dialogue is modeled by community partners when they initially attend the regular class time to describe their agency and purpose (see below). And, instructors model skilled dialogue in their interactions with community partners and students.

Third, we find that a significant benefit of engaging the community is our students’ strengthened network of relationships within the social service community. This higher-order learning occurs indirectly as we discuss obstacles to collaboration with the various partners, and as students learn from other students’ experiences.

Fourth, students gain proficiency in a simple and powerful model for providing workshops (Brooks-Harris & Stock-Ward, 1999) that students can use in any setting. (High-impact practice—Kuh, 2008: Activities have applications to different settings on/off campus.)

With these benefits in mind, we present some guiding principles for course design and key methods for implementation. Readers also may be interested in our course objectives, displayed in Fig. 11.1.

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