Making Learning Meaningful through School-Community Partnerships

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This paper explores the ways in which schools can create meaningful learning experiences through school-community partnerships.

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<ul><li><p>Running head: MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 1 </p><p>Making Learning Meaningful through </p><p>School-Community Partnerships </p><p>Stephanie Watson </p><p>Simpson College </p><p>May 9, 2011 </p></li><li><p>MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 2 </p><p> We all remember what its like to sit through a class that is seemingly useless, and there </p><p>are reasons why phrases like, Im pretty sure my IQ just dropped ten points or I totally just </p><p>lost brain cells or Thats an hour of my life Ill never get back, exist: because students believe </p><p>they are true. And maybe they are. Too often, many researchers say, students are disengaged </p><p>from the teaching methods and material they are offered in school and they are missing the </p><p>chance to have meaningful experiences and challenging, pertinent knowledge (Jensen, 2006, p. </p><p>208, Cole, 2010, p. 15). And it is not fair, the author believes, to expect them to stay interested, </p><p>or to stay in school, or perform at their highest ability, or any other number of things educators </p><p>ask of them, if parents, community members, and teachers are not willing to take the steps to </p><p>make schooling worthwhile, to make what they are learning mean something other than a good </p><p>grade. Well-implemented school-community partnerships are one way in which teachers and </p><p>administrators are working to build these meaningful experiences. By turning traditional </p><p>classrooms into contextual immersions, students can start to build identities as contributing </p><p>members of a larger community and to see learning as rich and meaningful (Cole, 2010, p. 15). </p><p> The author chose this topic because she had an interest in finding ways to make content </p><p>relevant and interesting to all studentsnot just the college bound, not just the academically </p><p>inclined, and certainly not just the privileged. As a future teacher, building vibrant school and </p><p>community partnerships has the potential to make education into something that everyone </p><p>pitches in on, that everyone values, and that makes sense to ones students. Research has shown </p><p>that if students do not see the point in learning something, they either will not learn it or will not </p><p>retain it for long (Jensen, 2006, p. 68). School-community partnerships are one way in which the </p><p>author is interested in exploring to alleviate this problem. This paper first outlines what school-</p><p>community partnerships are and how these partnerships can support classroom teaching. The </p></li><li><p>MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 3 </p><p>second part of the paper then moves into a discussion of a few research-based models of school-</p><p>community partnerships and the success rate of schools that have applied them. The last part of </p><p>the paper looks at what can be learned from research on school-community partnerships and how </p><p>educators can utilize this research to build better partnerships in the future. </p><p>What is a school-community partnership? </p><p> Most simply stated, a school-community partnership is a relationship that is created </p><p>between a school, district, or classroom and a community group, organization, or entity that </p><p>works together to support learning and student success. This type of learning, called community-</p><p>based learning, is active, connected with the classroom but taking place in meaningful, dynamic </p><p>environments (Cole, 2010, p. 15). Community-based learning is also longitudinal, involving the </p><p>building of a long-term community of support rather than just having students take part in one-</p><p>time community service projects. They are not merely made up of organizational sponsorships or </p><p>donations, or any other form of surface level involvement on the part of the community. </p><p>Successful school-community partnerships are about real relationships between students and the </p><p>community, ones that have the potential to turn contextual immersions into lessons that mean </p><p>something to students and that build [their] identities as contributing members of a larger </p><p>community and that make learning rich and meaningful (Cole, 2010, p. 15). School-community </p><p>partnerships are also each unique, because they offer the full richness of authentic contexts, </p><p>contexts that are specific to each students life and the community that surrounds them (Cole, </p><p>2010, p. 15). </p><p>Why should educators be concerned with increasing authentic interest in school and what </p><p>happens to a bored brain? </p></li><li><p>MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 4 </p><p> For a long time it was believed that the interchange between genes and the mind was one-</p><p>way. The common belief has been that our genes are fixed and thus our intelligence and our </p><p>tendencies are fixed as well. In his book titled Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Every </p><p>Learners Potential, Eric Jensen (2006) proposes just the opposite idea. Through his own </p><p>research and the recent studies of neuroscientists, it has now been proven that people actually do </p><p>have the chance to change their brains, to maximize their learning potential, and even to </p><p>potentially raise their IQ scores through the occurrence of gene-environment interplay called </p><p>gene expression (p. 6). As Jensen points out, this theory has huge implications for educators. </p><p>Jensen refers to this maximizing of gene expression as enrichment, or the positive biological </p><p>response to a contrasting environment, in which measurable, synergistic, and global changes </p><p>have occurred (2006, p. 47). The results of proper enrichment, then, are an enrichment </p><p>response, which results in two happenings: the first enhances students ability to learn and </p><p>retain information and positively affects the cognition of average to gifted learners; the second </p><p>includes the possibility for enrichment to improve the cognition of those with impaired learning, </p><p>the disadvantaged, or brain damaged (Jensen, 2006, p. 81). </p><p> Central to obtaining the enrichment response, Jensen writes, is the application of the law </p><p>of contrast, or the law that says for learning to stick and influence gene-expression it must be </p><p>novel, challenging, and meaningful (2006, p. 80). While many teachers are good at making </p><p>classroom learning novel and challenging, the meaningful part often gets pushed to the side. And </p><p>so we have bored students. Or we have students that think, School just isnt for me. Or they act </p><p>out. Or maybe even they drop out. And they do so because brains do not handle boredom well: </p><p>they want to novel and challenging tasks. In fact, Jensen records that in animal studies, the </p><p>negative effects of boredom on the dendrites of brain cells are significant (2006, p. 70). In </p></li><li><p>MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 5 </p><p>fact, he says, theres a greater negative from boredom than there is a positive from </p><p>enrichment (Jensen, 2006, p. 70). </p><p>Why would a school or district consider establishing school-community partnerships? </p><p> Not many adults are forced to spend their days doing tasks that do no make sense to them </p><p>or that seem meaningless. A good question, then, is why do we expect it of our students? It has </p><p>been stated why learning must be meaningful to be enriching. But how to make learning </p><p>meaningful is probably the more difficult question. For learning to be meaningful it must address </p><p>students present lives and be pertinent to their future; in other words, it must be worthwhile </p><p>(Jensen, 2006, p. 67). Anna Gahl Cole (2010), a researcher from the University of Arizona who </p><p>studied a community partnership at an urban magnet school called the Second Tuesday </p><p>Project, points out that at the heart of school-community partnerships is the desire to make </p><p>learning relevant, meaningful, challenging, interesting, and novel for all students by situating it </p><p>in local and familiar issues, contexts, and challenges. Curriculum is deeply connected to the </p><p>people, landscapes, cultures, and politics students can know and experience locally, she says. In </p><p>order to create these authentic learning community contexts, schools must build local </p><p>partnerships that can enrich student learning. Many researchers go on to argue that community </p><p>partnerships bring about a sense of civic duty and connectedness. Community partnerships, they </p><p>say, can also increase student motivation and engagement while guiding students to see the </p><p>world as an interdependent place where they play a vital role (Cole, 2010, p. 15). </p><p>What does research say about the influence of school-community partnerships? </p><p> Research on school-community partnerships indicates that they have the potential to be </p><p>very powerful support systems for learning, but that it is easy for problems implementing the </p><p>programs to hinder their success. Jensen takes up this topic in his chapter called School and </p></li><li><p>MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 6 </p><p>Classroom Solutions (Jensen, 2006, p. 228). He cites complex learning projects, such a the </p><p>project Minuteman High School in Foxboro, Massachusetts which uses a school-community </p><p>partnership to annually involve 120 students from all different classes, teams, and groups in year-</p><p>long projects to design and build a house (Jensen, 2006, p. 229). Theres no doubt, he says, </p><p>that, compared with what those students would have gotten in a more traditional school, their </p><p>curriculum is vastly more likely to lead to enrichment (Jensen, 2006, p. 229). Career-based </p><p>learning is another avenue that can utilize the local community and provide enrichment that </p><p>students may not obtain in the traditional classroom. Jensen gives the example of David Douglas </p><p>High School in Portland, Oregon, a school of 2,600 students with forty-nine percent in poverty, </p><p>thirty-four percent are minority, and twenty-seven percent are ESL, that, incredibly, boasts </p><p>having eighty-four percent of the high schools students pursue higher education opportunities </p><p>(Jensen, 2006, p. 229). This phenomenon can, at least in part, be attributed to their efforts to </p><p>establish career-based education and community mentorship programs that provide meaningful </p><p>curriculum and make learning relevant to students futures. Other examples of community-based </p><p>learning programs that can provide enrichment are after-school educational partnership programs </p><p>such as The Boys and Girls Club or programs such as 4-H (Jensen, 2006, p. 234-235). </p><p> Results from studies on school-community partnerships by The National Network of </p><p>Partnership Schools (NNPS), on the other hand, have been a little more conflicting. The NNPS, </p><p>established in 1995 by Dr. Joy L. Epstein of Johns Hopkins University, is a program that </p><p>provides professional development to enable school, district, and state leaders to develop </p><p>research-based programs of family and community evolvement (NNPS, 2011). Based on </p><p>Epsteins theory of overlapping spheres of influence, the program emphasizes the importance of </p><p>schools, families, and communities recognizing the individual influence they have each have </p></li><li><p>MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 7 </p><p>over the growth of Americas children and urges each entity to work together to meet the needs </p><p>of Americas students (Sanders and Epstein, 1998, p. 3). Her theories have been the driving force </p><p>behind the implementation of NNPS for sixteen years now, integrating educational, sociological, </p><p>and psychological perspectives on social organizations, as well as research on the effects of </p><p>family, school, and community partnerships (NNPS, 2011). The Partnership Schools model </p><p>claims to be one of the few research-based approaches designed to help schools, districts, and </p><p>state departments of education organize, implement, and sustain goal-linked programs of family </p><p>and community involvement. The research identifies essential elements for effective programs </p><p>and specific processes and paths that strengthen leadership for partnerships, program plans, </p><p>outreach to involve more families, responses of families and community partners, and impact on </p><p>student achievement and other indicators of success in school (Epstein, 2005, para. 2). </p><p> Like Jensen, the NNPS found that children with well-developed social networks have </p><p>more positive educational outcomes than children without them (Sanders and Epstein, 1998, p. </p><p>2). In spite of the enormous amount of effort that has gone into creating partnerships across the </p><p>country, however, the conclusion of many of the NNPS reports have provided are not quite as </p><p>convincing as one may hope for. In 2007, for example, Steven Sheldon (another NNPS </p><p>researcher) reported that analyses of his study showed that in schools working to implement </p><p>school, family, and community partnerships, student attendance improved on average only .5 </p><p>percent (p. 267). Moreover, his analysis suggests that it was the schools effort to reach out to </p><p>families, not to the community, that was the driving mechanism that caused this effect (Sheldon, </p><p>2007, p.267). Better family involvement throughout middle school and high school was also </p><p>found to contribute to positive outcomes like higher achievement [] more course credits </p><p>earned, more responsible preparation for class, and other indicators of success in school </p></li><li><p>MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 8 </p><p>(Epstein, 2005, para.7). A possible conclusion from this study could be that working on school-</p><p>family partnerships may be more beneficial than school-community ones. </p><p> On a similar note, Anna Gahl Coles study of the Second Tuesday Project found that </p><p>without carefully guided conversations about the purpose of such projects, students are often </p><p>unable to fully benefit from the partnerships. Coles article examines the struggles and successes </p><p>of teachers and students collaborating with community organizations on the Second Tuesday </p><p>Project, a community-based research and service program at an urban high school (2010, p. 15). </p><p>The project takes place as part of the capstone course in The Human Services Program at </p><p>Jefferson Center High School, a magnet school that utilizes the school-with-a-school framework. </p><p>The capstone courses central focus is a community-based research project (Second Tuesday </p><p>Project) that endeavors to increase understanding about the citys efforts to improve the quality </p><p>of life for its citizens. Cole records that teachers describe the project as a team based, multi-</p><p>disciplinary, senior level project that requires each student to research a specific social issue </p><p>within the Riverside community (i.e. homelessness, hunger, poverty, pollution, etc.) and </p><p>implement a plan to help resolve that issue. Students perform secondary research on the issue at </p><p>a nearby university throughout the year and spend every second Tuesday of the month doing </p><p>research in the field by volunteering with an agency affiliated with their topic that oversees </p><p>their service. The students work in whatever capacity their mentors deem useful and are expect </p><p>to observe and record research findings throughout the year in support of their final research </p><p>paper and presentation. The conclusion of the project is a weeklong symposium of students </p><p>research: students present their study to classmates, faculty, administrators, parents, and </p><p>community agency representatives (Cole, 2010, p. 16). </p></li><li><p>MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 9 </p><p> Cole used qualitative data from interviews, participant observatio...</p></li></ul>