In my teaching experience I have come to the conclusion that many college students are unaware of the cultural differences and social issues in their communities. I have also realized that some teachers are often limited in delivering academic content inside the classroom, which might prevent learners from contextualizing the knowledge in real-life situations. Therefore, helping students understand that there is a relevant relationship between their professional skills and their role as citizens within their communities is important. The purpose of including community-based projects in your syllabi is to instill in students a sense of social responsibility and cultural awareness at an early stage in their professional life.
To accomplish this, it is important to understand the meaning of contextualization, field trips and community-based instruction. Mazzeo et al (Perin, 2011, p. 6) define contextualization as instructional strategies intended to link academic content with its application in a specific context relevant to the students. Additionally, community-based instruction is defined as systematic instruction that integrates community settings with meaningful learning and it is age-appropriate to the skills of the students. Implementing community-based projects in our classes does not mean organizing sporadic field trips. A field trip does not involve the “doing” because it is generally limited to observation. (CBI Handbook, 2005) Field trips are useful as they help enhance learning outside the classroom. However, they generally lack the possibility for students to learn from social interaction.
Getting students into the community
One of the goals for my Spanish class was to teach students how to interact at a restaurant using the target language. In addition, students had to learn popular recipes and regional ingredients used in the different Latin American countries. Each group visited different Latino restaurants in their neighborhoods, conducted interviews with cooks, and learned about the differences of ingredients. It would have been easier to have each group bring a different dish to the classroom and explain its ingredients, but that approach would provide little interaction with their communities. Their evaluation consisted of a lunch at a Cuban restaurant in which students had to discuss their experiences with the cooks, interact with Spanish-speaking waiters, and try the traditional Caribbean dishes. At the end, students mentioned that this experience not only helped them practice real-life Spanish but they also learned about real Latin American food and people living and working in the city.
The final project for my English class was a theory-based presentation that would improve students’ academic speaking skills. The students are future language teachers who are required to intern in their last two semesters. Therefore, I implemented a community-based project. My students had to compare the theory with the practice and report back to the class. Each group chose a public school from their own community. Students interacted with school administrators, teachers, and students. They observed the teaching conditions in which a second language is taught. Their final presentations included a reflective analysis about the language theories. Students were aware of the realities of the schools and understood that not all of the proposed theories were applicable in their communities.
Skills that students can gain from a community-based project:
Altruism and Social Awareness – Altruism in education should help students develop a sense of belonging to their communities. In addition, the main objective of these experiences should not only be the improvement of the students’ professional skills but it should raise awareness about the realities of others. As a result, these activities might instill in students a sense of inclusiveness, diversity, belonging, and respect for others.
Teamwork – Using teamwork in your community-based projects will help students improve their interpersonal relationships by empowering them with their own decision-making and problem solving.
Critical Thinking – It is very important to teach students to become critical thinkers. It allows them to make decisions through their own reflection and judgment. Community-based projects give students an opportunity to observe and analyze real-world situations while improving their professional skills and learning from the realities of their community.
Interpersonal Skills – When students work in groups in community-based projects, they learn to move beyond their comfort zone to interact with people from diverse backgrounds to find collective solutions. These activities foster enhanced student interaction, which implies communication, peer-assessment, and continuous feedback.
Guidelines for Community-Based Instruction (2005). Baltimore County Public Schools
Perin, D. (2011). Facilitating Student Learning Through Contextualization.
Community College Research Center, Working Paper No. 29: New York, NY Columbia University.
Mario Guerrero is an assistant professor at the University of Nariño in Colombia and former adjunct professor at Fordham University.