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This semester Dr. Treva Lee, Xavier's Director for Institutional Compliance and Planning Initiatives, led a class of first-year students in a service-learning project to mentor local youths in the concept of Pi.

On Saturday, March 11, thirty Xavier students joined twenty other community volunteers and twenty local professionals serving as mentors to teach and mentor around 150 area school kids, as part of  STEM NOLA's STEM Saturday event celebrating Pi Day, at Gernon Brown Recreation Center. Two other Xavier faculty, Carroll Diaz (Math) and Floristina Payton-Stewart (Chem), participated as instructors as well, along with some of their students.

The kids were divided into two groups. The first group, kindergarteners through second-graders, learned the concept of Pi through math problems using skittles, construction paper cut-outs, checkers pieces, and building blocks. Skittles were used to graph Pi. Checkers were used for math demonstration of Pi. Construction paper cut-outs were used to make a chain to infinity, meaning each group of kids as they came to the station added their cut outs to the chain to illustrate how Pi never ends. The same concept was used with the building blocks.

The second group, third through eighth graders, led kids through three activities designed to demonstrate the concept of Pi. The first was measurement demonstrations, comparing the ratio of various-sized circles' circumferences to their diameter. The result of these measurements is always the same: it's always Pi. Next was a mathematical cryptography (word decoding) and mirroring (more word decoding) competition. Last was a kite building demonstration, designed to teach the concept of tetrahedral molecular geometry.
Despite some grumbling about having to meet at Xavier at 7:30 a.m., the students had a great time.
One interesting component of the project was the idea of "tiered mentorship." The area professionals served as mentors to the Xavier students, while the Xavier students served as mentors to the youths. As another component of the project, students also completed four hours of volunteering in the STEM NOLA office to learn about the administrative side of the non-profit. Some students were so successful in this capacity that they have been asked to return and may land spots on the payroll.
STEM NOLA is an organization founded by New Orleans native, and former Tulane University engineering professor, Dr. Calvin Mackie. Its purpose is to expose community members to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and to inspire them to engage in these opportunities. STEM NOLA designs and delivers activities, programs, and events that bring inspiration, motivation, and training to all STEM stakeholders across the city, specifically focusing on underserved communities. Participants gain skills in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. STEM NOLA realizes that any effective community-based STEM program must be broad enough to include everyone, yet focused enough to reach people where they are, on their level, and to take them to where they need to be in order to compete and succeed in life.

Treva A. Lee holds a Ph. D. in Counselor Education from the University of New Orleans. She received her B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Counseling from Xavier University of Louisiana. In her twenty-five-plus years at Xavier, she has served in numerous capacities, including as a teacher in the Freshman Seminar program, in which this service-learning project took place.

-Jeremy Tuman

Download Conversation #56


Ross LouisA conversation with Ross Louis of Xavier's Communication Studies department on service learning.

Ross Louis joined the Communication Studies program at Xavier in 2003 and teaches courses from a performance studies perspective. He is the co-founder of the Performance Studies Laboratory at Xavier University of Louisiana. Recent projects include This Other World (a site-specific performance of Richard Wright’s haiku) and “Performing Presence in the Haiku Moment” (forthcoming in Text and Performance Quarterly).

...continue reading "Conversation #56: Ross Louis on the Monument Crisis"

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Last fall, Xavier faculty member Dr. Mark Gstohl, of the Department of Theology, led an interesting service-learning project in partnership with A Studio in the Woods, a nonprofit artist retreat and learning center located in New Orleans. Working with artist Jacqueline Ehle Inglefield as part of a residency series called "Flint and Steel: Cross-disciplinary Combustion," the two built a shrine to the bottomland hardwood forrest, the purpose of which was to "reignite a reverence for nature." To link thematically with Dr. Gstohl's Comparative Religion class, the shrine referenced religious scriptures and past spiritual practices. The shire was meant to "encourage contemplation of the global impact of habitual consumption and waste and how our spiritual relationship with the natural world may influence our individual acts and determine our collective impact on our environment."

For their part, Dr. Gstohl's students created handouts and posters detailing how various religions approach environmental issues, and presented their research at A Studio in the Woods' "Forestival" last November. The shrine also was displayed at Xavier's Art Village. Thus, this project engaged students with the community on several levels, artistic and environmental, fostered awareness of environmental issues in the community, and contributed to the creation of public art, which nourishes the spirit of the community. The project provided an invaluable cultural experience for the students, introducing them to intersections of art, public space, and environmental justice, while immersing them in theological history, demonstrating the ability of service-learning to achieve unique academic and civic outcomes.

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The "Flint and Steel" residencies, designed by Tulane, who manages A Studio in the Woods, seek to link artists with invested academic partners to "inspire each other in the development of new work, to excite the public, and to fuel social change. creative discourse." The residencies align with the larger purpose of A Studio in the Woods to pair "land preservation with intimate artist residencies centered on environmental challenges and connecting artists to the local community." Originally purchased in 1968, the site, in a remote wooded area in the very eastern corner of New Orleans' "west bank" of the Mississippi River, evolved organically from a site of wetlands preservation to a tranquil artist retreat, where "artists can reconnect with universal creative energy and work uninterrupted within this natural sanctuary."

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Dr. Gstohl serves as Head of Xavier's Department of Theology, and has served previously as Faculty-in-Residence for service-learning, and as Fellow in Xavier's Freshman Seminar program, where his passion for social justice and commitment to Xavier's mission have greatly benefitted the Xavier and New Orleans communities, as exhibited through service-learning projects such as this one.

-Jeremy Tuman

*Quoted text is from materials published by A Studio in the Woods and by Dr. Gstohl.

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Today is election day in the U.S. On college campuses across the country we see a direct connection between the purposes of universities and active and engaged citizenship, as many campuses serve as polling places, and many semester-long student, faculty, and university initiatives to increase knowledge of and participation in our democratic process today bear fruit. But even though a day like today clearly reminds of this connection, today also reminds us that this connection is not meant to be a one-time event, every four years. Our universities do have obligations to contribute to a healthy, functioning democracy, and to prepare students to become active citizens and knowledgeable leaders and participants in our democracy. While these obligations are met in many ways across the campus, nowhere is this role fulfilled more directly and effectively than in service learning.

Secretary of Education John B. King recently noted a need for a, "broader definition of civic duty.... I ask teachers and principals and superintendents to help your students learn to be problem solvers who can grapple with challenging issues, such as how to improve their schools, homelessness, air and water pollution, or the tensions between police and communities of color."

Thus, we see the need for one's education to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of our communities and our national society codified in our national discourse, from the top down, in ways perhaps unprecedented in our history of education. While these purposes may have been imbedded in our educational system at some point long ago, we see now a renewed focus and urgency, as the challenges presented by globalization, wealth and income inequality, systemic racism and oppression, mass incarceration, and climate change are recognized as the existential threats they are.

Yet at this time of renewed focus and conviction, we are faced with a decline in the civic knowledge of of our incoming freshmen. Heather Loewecke, a senior manager at Global Learning Beyond School, notes in a recent blog on the website Education Week, that Only 24 percent of high school seniors scored proficient or higher on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. What's more, a college education isn't necessarily rectifying the deficiency. Loewecke also points out that "a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy poll reflected that American adults know very little about the US government, with the majority of respondents unable to answer basic questions. For example, only 26 percent of respondents could correctly identify all three branches of the government."

In a way these disparities between our goals for civic education and our results mirror, or perhaps are just another indicator of, the myriad social inequities we now face. Either way, the situation is cast into stark relief on a day like today, when what seems to be a high-functioning democracy is observed in the bustling and frenetic energy of a presidential election day on college campuses nationwide. And while the spectacle and pageantry of Election Day can fill even the most cynical among us with a certain sense of hope, we must hold fast and remember the difficult challenges that lay ahead once the confetti settles. Today is a time to participate, but also a time for we as educators to recommit ourselves to the civic education of our students, and to fully teaching the critical skills in thinking, communicating, reasoning, and problem solving such an education entails.

-Jeremy Tuman

Download Conversation #50

Corey Dolgon

A conversation with Dr. Corey Dolgon of Stonehill College on the "declawing" of service learning.

Links for this episode:

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This fall Xavier's first-year students are reading Aimee Phan's We Should Never Meet, a collection of short stories tied together thematically and with some common characters. The stories deal with the experiences of Vietnamese people during what America calls the Vietnam War, in the 1960's and 70's, as well during the immediate aftermath, in the 1980's, when children orphaned by the war (and often fathered by American soldiers) attempted to forge lives in southern California.

The students read this book as part of the Freshman Seminar course, a required, one-credit-hour course, whose objectives include introducing first-year students to Xavier's mission of contributing to a more just and humane society. The course has much in common with other required, first-year seminars at other schools around the country, including many other liberal arts schools and HBCUs. But with Xavier being the nation's only historically black, Catholic school, Xavier's version may be more particularly tied to the school's historical mission.

The common reading is a major feature of the course, and the course also includes a service-learning component, in which students are asked to consider the meaning and relevance of the mission through engaging in community actions and addressing social needs, needs that fairness and justice might otherwise negate. Thus, students are asked to consider the meanings of justice, fairness, humanity, through multiple perspectives, including their own, those their various communities, and, perhaps most difficultly, those of the characters in the short stories.

While in the past the common readings have been works of nonfiction, some memoir and some third-person, last year was the first time a novel was offered as a common reading (Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones) and this year marks the first time a collection of short stories has been used. Drawing thematic connections between the readings and community needs addressed by service-learning is always a challenge in the course, both for the students and the teachers. But drawing connections between our experiences in, and perceptions of, our communities and the experiences of fictional characters in short stories set in and around the Vietnam War proves exceptionally challenging.

The first, and maybe most basic, common theme to point to is the shared humanity of us all, which gets neglected, overlooked, devalued in both war-torn times and places, and in communities where systemic unfairness and injustice exists. The characters in the book are marginalized, segregated, cast away, thought of as "others" and as not our problem, much in the way Americans living in pockets of deep, multigenerational poverty are. Both groups are seen at times as hopeless and irredeemable, without inherent worthiness, and in some cases individual actions confirm and reinforce these perceptions. The book's presentation of a young, male character in Los Angeles, Vinh, as a mostly unrepentant violent criminal is especially complicating for readers as they attempt to situate him within a highly oppressive and marginalizing context.

But these same aspects of the text, which make it so challenging for readers, and for students and teachers in this course, also prove its biggest strengths. The characters are absolutely other-ized, seen as outsiders, rejected not just by American society but within traditional Vietnamese culture as well. Their individual actions do not and cannot change that. Their actions cannot be completely removed from the characters' segregated contexts, nor can the characters be excused from, or relieved of, all personal responsibility, life choices, accountability.

In other words, the characters cannot be put into an easy box, or used to simplistically support some ideological bent or political agenda. The issues are more complex. The problems are more complex. In this way these fictional characters are made real, as their complexity, and the complexity of their situations, mirrors that of the people in our communities and the problems they face.

There is unfairness, injustice, and inhumanity in our society. Those at the bottom of our socioeconomic systems face oppression that must be met and fought against by all those who wish to live in a more just and humane society. Recognizing the humanity of others is a beginning, whether in fictional characters of a foreign culture or in our own backyards.  A beginning, but certainly not an end.

-Jeremy Tuman

Download Conversation #44

Eileen Doll

A conversation with Dr. Eileen Doll of Loyola University on teaching, learning, and service learning.

Eileen J. Doll received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Purdue University in 1986, specializing in Spanish 20th-century literature and the 20th-century theater of Europe. She has published numerous articles on various contemporary dramatists of Spain, and early 20th-century playwrights, in the journals Estreno, Gestos, Anales de la Literatura Española Contemporánea, Hispania, Signa, La Ratonera, Crítica Hispánica, South Central Review, and Discurso Literario, as well as in collections of essays.

Eileen Doll teaches all areas of Peninsular Spanish Literature and Culture, as well as introductory, intermediate, and advanced Spanish language classes at Loyola University New Orleans. In May 2008, she received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences.

Links for this episode:

...continue reading "Conversation #44: Eileen Doll on Service Learning"

Having students decide on what type of community action they wish to engage in is a great way to generate that elusive "buy-in." Student-designed community actions instill a sense of ownership in the project for students, and the learning outcomes for the course may become more deeply instilled, more effective, and longer-lasting. But even in the best-designed service-learning courses, the degree of student involvement, of student choice, in the shape and nature of the community action may be limited. Somewhat counterintuitively, as service-learning courses get refined after numerous semesters, the degree of student involvement in the design of the project may decline, the parameters of the action becoming more rigid and prescribed. This phenomenon presents a key conundrum in service-learning: As our courses strengthen over time and our relationships with community partners smooth, students may become more excluded from the thinking and the process that led to the initial design of the course. As each year we as teachers want for students to understand the purpose behind the actions we design, students become further removed from early days of the course, when our passion for causes melded seamlessly with the design of the project as it took shape.
Students coming into a well-honed service-learning course may find an organized and efficient experience, with community partners who are familiar with the purpose of the course and who know exactly how to funnel service-learners into areas of greatest community need. As any of us who have built courses, and particularly have cultivated community relationships from the ground up, know, students in early versions of a course may have felt a great sense of excitement, but community sites may have been scenes of chaos, with partners busy doing good work, and students left feeling confused, under-utilized, or ineffective in contributing toward that work.
Thus, it's important that we as teachers revisit our initial thinking behind a course each time that we teach it. I recall an early teaching experience (not service-learning) as a graduate teaching assistant, working under a brilliant mentor and teacher, in a literature class. My mentor had a keen sense of the purpose in the course, but I did not. And when I asked him one day what it was that he wanted students to take from the readings, he said that that was a question whose answer he hadn't thought about in a long time. Of course he knew the answer, and over the course the answer would become clear to students as well. But the point is, he hadn't thought about the answer at the outset, and thus hadn't elucidated it to either himself or the students. The purpose was there, just as it almost always is there in these courses that we put our hearts and minds into designing. But without active revisitation, the purpose can fade from its place of centrality. And with a successful service-learning course, the relation between the community action and the course content must be present throughout.
While much literature on service-learning is written toward an audience of teachers, administrators, even community groups, there is less written toward an audience of college students on what service-learning means. One excellent text toward this end is by Christine M. Cress (et al), called Learning through Servi

by Jeremy Tuman

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Having students decide on what type of community action they wish to engage in is a great way to generate that elusive "buy-in." Student-designed community actions instill a sense of ownership in the project for students, and the learning outcomes for the course may become more deeply instilled, more effective, and longer-lasting. But even in the best-designed service-learning courses, the degree of student involvement, of student choice, in the shape and nature of the community action may be limited. Somewhat counterintuitively, as service-learning courses get refined after numerous semesters, the degree of student involvement in the design of the project may decline, the parameters of the action becoming more rigid and prescribed. This phenomenon presents a key conundrum in service-learning: As our courses strengthen over time and our relationships with community partners smooth, students may become more excluded from the thinking and the process that led to the initial design of the course. As each year we as teachers want for students to understand the purpose behind the actions we design, students become further removed from early days of the course, when our passion for causes melded seamlessly with the design of the project as it took shape.

Students coming into a well-honed service-learning course may find an organized and efficient experience, with community partners who are familiar with the purpose of the course and who know exactly how to funnel service-learners into areas of greatest community need. As any of us who have built courses, and particularly have cultivated community relationships from the ground up, know, students in early versions of a course may have felt a great sense of excitement, but community sites may have been scenes of chaos, with partners busy doing good work, and students left feeling confused, under-utilized, or ineffective in contributing toward that work.

Thus, it's important that we as teachers revisit our initial thinking behind a course each time that we teach it. I recall an early teaching experience (not service-learning) as a graduate teaching assistant, working under a brilliant mentor and teacher, in a literature class. My mentor had a keen sense of the purpose in the course, but I did not. And when I asked him one day what it was that he wanted students to take from the readings, he said that that was a question whose answer he hadn't thought about in a long time. Of course he knew the answer, and over the course the answer would become clear to students as well. But the point is, he hadn't thought about the answer at the outset, and thus hadn't elucidated it to either himself or the students. The purpose was there, just as it almost always is there in these courses that we put our hearts and minds into designing. But without active revisitation, the purpose can fade from its place of centrality. And with a successful service-learning course, the relation between the community action and the course content must be present throughout.

While much literature on service-learning is written toward an audience of teachers, administrators, even community groups, there is less written toward an audience of college students on what service-learning means. One excellent text toward this end is by Christine M. Cress (et al), called Learning through Serving. I've included a section of this book as a link here. The book speaks plainly to students about key concepts in service-learning including notions of civic responsibility, reciprocity, global citizenship, and how service-learning differs from volunteerism and other forms of community engagement. Assigning this text or one like it at the beginning of a course might prompt us to revisit our thinking behind the design and purpose of the course from all those years ago. And the more of this information that we share with students, the better chance we have of getting that "buy-in" that we so covet and is so crucial to the success of our course. As a teacher of rhetoric and composition, I stress the importance of clear thinking to my students and the reciprocal relationship between clear thinking and clear writing. As a service-learning teacher, my students may benefit from me applying this idea to myself and to the course, and to sharing the results at the outset.

Download Conversation #37

Ryan McBride

A conversation with Dr. Ryan McBride of Tulane University on teaching, learning, and service learning.

The service project complicates the readings, and the readings help complicate the service project.

Links for this episode: