Dr. Jennifer Frank
The Center for Academic Excellence is recognizing a faculty member every month in the CAE Innovative Practices Spotlight to highlight his or her innovative classroom practices and outstanding contribution to Millersville University.
Dr. Jennifer Frank is being recognized in October for her exceptional use of experiential learning in her first year seminar class!
1. What innovative practice did you incorporate into your classroom?
My major-based UNIV 103 course is called Perspectives on Poverty in America. In this course, we attempt to answer the question “What is Poverty?” by examining both cultural narratives and the lived-experience of individuals. The course is used to teach students about poverty and help students to develop empathy by using a variety of innovative and experiential learning modalities, all with a focus on hearing the stories of individuals who have experienced poverty first-hand.
Paper Trails and Bridging the Gap Together are essential components of the experiential learning situated in this course.
Paper Trails begins immediately at the start of the semester. In the Paper Trails project, students are paired with a “pen pal” who is a community member receiving support from a local non-profit organization that attends to poverty in the rural area. Students and community members write back and forth several times during the beginning of the semester.
Around the middle point of the semester, we take a field trip to the organization and spend the evening there on an event that we call Bridging the Gap Together. There are several components to Bridging the Gap Together including a “Rural Resources Tour,” a shared dinner with conversation/activities, and a structured question and answer dialogue. Prior to the agency visit, students anonymously ask honest questions that they personally have about rural poverty. These are collected and brought along to our event.
When we first arrive, students take a “Rural Resources Tour” where they attempt to use a checklist to find the resources and services that one may need if experiencing rural poverty (e.g. doctor’s office, public assistance office, banks, daycares, public transportation). Through this, students learn first-hand that resources are scarce and it is really difficult to navigate one’s daily needs. Next, share dinner with the community members. Students and community members have an opportunity to engage in a variety of “ice breaker” activities to get to know one another. During this time, students have the opportunity to meet their Paper Trails “pen pal” face to face and engage in social dialogue. Paper Trails is a process of humanizing the “other.” Students are faced with the real-life person and are no longer learning about poverty out of a book but instead in the context of a new “friend.”
Students and participants then engage in a structured question and answer session. Students’ anonymous questions about rural poverty are asked to the large group and folks can answer them as they feel comfortable. Community members craft questions about college life or majoring in social work prior to the event and these are asked in a similar fashion. Stories are shared, tears are shed, and hearts and minds are open.
2. When did you implement the new practice into your classroom?
Bridging the Gap Together began on the Fall 2015 and has been conducted each fall semester since then. Paper Trails, which initially only began enhance attendance at BTGT and is now an integral part, began in the Fall of 2018.
3. Did the students willingly accept the use of the new practice? What were the reactions of the students?
The students have been very flexible and open to new ideas and activities in the classroom. Each semester, students are asked both about their assumptions and worries about the project before it occurs and their reflections and insights afterward. This process of documenting anticipatory emotions and engaging in critical is the process by which new learning can take place.
I believe this is particularly important when dealing with a very sensitive topic, such as poverty, where the bulk of our prior understanding may be related to cultural messages from movies and social media and the erroneous assumptions we’ve inherited from our friends and family. Hearing the stories of the lived-experiences of actual individuals are part of the essential and empowering process upon which social workers (and humans) need to rely heavily.
4. How has the use of the new practice positively affected the classroom learning environment?
Every year students report that they learned so much from this activity, that it helped them to understand poverty, and assisted them in putting a human face on it. Oftentimes students have shared that someone that they met during the project reminded them of a family member or of a personal experience. In effect, these experiences serve to decrease the social distance between human beings. My hope is that students, who take the course during their first semester, are able to begin to develop the skills of empathy, listening, and appreciation of the “client as the expert” right from the outset of their social work education.
5. How has the use of the new practice affected student engagement in the classroom and the level of participation?
I find that interactive and experiential learning activities are essential in developing engagement among and between students inside and outside of the classroom. Through experiential learning they better develop bonds with their fellow classmates in ways that they remember. These relationships create bonds of support that then make it easier for students to open up to new ideas in the class, share their personal insights, and ask good questions.
6. What challenges did you encounter when you were implementing the new practice?
I think anything new can be scary at first. Going outside of one’s comfort zone is usually essential for new learning. For this particular project, developing a professional relationship with a partner agency in the community is critically important. Paper Trails and Bridging the Gap Together would not be possible outside of this agency relationship that has been intentionally cultivated and maintained.