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Reflection and Contemplative Practices

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By: Susan Walter, Associate Professor, Spanish Language, Literary & Cultural Studies

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One of the greatest benefits that I gained as an instructor during the CCESL faculty fellows work in AY 2020-21 has been the time dedicated to reflection both during the cohort meetings and, at times, outside of meetings as we were asked to engage with different questions or ideas and write about them in a OneDrive folder.  It has also been helpful to learn from other faculty who had experience teaching community-engaged classes, and especially with those who were also in the midst of figuring out how to make things work during COVID times just as I was. While in the past I would often turn to colleagues to think through issues or problems as they came up, this academic year I did this more regularly through the CCESL meetings, and often as part of an evaluative process, and regular practice of reflection, rather than only when a difficulty arose.  I think this open forum for exchange was really beneficial for me to approach the quarter in a more mindful and reflective way, and to make solid choices about how I wanted to move forward.  I am aware of the benefits that engaging with reflection can have in the classroom so this was not a big surprise for me, nevertheless prior to my experience with the CCESL faculty fellows cohort I hadn’t practiced reflection as part of my critical practice as a teacher all that regularly. I also employ some contemplative practices in my classes, such as brief meditations at the beginning of class periods and free writing as a way for students to process what they are learning. Many contemplative principles come into play through the use of reflective writing—questioning our assumptions, recognizing and engaging with our values, understanding our emotional reactions to concepts or experiences, etc.  This finding reminds me of a SOTL workshop at the Air Force Academy that I attended some years ago in which a group of faculty members explained how they had engaged in reflective journaling about their teaching during the course of a term, and they found the practice to be very beneficial, especially when done in a cohort setting in which they had the chance to check in with one another regularly.  

I would also like to build reflection more fully into the course design.  In this past iteration of the course, students did reflections periodically regarding their work with our community partner during the quarter and it was also an essential component in their ePortfolio projects at the end of the quarter. Nevertheless, I could have built in more reflection activities throughout the quarter to enhance student learning. 

In the future I would like to design a study that evaluates the integration of reflection into the course for both me as the instructor, and for the students. Since a big part of CET work in my view relates to the areas of caring, human dimension, and integration in Dee Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning, it seems likely that doing more reflection activities in class will help students understand more about themselves as learners and how the work we are doing impacts them as learners and relates to course content.  I would also like to think more about the use of reflection in particular in the context of community-engaged teaching, and why it can be so beneficial. Another area of interest is related to the contemplative practices that tie into all of this. For example, some questions that a mindfulness practice invites us to answer are: what are our underlying assumptions? What are our values? How do they connect to this work, the course content, and to our understanding of it?  Since I do meditations at the beginning of my classes, I help to prime students to be in tune to these questions but I think I could also integrate more contemplative pedagogical practices into the class to dig in even deeper to these important questions.  

As I engage here in reflection about the course, I also have realized that because I was afraid that they would not have direct contact with immigrants, I discouraged students from choosing the option to be a “remote companion” with our community partner, and instead encouraged them all to choose the pen pal option, where they would write letters to detained immigrants. I also didn’t give them the option to make food and/or take fruit to then drop off at the Casa.  My sense now is that this was a mistake. I should have left that menu of options open, which is what I would have done in pre-Covid times, but I had preconceived notions about what experiences would be most enriching for students, and imposed those on my students. Since some students may have enjoyed being able to do more than write letters, and allowing them to engage with these additional opportunities would have given them more agency, I realize now that limiting their choices was a mistake.  Working as pen pals was not as fulfilling as I had expected it to be because many students never received replies from their pen pals. An important take-away from my teaching practice during COVID times is that you just can’t control exactly what all students are doing. You can make expectations clear, explain the reasoning for particular activities and assignments, and then things are left in students’ hands, and to some degree you need to let go at that point. Evaluation holds them to account to some degree, but the main way that I evaluated students’ work with our community partner was through reflections, which, quite honestly, they could have just made things up to complete if they chose to. For the future, I do think it would be helpful to have more regular reminders about expectations as well as some more time in small groups to discuss how things were going, brainstorm with peers about any doubts or difficulties they have encountered, to give them the opportunity to share experiences with their peers and also problem solve, etc. (In short, set up a framework not unlike the CCESL faculty group’s regular meetings, in which students can connect with one another and share their experiences regarding the class and their work with the community partner.) 

It was also very enriching to be able to talk with Liz Escobedo and Sergio Macías (we are part of a faculty cluster that all teach courses with the same community partner, Casa de Paz) and learn from their past experiences, and in the case of Liz, to hear how the quarter was going at different moments for her since we were both teaching community-engaged classes with Casa during the same quarter, Winter 2021. Also, the opportunity to talk with her about expectations and limitations given that COVID restrictions were in the mix as I was planning my class for the quarter was very beneficial, especially given that she had much more experience than I did with Casa classes and had learned from past experiences.  It was also nice to plan a joint documentary movie night together at the beginning of the quarter, and create that sense of community with our two classes, especially given how disconnected we all felt in January 2021.  We also tried to bring things back together at the end of the quarter by creating a social event on zoom for our students to share their experiences but we didn’t have much student participation during that event. Sergio Macías also was very generous and shared some class materials with me. It was also helpful to discuss past experiences with Sergio to understand what challenges arose, and how he handled them, although given the restrictions in place during Covid times some of his past experiences weren’t relevant to this iteration of the course. 

From our community partner I learned how truly resilient and adaptable we all are (a topic that also came up during a conversation with the CET faculty fellows group).  For example, as part of Covid changes, Casa de Paz shifted from an in-person visitation program at the detention centers to a pen pal program, which allowed Casa volunteers to continue to communicate with folks in the Aurora facility, and also connect with folks thousands of miles away, especially in Louisiana and other southern states that have a number of detention centers. The expanded reach of the organization was a big plus, that may have never materialized without Covid.  In fact, just recently (July 2021) I have been back in touch with my students from my CET course in Winter 2021 to let them know about a new volunteer opportunity through Casa in which they can use their Spanish language skills—by helping out with a hotline that is aiding volunteers in Louisiana.  Because many of the immigrants being released are Hispanic, they need folks with Spanish language skills to help organize transportation for released immigrants.  Also, through my work doing the Casa movie discussion nights (a volunteer role that I hold in the organization), I’ve also seen how the traditional limits of the Casa community can be expanded because at times folks from Georgia and CA have connected to the movie night discussions on Zoom and they were able to inform the rest of us about how things are different in those regional contexts.  For example, through conversations with some of these participants, some really enlightening dialogues about the complexities of the legal system and challenges that a similar organization in the Atlanta area faces have been brought to the fore.  

Finally, when looking to the future when I will teach the same class again, one thing that I would like to modify is to give the students the opportunity to do a research project related to a geographic area in the Hispanic world of their choosing.  In reading student reflections about their pen pal experiences, and student evaluations at the end of the quarter, a few students commented on how on their own they had done some research on the countries of origin of their pen pals to understand better what types of situations the immigrants were fleeing.  In the future I’d like to take advantage of this natural interest for many of them and assign a research project in which they get the opportunity to learn more about the country of origin of some of the immigrants with whom they have had contact through Casa.