Students spend years collecting knowledge and learning facts, but often the educational experience, whether at church or at school, falls short of being truly transformative. Providing students with real life applications for the classroom lessons they’re learning is key to overcoming the disconnect. When the out-of-class experiences also serve to expand students’ views of the world and broaden their understanding of the global human experience, even more effective learning takes place. One of the best ways to bridge these gaps between the classroom and real life and greater societal experiences is through collaborative communitybased learning.
What Is Community-based Learning?
This fall, the Samford University Center for Worship and the Arts is partnering with the Frances Marlin Mann Center for Leadership and Ethics to provide a community-based service cadre to School of the Arts students called the Alabama Black Belt Music Exchange. The SOA cadre will follow the community-based learning model developed by the Mann Center which includes the following elements:
• Students will perform relevant service with a community partner. Eight students from the School of the Arts will use the skills they’re developing at Samford to supplement music lessons offered by the Mt. Gilead Scholastic and Artistic Institute in Coy, Alabama. The MGS&A provides low-cost music lessons to elementary through high school students in Wilcox County, which is part of what is known as the black belt region of the state.
• The project creates a strategic partnership with a community organization that is beneficial to both students and the community partner. Wilcox County is one of the poorest counties in Alabama, and has one of the state’s highest unemployment rates. More than 90% of public school students in the county qualify for free and reduced lunches. As a result of the lack of financial resources, there are very few opportunities for students to have exposure to fine arts lessons and concerts. The MGS&A was born of a desire by its founder, the Reverend Dr. Stanford Angion, to develop the next generation of worship leaders for his and other churches in the area. Through the MGS&A, students receive weekly lessons in either piano, guitar, percussion, or voice. Samford Arts students will provide supplemental group music activities on select Saturday mornings which will enhance the individual lessons. Samford students will occasionally perform for MGS&A students, allowing the younger students to experience music at a level otherwise unavailable to them in Wilcox County. The younger students will also be encouraged to perform for the Samford students at the end of the semester, providing them a unique opportunity for encouragement and positive feedback. While the benefit for MGS&A students is clear, perhaps the greater and more profound benefit will come to the participating Samford students. Through the Alabama Black Belt Music Exchange community-based learning project, they will gain valuable, hands- on arts experience outside the classroom while also learning about a culture much different from that of most Samford students. All who have volunteered with the MGS&A in the past attest to the fact that the students, while poor in material resources, are rich in talent, enthusiasm and commitment to learning.
• Students engage in regular and structured critical reflection throughout the experience. Nearly half of the overall Alabama Black Belt Music Exchange program is devoted to preparation and critical reflection. This will be key to the program’s success. Not only will participating Samford students receive orientation on community-based learning through the Mann Center, but they will also meet with MGS&A founder Dr. Angion and its director Ms. Susan Wilson before ever interacting with MGS&A students at all. It is important for the Samford students to understand as much as they can about the Coy community and the work of the MGS&A before beginning their meetings with the younger music students. Without appropriate training and preparation, a communitybased learning experience involving two very different cultural communities can even prove to be counter-productive. Following the series of music exchange Saturdays, cadre participants will be expected to write a critical reflection paper about their experience. The preparatory orientation sessions and final reflection paper are required parts of the cadre for Samford students.
How Can Community-based Learning Benefit My Students?
Whether you connect with students through your church, school, or perhaps you ARE a student who hopes to develop a more meaningful sense of service within your own friend group, consider starting a community-based learning program by following the pattern outlined below:
• What relevant service is your student group able to offer another community? For our group, the services offered are directly related to music. Maybe a music partnership would work well for you, too. You may also want to consider services such as homework help or tutoring, after-school sports or other leisure activities, book clubs, Bible study . . . the list is endless! Whatever areas of giftedness and interests are represented within your student group could open doors for creative collaboration outside your own walls.
• Identify a strategic partnership with another group that is beneficial to both your students and the community partner. Local non-profits would likely welcome a partnership with a committed group of motivated students. Some of the best connections may be made by simply asking students, parents, or church leaders for suggestions.
There may also be smaller groups within a church or school with whom your students do not often interact. An extended partnership between students and senior adults, for example, could be mutually beneficial on many levels. Or perhaps hosting a series of parents night out events for young families could make for a meaningful community based learning experience.
• Remember to provide both training and opportunities for structured, critical reflection. As you make plans for training, be sure to include your community partner or other representative from the group students will be serving. Reciprocity, respect, and free exchange of ideas from both groups are important elements of a successful partnership.
As students leave the confines of the classroom and use their education, gifts and skills in service to others, head knowledge deepens into life-changing heart experiences. The world, the church, and the students you serve will be better for it.
“And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts.” 1 Peter 4:10