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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lessons Learned From A Year of Risk-Taking Teaching

Ten things I've taken to heart after initiating a semester service learning project in my Introduction to Mass Communications sections at Northwest Vista College.

1. Real is powerful.  Non profit agencies and the students both enter into a signed agreement with set meeting dates and deadlines to see the project through inception to reality.  Students spend about two months in and out of class creating a media product or a social media effort to support a local non-profit agency. A media product is real and so is the client's approval. It may be more real to some students than a grade based on other assignments. A media product selected by a client, when approved, is  based on its merits as a real communication product to be used by the agency in its work in the community. This is real-world-concrete and work in this realm is evidence of having what it takes to succeed in communications inside or outside of the academic setting. 

2.  More is more.  The assignment is to create a series of the same media product, such as a flier, a brochure, a brief video or visual presentation, with at least two samples for clients (agency representatives) to review and approve. Here's what's great about doing more than one version:  At the conclusion of their efforts many students reported being surprised that their own creative alternate ideas and efforts in design or organization were selected over their initial, client-originated/directed efforts. What could make a teacher's heart swell more than to see a student learn of their own ideas in writing and design being selected for "real life" application in a non profit agencies promotion or awareness campaign? They expressed surprise that their own ideas and approaches pleased the client more than the approach they prepared under the client's guidance during the course of the project's numerous planning meetings. This kind of learning is a most valuable discovery of their own creative gifts and potential which builds their confidence. My guess is this experience gives some students their first experience working as equals among professionals who will actually use their work.

3.  Not all students think they are ready, but with support, they usually are.  The bad news is in some sections there was too much attrition. The good news is I've got a plan to avert that next semester by redirecting faltering students' efforts early enough to help them stay in and succeed despite their not having completed a semester service learning project. Those who did persist, whether working alone or with group support, generally reported in their reflection summary of skills mastered that the semester service learning media production experience taught them skills they never knew they could use, let alone master: preparing to listen during an interview, preparing questions and researching prior to interviews for profile assignments, using purpose statements to organize projects, starting with why, following Simon Sinek's TED talk. There also were some surprising insights, like learning they enjoyed working with their partners or groups and learning about the work of their selected non profit agencies. My favorite was surprise expressed at being able to make a difference with their skills and time for a cause larger than any one of us.

4.  Mistakes make magic.  Anne Lamott wrote about the "shitty first draft" as being a necessary first step toward reaching a better final draft. It's an inelegant but important lesson that college students frequently have not yet learned about either good writing or design. Students spoke with surprise in their presentations about the huge improvements their final versions of their brochures or short videos were in comparison to their first drafts, due earlier in the semester. It's an illusion so many of us are prone to believing: that first attempts are representative of how well we can or should do. Not even Picasso or any of the great masters succeeded without support and thousands of mistakes to gain their mastery. Yet when we think of the creative process, it's tempting to only see the framed piece hanging on the wall of the museum rather than the years of disciplined exercises, copying and experiments full of flops that preceded it.  Same for me as their professor. The second time around I timed the project earlier, which helped and focused more on the profile writing assignments, which deepened student research, learning and gave them authority on their topic, in every sense of the word.

5.  Have a skill, lend a hand. Need help with skill? Ask!  Asking for help is part of creative collaboration.    The students in my sections also practiced the art of asking for help from their colleagues during class sessions and on their own time. Few of us can be experts at many skills, but we can all get more done when we share our know-how and know when it's time to get some help to move forward. I had the classes post their technological skills from drawing and design to software help, photography, researching databases and proof-reading. This bank of skills was a demonstration that we each possess different interests and skills and that sharing them makes not just sense, but magnificence.  My colleagues at  Northwest Vista College are generous and imaginative. I am so grateful for help from Kelly Blanco and Melissa Monroe-Young, and particularly for Migdalia Garcia's lists of local non profits, numerous classroom visits and a great constructive criticism feedback session at the start of this semester. Great feedback during two hours of helpful notes on improving the project: starting earlier, probably the most important. I also thank the students from the first semester who dropped by or stopped me in the hall to touch base about the project.

6.  Start where you are, bring what you've got. Students often disregard or undervalue their own gifts and interests and how they can be useful in their college work. They often overlook their love of drawing, using apps or specialized software to manipulate and post photos to social media, shooting videos of skate-boarding or even web-surfing to explore new music or ideas. Taking on a project with deadlines and requirements set by the client can seem outside their comfort zones, but using existing skills to step onto new ground helps build confidence. They may remember or discover their uncle or sister who has a job in a local non-profit organization who might be the ticket for the course's requirements, but more importantly, they make the connection that each of us, from the rich and powerful to the ants in the bushes, have to start with what we have near in order to get somewhere else. We can often barter or gain leverage with skills we have some familiarity using to move forward an idea or project, or even the occasional rubber tree plant. 

7.  Kissing frogs is part of business of ma$$ media.  Not all non profits are going to be the right fit for the semester service learning project.  Some are too busy to supervise college students, others are simply too understaffed. Students vary, but there are always those who act quickly upon hearing of the assignment to partner with a non profit to create a media product. Some get lucky, but others aren't. There are those who look too hard for just the right matching interest, such as children or animals. Others are more pragmatic and start close to home with relatives as contacts to local churches and organizations.  Some students learn the hard way that some phone calls they make or emails they send won't be returned by some non profit agencies.  That's a good sign that the partnership was not a good one in the first place. Mutual enthusiasm and support in generous doses will be needed to see the project through. In about 90% of cases the first or second try generally works for students. When non profits don't call or email students who contact them about partnering, I remind them to not to take it personally. I remind them that much of mass communication is selling. If a business is not buying what the student is selling in their free work proposal, it's best to know that early on. There are lots of non profits that are welcoming of free creative and technical support to promote their work in the community.

8.  Media is more than me-me-me.  A lifetime of thinking of media solely as a source for entertainment or even information and news makes for a good consumer, but really learning about mass communications means using, experimenting and practicing using the tools and technologies that encompass mass media. It may be hard at first to think of your old friend, Facebook, Instagram or even TV as having a business model or as a disruptive technology, but that's one reason students enroll in institutions of higher learning.  Using  social media as a tool for research for a non profit client or creating a video based on someone else's needs is an important step toward maturing from a non media literate consumer into a savvy media literate analyst and creative artist.

9.  It's never too early to build identity capital. Resumes are passé. Employers will consult first with Google about a potential hire. College students, especially those in business, marketing or communications related career fields can jump over their competition by building their professional and publication credits before graduation. By creating a media product for an actual client during a multi-week effort that includes instruction, support, research, interviews, writing and technology students can add to their identity capital and take pride in having authored or produced a product that has real-world value.  

10.  Reflection cements learning. Student presentations concluded with a listing of ideas and concepts learned during the semester service learning project, whether in class or outside of class with the client. Most valuable player awards go to receiving constructive criticism from classmates during draft presentations, learning professional communication skills such as pausing to listen during conversations with their clients, and my personal favorite, several students and groups learning their alternate designs are sometimes selected by clients over the client's own concepts. Students see their own ideas have value, a big step toward building confidence based on their efforts.