Teaching young adults to collaborate not so easy

This year I decided to try something different in my classroom. Since I’m teaching a course that requires service within the community, I opted to make my class collaborative. I even thought that by using the term “collaborative,” somehow students would see it as more than simply group work.
I was wrong.
When setting up the course, I thought the service aspect would be a difficult sell. Since the goal is for students to create and deliver proposals that advocate for a specific change in the surrounding area, using community service was a good way to get students involved, particularly when college students are not from the area. It gives them a chance to experience first-hand what issues plague the St. Louis region.
I prepared myself for students to complain about the 12 hours required outside of the classroom. I brought in speakers who discussed the Jesuit mission and the stewardship that is so prevalent in our Catholic faith. I had members of our service learning department explain why active service can help students understand advocacy and inspire change.
On the whole, my students have enjoyed their work in the community. They see the opportunity and practicality of intervening in a specific local problem. Initially, I was worried all the groups would focus on homelessness, which is certainly a concern, but is a topic most would see as familiar.
In addition to homelessness, I have students working on issues such as incarceration or family grief and trauma, and with national organizations like the Boys and Girls Club. Using their service experience has certainly made them more aware of social justice within the city, and their research has made them connect those problems to larger issues in the nation. Now, as they work toward arguing for an effective intervention to help ease the struggles of their underprivileged population, I’m excited to see where their minds and creativity will take them.
The problem that I’ve encountered, however, is the collaborative aspect. Despite demonstrating that in the real world “no man is an island” – to use John Donne’s famed line – collaborating has become a challenge. And perhaps that is part of the lesson: as I’ve reiterated, often people find themselves in work situations where they don’t always get along with everyone else, yet, they find a way to make it work for the greater purpose, even if that purpose is maintaining a job.
It can be difficult to work with others, but, as I’m emphasizing to my students, respect and dialogue are the key components. Without those, all collaboration comes to a halt.

Of course, part of the problem with collaboration is the negative connotation students associate with group work. Often, one person feels as though he or she has completed the majority of the assignment, with the group members trailing behind. Certainly, that is a problem. However, collaborative technologies such as Google Docs make it easier to ascertain who does what work.

The larger struggle, particularly in a semester that runs concurrently with the spectacle of our current political scene, is that there seems to be less of those key collaboration ingredients fostered outside of the classroom.

In politics and in popular media, respect and communication often are missing. Outside of tragic circumstances, how often do we see others coming together to discuss a problem with respect for differences, with a desire to listen and dialogue in order to reach a fruitful conclusion?

Don’t we want our children, our students, our coworkers and colleagues to model this respectful means of dialogue?

This semester I’m learning that sometimes the larger issues are those that may not be solved or advocated for within the classroom. Instead, society may need to hold a mirror up to itself in order to see its reflection. Are the faces staring back truly the faces of a great nation, of a great community?

Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached athbozantwitcher@clarionherald.org

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