Educative engagements

Neha Pradhan Arora

I studied in a traditional convent in a small town in West Bengal. A beautiful old building in red brick with wooden desks and chairs, sprawling grounds, a huge library and an old mahogany tree formed the backdrop for my growing up years. Devoid of technology, global exposure and new methods of teaching, what those years did give me is a sense of community. Snapshots and glimpses from my memories remind me of people, interactions and relationships within the school and with the community outside that was embraced within the school. One memory that stands out is of an educational initiative that senior students began for the children of a nearby low-income community. It was part of the weekly schedule of senior school to interact with the children of this
‘school’ and teach them – literacy and numeracy. As part of a roster, every class in school also had a day when they shared tiffin with the students here. I passed out of school with these memories and influences more than two decades ago. Imagine my surprise when a social media post told me that the literacy initiative that began with a handful of students celebrated its silver jubilee and had helped hundreds of students get an education and find their own path in life. This to me is a community engagement project (CEP).

Community outreach, social work, community service, community engagement … these are some of the terms used in schools today to refer to projects and work done to contribute to society. In a simplistic way, a project that engages with the community for learning or change is a community engagement project. A community, though sometimes understood as the neighbourhood around the school, is actually defined as a group of people who share something in common – geographic location, purpose, need, identity. It may thus be helpful to approach the school also as a community. A learning community that perseveres to empower and equip its members with learning, knowledge, skill and experience. A CEP would thus include projects that strive for learning and change within the school community and outside.

For most schools such projects are a way of giving back to the community, of encouraging charity and of building empathy and other values in their students. While this could be a starting point for community engagement projects, they have the potential to achieve much more and serve a larger purpose.

CEPs are different from service projects in that they impact both – those implementing it and those for whom it is being implemented. For students engaged in the conceptualization, planning and implementation they are developing critical life skills, applying classroom learning to real-world problems and gaining valuable life lessons. They learn to see a problem from different perspectives and collaborate to find lasting solutions. They learn to reflect and review impact for themselves. They learn to give and receive feedback. They learn to create and recreate through challenges and failures. They develop social responsibility and learn how to practice it. In a nutshell, CEP strengthens young students into becoming leaders of their own lives and in their own communities.

CEPs also impact the communities they are implemented in when they identify pain points or needs of the community and attempt to find solutions which are innovative and sustainable. In a world which celebrates and requires out of the box solutions, young people are often able to achieve this with their creative and fresh approach.

A CEP could be as simple as a cleaning drive inside or outside the school, a tree plantation, a collection of newspapers or old books, a collection of flood relief or an interaction or visit to an animal shelter. It could also be fundraising for a specific cause or a long-term literacy or continuing education programme for the support staff of the school/or a neighbouring community. It could be a campaign for clean air or a resource audit of the school. It could be a book bank run and managed by the students. It could be a traffic mapping project to make the roads near the school safer. It could be a sustained collaboration with a school in the community outside which ensures regular peer interactions for children of both schools. It could be an exercise in collecting the local history of the school and the neighbouring communities.

A project may be short-term and driven by one subject (social studies) or may be long-term and requiring the integration of
various disciplines. A project may be research oriented or action oriented. A project may be focusing within the school community or outside the school community. A project may be for primary students or for high school students. What is important to remember is that the impact of the project needs to be measured not in terms of simplicity or complexity but in terms of the measurable learning and impact.

In order to have maximum learning and impact, a CEP must be conceptualized, planned and implemented in a structured, sustainable and realistic manner; within the framework of a school learning community. In order to do this, for any CEP, the following parameters must be kept in mind while conceptualizing and planning the project –

1. The project must have well-defined goals which are time-bound.
2. The project must engage with and impact the community (as defined by the project).
3. The project must be planned realistically in terms of time, resource and impact.
4. The project must have an inbuilt element of review and feedback.

While there are many ways to plan and integrate projects into the curriculum and calendar, given below is a step-by-step process for teachers to use.

Pre-planning

  • Decide when (in the school calendar) the project could be best implemented based on a curricular connect or an event.
  • Create a team of teacher-mentors who will be able to guide the project teams adequately.
  • Outline the theme (if any), duration and learning objectives of the project and decide on the parameters for reviewing the same.
  • Depending on the age of the participating students, outline the framework that will guide students through the process.
  • Some guiding questions for the framework for a younger age group could be –
    1. What do you want to do?
    2. What change will be brought about by your project?
    3. Why do you want to bring about this change?
    4. What do you think is causing the problem?
    5. How will you bring about this change?
    6. Who will be affected by this change?
    7. How will you know how much change has happened?
  • Some guidelines for a framework for an older age group could be –
    1. Identify something you feel is a pain point or a need in your community.
    2. Seek a deeper understanding of the issues involved via research, field trips, interviews and observation.
    3. Critically analyze and create possible workable solutions.
    4. Review and asses the success of the solutions based on pre-determined parameters.
  • Develop reflection and documentation templates for the students and teachermentors.
  • Create a time-plan for the project which includes a tentative timeline and adequate allocation for work within the class schedules.
  • Inform relevant people in school who may be involved or whose support may be required (IT team, administrative team, relevant school heads, relevant teachers).
  • Prepare parents and students of the project adequately by giving them an overview and what will be expected of them, in advance, as per school protocol.

Project implementation

  • Orientation of students – Adequate conversation with the students is important to ensure that they see the relevance and build a connect with the community before they try to ideate.
    1. Outline and scope of the project – requirements, expectations, parameters, timeline and purpose.
    2. Flexibility and freedom to choose groups and specific projects.
    3. Introduction to teacher-mentors.
    4. Guidance on choosing project.
  • First milestone – selection of project based on purpose and research and determination of the parameters for measuring the impact of the project.
  • Second milestone – Sharing of initial idea and strengthening of the same based on suggestions from group based on the above parameters.
  • Third milestone – Mid-project review with peer and mentor feedback.
  • Fourth and final milestone – End-project presentation with peer and mentor feedback.
  • Self-reflection – on self, on group, on project and on mentors.
  • Celebration of learning and impact in simple and sustainable ways.

Post-project
• Ensure that processes, projects and learning have been documented in relevant templates.
• Share learning and impact at adequate platforms.
• Encourage that meaningful projects are continued by interested student groups to become part of the community.

It is important to mention here that most projects begin with the intention of learning and impactful change but lack of time and planning often lead to community projects becoming short-term hastily put-together charity-oriented events. There is a danger in these leading to resentment or indifference amongst all members of the school community.

Many schools have successfully integrated community engagement projects into the learning plan of their students and created impact that is meaningful and sustainable. It is important that we as practitioners also document and share our successes in order to inspire and influence others in our community.

While planning and preparation is the best way to ensure maximum learning and impact; here are some other tips –

  • Projects always work better when collaboratively designed and co-planned by teachers across disciplines and departments with shared ownership and responsibility!
  • Identify members from within the school community – as experts, co-researchers or even as people who celebrate our successes! A CEP by design must include all members of the community.
  • Encourage students to use time, resources and technology appropriately for the project.
  • Remember that while the framework is designed by teacher-mentors, the projects must be student-driven.
  • Build projects as a ‘we’ not as an ‘us’ and ‘them’! The value of equality and justice is inherent to CEPs.

As adults, we are often sceptical of the successes of community projects. The enthusiasm of youth aims sky-high and often wants to change the world. The role of the teacher-mentors is crucial in that it encourages, guides and facilitates the planning process while building confidence and leadership. The joy of success and achievement may not really change the world, but it does make young people more aware of their own community, builds a sense of connection and responsibility towards the same and infects them with the ‘I Can’ bug! This is the seed that grows into civic participation in the years to come.

The author explores the purpose of education and learning through her work with schools and communities. She believes it is only through the creation of empathic, empowered and joyful learning communities that this purpose can be achieved. She currently lives in Bengaluru and can be reached at neha7779@gmail.com.