By Marisel Moreno
I have been teaching US Latino/a literature with a Community-Based Learning (CBL) approach for the last five years. I can honestly say that after 10 consecutive semesters, 4 different courses, and more than 5,000 hours of student service hours, I can hardly imagine teaching US Latino/a literature without the CBL pedagogy. It has been that transformative; not only for me, but for my students and our community partner, La Casa de Amistad. I thought I should take a few minutes to reflect on the power of CBL to transform students’ attitudes toward literature, especially minority literatures. I decided to write this reflection to hopefully convince those considering adopting this pedagogy that it is absolutely worth it.
A few details about CBL that people should know about: there is no standard definition of the concept or standard model that can be applied to all cases. This can be both intimidating and liberating at once. I know that in my case, when I first learned about CBL about six years ago, I felt I had discovered the “missing link” to my US Latino/a literature courses. My initial excitement soon gave way to anxiety when, after scheduling the first meeting with my future community partner, I realized that I was on my own. At that point, almost nothing had been published on the application of the CBL pedagogy in upper level US Latino/a literature courses. It seemed to me that most of the scholarship was geared toward the Spanish-language curriculum. Although I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going—or where my courses were heading—I decided to take the plunge because deep inside, I was convinced that CBL would add a depth of understanding and engagement that literature alone would probably not provide for my mostly white middle/upper class students. I also found solid common ground between La Casa de Amistad’s mission and my own pedagogical goal of teaching tolerance, acceptance, and civic engagement through literature.
La Casa de Amistad is a community organization founded in 1973 in South Bend, IN, that offers a range of services to the local Latino/a community. It’s mission, according to their website, is to “empower the Latino/Hispanic community within Michiana by providing educational, cultural and advocacy services in a welcoming, bilingual environment” (website). Among the services that La Casa provides are: the bilingual pre-school program “Yo Puedo Leer,” after-school programs “Crece Conmigo” (K-6th) and “Adelante América” (7th-12th), citizenship classes, computer classes, ENL adult classes, and a food pantry, among others. For five years, my students have been tutors and mentors with “Crece Conmigo” and “Adelante América,” since these are the two programs that mostly depend on a solid number of volunteers. These programs run from Monday-Thursday for two hours each, and my students sign up to work with either Crece or Adelante once a week for a two-hour session. La Casa’s commitment to promoting literacy and academic support to its students is one of the main reasons why I found its mission to connect with the goals of my courses.
Without a specific model to follow—there are too many out there—I came to a few preliminary conclusions. First, I wanted all my students to volunteer at the same organization instead of providing a few options, as some professors do. I saw this as a way to create common ground for my students, give them an experience that they could share as a class. Second, I wanted their volunteering to extend throughout the semester in order to meet the needs of our partner. In other words, rather than telling them to complete a set amount of hours, it was made clear that they were expected to work at La Casa at least 2 hours per week for the entire semester. Third, and perhaps the hardest thing, I told myself that not everything needed to work out perfectly every time. I convinced myself that I could let go of the need to control all aspects of teaching. It was hard at first, but eventually I learned to “go with the flow” and adjust to the unexpected changes and challenges that working with a small non-profit organization brings with it. In fact, I found it absolutely vital to remind my students of this last point, especially when it became obvious at different points that some were “uncomfortable” with the element of unpredictability (changes in staff, closings due to weather, transportation issues, etc.) that is part of any CBL partnership.
After five years I can confidently say that joining forces with La Casa de Amistad has proven mutually beneficial from the beginning; every semester my students became the backbone of La Casa’s after-school tutoring programs (they provided consistency as they were less likely to miss a day of tutoring), but more importantly, the relationships they cultivated with the children opened their eyes to the issues affecting US Latino communities. Immigration, racism, sexism, transnationalism, prejudice, education gap, undocumented immigrant and migrant farm worker—these are just some of the terms and concepts that my students were exposed to in the classroom but were able to understand in greater depth thanks to their time at La Casa. Those personal bonds they established with the children (and sometimes with their families) allowed my students to become more emotionally invested in the material we were covering in class; they wanted to learn more, and they wanted to read more. Of course, there have been exceptions, but overall, most students comment on this particular point in their final course evaluations—how getting to know the kids at La Casa have made them better people and opened their eyes to the injustices that ethnic and racial minorities face in this country. We can’t underestimate the importance of this type of statement, especially when it comes from white middle/upper class students who didn’t have significant contact with US Latinos/as prior to taking my course. This may sound paradoxical, but as a professor, there’s nothing more encouraging than hearing my students’ absolute disillusionment after realizing the histories and literatures they were not taught in school. I say “encouraging” because this usually translates into motivation, not just to learn more by filling those silences in their educations, but also to act and become more engaged in their communities and fighting for the rights of those who are left at the margins of society (In fact, for academic institutions seeking to reduce the town/gown divide, CBL courses offer a socially responsible solution). There’s also hardly anything more rewarding than witnessing your students’ individual transformations as they come to learn more about themselves and gain the gift of perspective through the combination of literature and CBL. I commonly hear my students reflect on how the CBL experience has taught them about their own limits (patience, ability to work with children, their personal racial/ethnic biases and prejudices, etc.) and has opened their eyes to their own privilege (economic, social, racial, citizenship status, etc.). Above all, many make it clear in their journals and final course reflections that the CBL component has allowed them to connect with the local Latino community in ways that they would not have otherwise; and that connection in turn has enhanced their appreciation and understanding of the literature discussed in class.
I could go on and on about the personal and academic benefits I have seen when applying a CBL approach to US Latino/a literature courses, but space is limited. I do want to confess that it hasn’t always been easy; there have been plenty of moments of doubt throughout the years. Some of the challenges my students and I have faced include: conflicts organizing the volunteering schedule in order to balance their presence at La Casa; transportation issues since public transportation is not really an option in that area; unexpected site closings due to weather or maintenance, etc. For non/pre-tenured faculty especially (as I was most of the years I taught these courses), teaching CBL can be very time-consuming and therefore not encouraged by the administration. However, when I read my students’ final course reflections every semester, where they’re expected to reflect on the course as a whole (including the literature and CBL components), I usually witness the power of literature and CBL to transform lives. Many of my students state a commitment to keep learning about US Latinos/as, to help set the record straight among friends and family who display prejudices toward this population, and to serve this population in the future as lawyers, doctors, and teachers.
It is precisely because of how transformative it has been for me to teach US Latino/a literature with a CBL component, and because I can see the incredible potential we have before us, that I want to encourage (especially) faculty teaching minority literatures to consider adding CBL to their courses. When you read students’ class journal reflections where they say that “if more people could study this literature and get to know kids like those at La Casa, there would be more peace and understanding in this world,” you know that this is something worth sharing. CBL can be implemented in all disciplines, but I think those of us in literature have an advantage. We can use the stories, poems, and novels we teach to open our students’ eyes. But we can also provide them the opportunity to break out of their comfort zone and become, if only temporarily, part of the community they’re learning about. US cities and towns are replete with community centers and non-profit organizations serving US Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, the undocumented, and many other groups whose stories we teach. Let’s make those stories come alive by keeping it real—in and outside the classroom.
MARISEL MORENO, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Latino/a Literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Notre Dame. Her first book, Family Matters: Puerto Rican Women Authors on the Island and the Mainland, was published in 2012. She has published articles on US Latino/a authors in Latino Studies, CENTRO, MELUS, Hispanic Review, and Afro-Hispanic Review, among other academic journals. In 2011 she received the Indiana Governor’s Award for Service-Learning.