Renee Bourdeaux, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Communication
[Note: this article appears in a special edition on Service Learning in Christian Higher Education. Special thanks to Kristen Sipper, Azusa Pacific University, for recommending this special edition]
Abstract: In this Partner Service Project, students work in pairs to critically evaluate love as they seek to spread love through communicative exchanges somewhere within the larger campus or neighboring communities. The service project incorporates course material which has an emphasis on viewing communication and love through the lens of students’ Christian faith, along with guiding principles from their Christian faith. Once the project is designed and approved, students complete the service project and then evaluate the project outcomes.
Keywords: love, partner service project, faith-learning integration, personal reflections
My name is Renee Bourdeaux, and I am an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northwest University (NU) in Kirkland, WA. Founded in 1934, NU is a regionally-accredited, Christian institution (affiliated with the Assemblies of God) located in Kirkland, Washington. Since moving to the Seattle area for my job at NU, my faith has been growing exponentially, largely because of NU’s commitment to faith integration. My job at NU has provided me with the opportunity to explore my faith in new ways. Most recently, I completed a course for second-year faculty members where we spent an entire semester talking about faith integration in and out of the classroom.
Before coming to NU, my faith was in some ways separated from my teaching because I worked at a secular institution. While I was able to live out Christian ideals while teaching, I was not able to talk about Christian application while teaching at a secular institution. Since I started teaching at NU, I have been learning how to artfully and purposefully connect my academic field with my faith. As a teacher, I want to develop and educate students to help them find the courage to discover what God wants them to do in the greater community.
The commitment to faith integration at NU has helped me to grow and develop my teaching philosophy. I believe the purpose of teaching is to facilitate growth that impacts students not only in the classroom, but outside of the classroom in their everyday lives. When I teach, I use course content to reach students where they are, and I empower them to move forward with new knowledge. My philosophy for achieving engagement beyond the classroom focuses on applicability and reflexivity.
My intent is to make the content I teach “real” and applicable to the students. I want students to not only learn knowledge, but to have the skills to apply the knowledge to real world situations. This is where service learning comes in. I enjoy designing assignments that emphasize the real-world impact of communication. These assignments help get the students out in the community to serve the larger world. Once the students complete the service projects, we use class time to discuss how this applicability they experienced intertwines with their personal and faith experiences. The learners are more engaged and more passionate about discussing the content because they had the opportunity to explore first-hand how the content impacts the world outside of the classroom.
Reflexivity, another important facet of my teaching philosophy, ensures I encourage students to reflect on course concepts. Because I work at a Christian university, these reflection opportunities often challenge students to consider their learning in relation to their faith. Reflexivity allows students to consciously attend to and further reflect on their personal comprehension of class material along with any connections to their faith walk. When given time to reflect, students are able to better assess their level of understanding and often feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts in class. Reflexivity allows students to wrestle with their personal understanding and faith connection before sharing their insights with the entire class.
My philosophy of applicability and reflexivity allows students to experience service learning in a way that challenges each person to find a meaningful connection to course concepts. To continue to improve this teaching methodology, I remain committed to learning from scholarly research and my colleagues near and far. I also intentionally select textbooks that allow me to create open dialogue between discipline ideals and faith traditions. Although students may evolve, and teaching theories may change, my love of the art of teaching allows me to continually improve the ways I teach with service learning.
The service project that was inspired because of my Christian passion, the faith-integration focus at NU, and my personal teaching philosophy is the Partner Service Project that I use in my Love and Communication class. This course is offered face-to-face every spring at NU, and the course enrollment size is typically around 25 students. This assignment has been successfully completed in the last two iterations of the class. This article will provide readers with a description of the service project, an overview of the integration and faith learning principles for the assignment, and an evaluation and reflection of the success of the assignment, before the piece closes with some practical advice for those of you interested in bringing this service project to your campus.
Service Project Description
The service project, Partner Service Project (PSP), is used in my Love and Communication course. The course focuses on the conditions, difficulties, joys, and sorrows of loving and being loved. This content examines the philosophy, theory, and practice of the art of loving and its connection to communication skills. Although the main focus is on communicating love, the class also explores close relationships from historical, sociological, psychological, and cultural points of view as well, in addition to placing considerable emphasis on the emotional and spiritual dimensions of loving relationships.
The PSP is one of the larger assignments in the Love and Communication course, and the project is due at the mid-point of the semester. The purpose of the PSP, in addition to placing students in partnership situations so they have opportunity to learn how to communicate lovingly even when things may get stressful (as they often do when planning and implementing projects), is to have students do a service project in the larger community. Students work together to come up with a service project to spread love. Together, the students plan the project, complete a proposal (which I review before the students do the projects), conduct the project, and then complete a presentation and a paper on the service learning experience.
Because of my focus on applicability as a teaching mantra, I put the students in full-control of planning their projects. This means that I do not seek out community partners for this assignment. To help the students with applicability, I empower them to learn how to seek service opportunities on their own because I know they will need to do this after graduation. Therefore, I ask the students to find places to spread more love, and then to plan, coordinate, and enact a service project in that space.
The participants and outcomes vary depending on each project design. The students at Northwest University are predominantly typical college-aged students that identify as Christians, with a small group of non-traditional students as well. The student pairs choose community partners to achieve their goals. Outside groups served in past projects have been nursing homes, churches, after-school programs, Christian elementary school classrooms, immigration support programs, people shopping in a mall, and homeless people in downtown Seattle. Student groups negotiate and set each project outcome with the applicable group during the project proposal phase.
Integration of Faith and Learning in Action, Evaluation, and Personal Reflections
The Partner Service Project (PSP) allows students to experience spreading love by providing them with an opportunity to spread love through communicative exchanges somewhere within the larger community. I face a challenge as I want students to select projects that fuel their own personal passion, but since the assignment is designed to encourage faith integration, as an instructor I need to consider impact in varying arenas. Additionally, because this PSP assignment has multiple assessment points, checkpoints of student engagement need to happen multiple times throughout the semester. This section highlights the integration of faith throughout the project (from planning to final assignment), my evaluation and reflections, along with memorable stories from past service projects.
To begin, this assignment is largely a product of my yearning to combine my passions of Christianity, teaching, and Communication scholarship. The combination of these facets allows me to design assignments that teach us how to use our communication to live better in community. Personally, I believe that our Christian calling to love one another is expressed best in John 13:34 (MSG): “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another.” This calling drives Christian interpersonal communication scholars like me to continually find new ways to help us love, understand, support, and forgive one another using communication. For me, this passion was the impetus for the PSP.
Beyond this passion, I must adapt to the needs of new generations of students. I am thankful that I teach in a discipline that provides inspiration and tools to continually adapt my teaching methods. For me, the shift in the way communication is being researched has opened my eyes to new ways of teaching. One of our disciplinary thought leaders has stated that the time has come to take a constitutive approach to studying and teaching communication where instead of focusing on the communication, we switch our focus to identifying and understanding what communication creates. This focus on exploring what communication creates really speaks to my heart—and it informs my teaching.
The magic comes when I mix this disciplinary passion with my Christian beliefs. The Bible teaches that our communication is more than just an exchange of words—our communication is a transformational tool. Ephesians 4:29 (ESV) emphasizes this transforming power: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” With wisdom from my discipline and my faith, I am inspired to see communication as more than a process of simply exchanging words. This vision inspires me to craft assignments like the PSP to expose students to experiences that allow them to think about communication in new and exciting ways by connecting communication, their community, and their faith! My prayer is that students see communication as more than an exchange of messages—communication becomes a tool they can use to transform lives.
The PSP gives students the opportunity to use communication to transform lives. Students work in pairs to develop a plan to enact a service project together that will spread more love into the world and transform people. The PSP requires students to design a service project that incorporates course material (which emphasizes viewing communication and love through the lens of their Christian faith), along with guiding principles from their Christian faith. The students draft a proposal that contains a project description, along with a detailed timeline to accomplish goals. I critically evaluate each proposal and challenge students to consider both issues that may arise and potential outcomes, and I push students to create a deep connection to their faith. The proposal evaluation is accomplished through one-on-one conversations with the students, comments on the proposal, and group discussions in class in which groups partner together to offer suggestions and critique the project ideas.
The PSP timeline is relatively short—half of the semester. I assign this project during the first week, and the students must have the project complete in time to do their project presentations before Spring Break. I assign partners during week one by asking students to randomly draw a partner. The pairs work on the proposal during week two, and once the project is approved (usually by the end of week three), each pair of students begins the process of conducting their service project. I mentor the groups to complete their project on time by having weekly check-ins. I also allow short meetings in class for partners to check in with each other and to chat about their final project presentation. The quick timeline ensures that students do not procrastinate.
Once the project gets underway, groups occasionally experience stress. During class, I emphasize that the content students learn helps them love someone even when they do not like them. At least once each semester, I have had to meet with a student or two with complaints about their partner. I use the conflict as a teachable moment and ask students to revisit course content to explore how they might love this person differently. Each time the conflict has been resolved, and the students have learned how to love people through the good and the bad.
After completing the service project, each pair of students creates a presentation and a paper. The paper requires the students to summarize the steps taken, describe the impact on others, connect the project to course concepts, synthesize how faith impacted the experience, and suggest how to love others better because of the project. The students work together to create one paper, which helps them to process the experience together. The students both invest in the paper because the pair both earn the same grade on the paper. Past papers have been a joy to read because students reflect on lessons learned from the experience, on insightful connections to course material, and on what their partner has taught them. (Full disclosure: I often cry when I grade the papers because the student papers denote a beautiful synergy of personal growth, academic learning, faith integration, and community awareness through their papers.)
The final part of the PSP requires pairs to present their project to the class. While presentations are historically stressful for students, I have found that because students have lived this experience together, they are excited to put together a presentation to share their accomplishments. Additionally, because students work together on the project, the presentation pairs look very comfortable talking about their project. The unintended result is that students seem to actually enjoy this public speaking experience.
This PSP effectively integrates faith and learning in my Love and Communication class. This class assignment has yielded successful projects each time. The PSP brings class material alive, encourages reflection on faith, and engages the students in the community. The community itself is impacted, too. I have received glowing reports from areas the students have served.
I have also heard stories of God at work through these projects. My most memorable story comes from an anonymous caller. The caller shared that she encountered one of the PSP teams handing out cookies with scriptures attached. This woman confessed that she had been struggling with recovering from being a victim of domestic violence. She said her struggle made her fearful around tall men, and she had been praying to God to help her heal from her fear. At this point in her story, the young woman started crying on the phone. She shared that the person that handed her the cookie was a tall male. Beyond that, the cookie held just the scripture her heart needed to hear. She said this moment transformed her, and she no longer felt fearful. The young woman shared that she had to work up the courage to call me to tell me her story, but she knew she needed to tell me to never stop assigning these projects because God was doing great things through the service projects. At this point, I prayed for her, and then I promised to never stop doing the PSP as long as I am teaching Love and Communication.
Advice for Future Iterations of the Assignment
In my opinion, a service learning project is a must in at least one of your courses. The outcomes are always beyond what I ever envisioned. Because the projects take quite of bit of time, I have three tips to help you plan your own Partner Service Project:
- Be aware and plan ahead; service projects need your time and attention. To plan, I create a spreadsheet of all of the assignments across all of my classes for the semester. Then, I plan lectures and more involved class discussions for the service project during the least busy times. By selecting a time of the semester that is less busy, I am able to follow up on in-class conversations about the projects without feeling the pressure of my academic schedule. I would also pray for grace and patience as the emails/calls come in from the students. The students need you to guide them, so I make a commitment to always be available to the students—yes, even sometimes responding on Sundays.
- I would recommend doing assessments beyond the proposal, paper, and presentation. To assess student learning relative to real world skills, I use a formative assessment called a Knowledge/Skills Checklist. I create a checklist of skills that I would hope students might have after they complete this assignment. This list will vary based on content you are teaching. I have the students complete the checklist at the beginning of the semester, and then I have the students complete the same checklist again after the project. This assessment provides me with feedback about what students mastered during the project, and what skills I may still need to cover more in depth when I teach the course again.
- My final tip is to trust the process and pray. I pray for the students, I pray for the community that is impacted, and I pray that the Lord uses these projects in amazing ways. I also pray for guidance as I mentor the students through the project.
This Partner Service Project assignment allows students to integrate faith with the course concepts they are learning. The students work in pairs from service project conception through implementation, and at the conclusion of the project, students craft a presentation to showcase their project outcomes to the class. Through the assignments, the student pairs reflect on the project process, explain what they learned about love from the project, examine what course concepts were made clearer because of the project, and extrapolate how faith impacts loving others in society. I have found this assignment to be a great tool to help students integrate content from text books, their faith, and the service project itself. If you are looking for a new assignment to integrate faith, engage your students, and serve the community, I encourage you to try a Partner Service Project. You never know what impactful things God will do through your class!
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