Enhancing Academic Interests

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ashley Kistler and her Guatemalan collaborator, Sebastian Si Pop, donate their children’s book to a Guatemalan NGO.

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ashley Kistler and her Guatemalan collaborator, Sebastian Si Pop, donate their children’s book to a Guatemalan NGO.

Professor Ashley Kistler discovers the power of engaged research in her work and in her teachings.

For Assistant Professor of Anthropology Ashley Kistler, research isn’t simply about adding to the annals of academia; it is a means by which one can serve the community. “I’ve been involved in community-based research for the last seven years, and I’ve come to realize that it can’t just be research that benefits me as an academic but it must be research that helps meet the needs of the community,” Kistler says.

That’s a belief that has underpinned the work she has done in Guatemala, helping the community of San Juan Chamelco relearn the history they lost during the 36-year civil war. “The Maya were really persecuted for being Maya. They couldn’t speak their language or wear their native dress, and, as a result, a lot of the culture went underground. People stopped being aware of the meaning behind their tradition,” says Kistler, who was interested in understanding this phenomena of lost culture as an anthropologist but also helping the community to reconnect with their past. “A group of people in the community and I have been trying to find ways for them to relearn and have pride in their past.”

Since 2006, Kistler’s research and hands-on work in San Juan Chamelco has resulted in the forming of a collaborative workgroup, the creation of a civic holiday in honor of Aj Poop B’atz’, one of the Maya’s most central historical figures, and the creation of a children’s book, which was written in Spanish and the Mayan language and designed to share his story. More than 500 of these books have been since donated to local school children.

Kistler’s approach is called Collaborative Anthropology, a research dogma that ensures the researcher is doing engaged research and that this research gives back to the community in some way.

“This is my philosophy,” says Kistler, who is currently the book review editor for Collaborative Anthropology journal. This philosophy carries with her in her teaching at Rollins. “I don’t want my students to learn just for their sake but to learn to make a difference in the world. My research in Guatemala has really taught me how important it is to do that.”

Of the six service-learning courses she has taught over the past five years, Kistler feels the most successful was the one she did last spring called The Maya, in which students developed a lecture series for the community about Maya culture. Student teams learned an aspect of the topic—politics, contemporary cultural challenges, or ancient Maya culture —and created 30 to 60-minute lectures to be delivered at senior resident communities in Winter Park and Orlando.

“The students had to become professionals about their specific topic and many had to overcome issues about public speaking. They had to get to know the material more than if they had simply talked about it in class,” says Kistler, who was blown away by how well the lectures were received in the community. “I was really moved by a lot of the comments we got from community members. We got a wide range of responses but one that stands out was from a woman whose father has dementia. He couldn’t remember a lot of details in his life but he could remember the lecture very clearly. He had been a professor in his life and was really stimulated by the topic presented.”

Kistler now designs all of her service-learning projects using the framework of collaborative ethnography. “Doing so helps students to gain first-hand experience in conducting engaged research,” she says. “This project helped students to deepen their knowledge of Maya culture and develop their presentation skills while providing continuing education opportunities for the community. The fact we designed this project collaboratively with our community partners to meet their needs is what made this project a success.”

The Soul of the Classroom

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Sharon Carnahan (in red) sits with a class inside the Child Development & Student Research Center.

“The whole world is the laboratory for my courses.” That’s a belief that has underscored Professor of Psychology Sharon Carnahan’s academic life since 1990, when she taught her very first community engagement course titled The State of Florida’s Children, a course inspired by the work of Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.

“We put students out in the child care community, observing and assessing, then helped them to understand why the overall quality of care in Orange County was substandard,” Carnahan says. “The students were so moved by the struggles of the working poor that they spontaneously organized their own fundraiser and made a major donation of toys and books to a Head Start center in Zellwood.”

Carnahan was struck by her students’ resourcefulness and conviction to make an impact. “That one class hooked me,” says Carnahan, who has taught variations of The State of Florida’s Children course ten times since that inaugural class. “I learned that my students are splendid, resourceful people; that we often underestimate them; and that they burn for a better world.”

23 years later, Carnahan continues to weave the community into everything she does, especially when it comes to being an advocate for children. “I started asking the question; do children in Florida grow up the same whether they are rich or poor, in terms of equal access to things like education, health care, justice, and food?” Carnahan says. “I discovered that they do not. In fact, one in five Florida children lives in poverty, which seriously affects their development.”

That’s an insight that Carnahan says galvanized her focus on Florida’s children, and set the stage for two decades of work dedicated to influencing early childhood care in the state. Along the way, she’s conducted three major grant funded projects involved in raising the standards for early screening identification and developmental screening. She’s been appointed to a statewide taskforce on developmental disabilities and early identification of children at risk. She’s created early intervention best practices that ensure kids don’t reach kindergarten with undiagnosed delays or trauma.

Her work in the realm of human development has spawned consulting work and international travel to the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Rwanda, where she has supported early literacy curriculum, developmental screening, and pre-school education. “These travels have really enriched my teaching here at Rollins,” she says.

And she’s also been the executive director of the Rollins College Child Development and Student Research Center (CDC), a laboratory school devoted to demonstrating the best in early childhood education and supporting early childcare research at Rollins. Through the CDC, Carnahan and her team have allowed more than 1,000 undergraduates to conduct high quality research in all kinds of disciplines ranging from psychology to mathematics to sociology. On any given graduation day, 1 in 10 graduates sitting in the crowd has worked at the CDC in some capacity.

“I believe that ‘curriculum’ is everything that happens to a student at Rollins, from the moment they are accepted to the day they cross the stage at graduation,” Carnahan says. “I plan community-based encounters and service learning as a core component of the curriculum in nearly all of my classes. And it’s been my great fortune to work in a very supportive Psychology Department, and at the CDC, where students observe and work with a diverse group of children, visit their families, collect data, and write case studies.”

Last year, Carnahan developed a partnership with the Orlando Science Center for a research project developed by the National Science Foundation. “The Living Lab” gave a group of 12 Rollins seniors the chance to do hands-on scientific research centered on children’s brain management skills. The students were asked to do a psychology experiment on the floor of the Science Center while explaining their scientific process and findings to the crowd looking on.

“The students worked with 50 children and were able to share how to run an experiment and how we create a hypothesis,” Carnahan says. “And the parents learned about executive functioning. I think they were grateful to the Rollins college researchers for giving them new insight into their child’s development.”

“This experience is truly exporting the CDC training and knowledge out into the scientific community,” Carnahan says. “I send students out into the community all the time as researchers and volunteers, but this was different because we were sharing the process of scientific research. It was studying out loud in front of a crowd.” The partnership has now evolved into a Rollins Conference Course called Sharing our Science.

“For me, much of good teaching is knowing when to get out of the way and let your students be taught by structured experiences, in and out of the classroom,” Carnahan says. “It is also important to provide them with the research and theory they need in order to understand what they see and experience. We bring our prejudices with us like turtles bring their shells. Education is partly about learning to peek out of the shell and see the world as it is.”

Along the way, Carnahan sees students transform their naïve views. “A student may visit a public health clinic and see only ‘fat welfare mothers with unruly children.’ They see, at first, the stereotype,” she says. “But an educated student will know that for every unemployed mother on public assistance, there are 100+ working low-wage service jobs to support their families, and that poor prenatal care, stress, lack of sleep, and family violence contribute a lot to poor behavior in young children.”

Involving the community in her curriculum is second nature now to Carnahan. “Community engagement is the soul of what I do.”

Into Their World

Scott Hewit during a recent teaching trip to Rwanda.

Scott Hewit during a recent teaching trip to Rwanda.

Professor Scott Hewit’s course pairs Rollins scholars with special needs students

It’s been more than 10 years since Associate Professor of Education Scott Hewit launched Teaching Students with Special Needs, an elective course in Rollins’ Education department. Since then, hundreds of Rollins students have peeled back the layers of what it means to have special needs and what it takes to support them.

“The course is probably the only one of its kind here at Rollins,” Hewit says. “Essentially it’s an introductory course in special education that attracts students from a variety of majors outside of Education, including psychology and sociology.”

Each spring, Hewit works with a group of school administrators and teachers to create classroom placement opportunities that allow students to fulfill the field hours required for the class. “Over the course of the semester, students will spend 20-25 hours in the classroom working with students with different types of disabilities, including physical disabilities, learning disabilities, autism, and behavioral issues,” says Hewit, who has found that teachers are delighted to have his students in their class. “They are happy to have an extra pair of hands in their class.”

Besides working one-on-one with a child, Hewit’s students get the chance to analyze the child’s individualized education plan, often collaborating with teachers to plan activities. “Sometimes they meet the parents and come up with ways to help teachers,” Hewit says.

Each week, Hewit sets aside some time for students to share their experiences in terms of the challenges teachers are facing and what strategies seem to be working. The sharing of this cross-section of experiences helps to further enrich the course.

The placements are a win/win for everyone. “The teachers get the benefit of the student who is interested in working with students with special needs. The children get extra attention and instruction time. And the Rollins student benefits because everything they learn during our campus class transfers to the collaborating school.”

“Because I started working with community engagement long before this course, being a professor for me has always involved engaging the community,” Hewit says. “It is different working on a community engagement course with non-education majors, but they bring different perspectives that are refreshing, and help me broaden the course curriculum to accommodate their various interests, strengths and limitations.”

In recent years, Hewit has done a lot of writing on the notion of inclusive schooling. “There is a lot going on in our schools that is challenging to teachers. More and more children are being identified as having special needs and are being placed in the general classroom. That makes the job of the teacher that much more difficult,” Hewit says. “The extent to which we can expose our students to these challenges can impact the extent to which they can influence services in the future.”

Over the years, Hewit has seen a number of students from this course go on to pursue grad school in special education or a career in an organization that advocates for and supports students with special needs. Even those who don’t go on to pursue this career path report that this is one of the most memorable and influential courses of their Rollins career.

“I think there are a few reasons this course is so impactful. First, the actual clinical experience component is key. Students are always very excited to have a meaningful participative component that is well planned and coordinated,” he says. But Hewit also finds that the opportunity to begin to deeply understand the world of students with special needs can be quite moving.

“One of the first assignments in the course is to interview someone they know with a disability. It’s designed to help the Rollins students understand what it means to live with a disability,” he says. “These interviews really move them.”

Throughout the semester, students report back their amazement at how talented the teachers are working with these children. But more importantly, Hewit’s students are delighted and impressed by the progress made by children they work with. “Most Rollins students are so used to learning without disabilities. Most have not encountered grave obstacles in their lives. But the more they work with these children, the more they become so proud and impressed and amazed at the perseverance and determination they possess. The experience stays with them a long time; perhaps forever.”

Reciprocal Learning

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Patricia Tomé, assistant professor of modern languages

Professor Patricia Tomé’s Project Bridge brings students and staff together

If Patricia Tomé, assistant professor of modern languages, knows anything about language study it’s that tutoring is crucial. To that end, she is constantly looking for Spanish speaking individuals in the community to pair her students with. “I don’t have to look far to find them because many work at Rollins in Facilities or with Sodexo,” says Tomé, who makes sure it’s not a one-sided interaction. “I set them up with someone whose first language is not English. The student teaches them an ESL (English as a second language) class and their partner teaches them Spanish.”

This practice worked well for students in her Spanish classes, so Tomé began to see opportunities to formalize and expand the program to include students at Rollins wishing to engage in ESL teaching. Project Bridge was born. Designed as a service-learning program aiming to bridge the communication and interaction gap between students and staff members at Rollins College, Project Bridge utilizes student volunteers who provide one-on-one tutoring sessions to all interested staff members whose first language is not English.

“Myself and Professor James Johnson teach a weekly course, one for basic level students and one for intermediate level students,” Tomé says. The weekly one-hour classes are scheduled during the workday and the 43 participants are given this free hour from Human Resources.

“Then the students registered in my SPANISH 322 (Peoples and Cultures of Latin America) have one weekly meeting with one of the adult students. While they interact in English and work on grammar, vocabulary, and speaking assignments, they also work on their own Spanish language, but furthermore, they have to prepare weekly blogs for the course (SPAN322) in which they find out information about the individual that they are teaching and their respective countries.”

By the end of the semester, students have not only interacted with and connected with the Rollins community at large, but they have learned from them as well.

“By providing personalized tutoring sessions, students are able to teach English to these individuals while learning about that person’s own particular culture and language,” says Tomé, who will be on sabbatical this coming year but has recruited three other faculty members to join Project Bridge. “Volunteers are required to meet with an assigned staff member at least one hour per week throughout the semester, although they are encouraged to do as many hours as possible.”

During this interaction, students provide individualized teaching lessons that target the particular person’s desired learning areas.

“Rollins students are not only given the opportunity to assist in alleviating one of the most difficult obstacles many immigrants face daily—the language barrier—but, by teaching ESL classes, they are also achieving one of Rollins’ goals: creating global citizens who engage in the community,” Tomé says. “The best place to begin this global journey is here, in our own campus with the community that provides services on a daily basis for all of us.”

“I believe engaging the community into my teaching has shaped my curriculum in many ways. More than anything, it validates the material the students are introduced to in class and their interactions with the Latino community sheds light into the Latin American influence here in the U.S., particularly in Florida,” Tomé says. “Since students have to develop both as learners and as teachers with the community projects that they are engaged in during the course, their overall appreciation for the subject matter is greater.” This is something Tomé believes makes them more aware of the quality of work and the level of engagement it takes to be an educator and therefore they seem to react very positively to me as their instructor.

Tomé says this process has made her more aware of how effectively she teaches. “The students will model me whenever they are teaching adults or children. During class time, I always emphasize different aspects of my teaching techniques (how to integrate music effectively, for example) and ask them to apply them during their own teachings.”

At the moment Project Bridge has obtained enough interest and help from the Office of Community Engagement, Sodexo, Facilities, Modern Languages, and Human Resources to make it successful and organic. “It is a sustainable program that can be easily replicated in many communities here in the United States” Tomé says.

In the future, Tomé hopes that such interactions will be more common. “They have the effect of narrowing barriers between the U.S. and Latin America, the individual and the world, students and community members,” she says. “Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges saw it as The Library of Babel, a place that contains all the information necessary to survive all the labyrinths life exposes us to, in every language possible. Rollins becomes that precise library in discovering the different languages. Reciprocating the teaching/learning becomes an engaged commitment vis-à-vis personal growth and cultural diversity.”