Faculty News Archive


Adjusting a Course to Include Community Engagement

When Dr. Robbin Smith (Political Science) first arrived at CCSU in 2007, her 400-level Politics and Human Services class was actually aimed at nursing students, most of whom knew little about American government. “A lot of them were mid-career nurses coming back to school for their BSN,” she says.


But then CCSU formed an independent Nursing Department, and a 400-level political science class just for nurses no longer made much sense (not that health and politics don’t mix!). Dr. Smith set to work rethinking the content of all of her classes with an eye on more than just conveying the basic history and facts about the branches of government. “I wanted my classes to encourage all of my students to participate more in civic life. For most of them that meant simply voting—which they did not do—but for me that’s just a small piece of it all. I want them to get involved in local government and in volunteering.”


Dr. Smith’s work in her classes is a perfect case study of how a professor can retain the core curriculum in a fundamental course but also incorporate experiences that change with each term. For example, in her revamped State and Local Government class, she wanted to add a civic project but knew that most of her students had no background in this sort of work. So she developed a program that moved in stages. First, she had each student report on the activities of a CCSU student organization. Her students had to interview people, research the organization’s history, identify areas where the group wanted to make changes and then even suggest ways to achieve those goals.


In the second half of the term, Dr. Smith became more ambitious and asked each student to report on the activities of an organization or government agency in their community. “They’d come up to me and say, ‘I don’t have the skills to do that,’ but then I’d tell them, well, you just did it for the school organization project.”


The students worked with organizations like a Boys and Girls Club, or helped a town, like Canton’s Zoning Commission, which needed assistance getting up-to-date with existing technology.


In books like Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, authors have reported on the tremendous decline in civic organizations and the social connections they helped people create, not just with their neighbors or families, but also with their larger town or even state. Dr. Robbin Smith’s revamped Political Science classes charge at that problem head on and try to empower the students to do well not just on the project at hand but in the long run as citizens wherever they live once they graduate.


This spring, Dr. Smith, Dr. Sarah Stookey and Dr. Kristine Larsen are spearheading a new initiative, “The Scholarship of Community Engagement: A Learning Community,” which will offer an opportunity for faculty to work with other faculty involved in community engagement projects to discuss strategies and outcomes. The Learning Community will meet twice a month, 8:00 to 9:15 a.m. Wednesdays, with the goal of helping faculty move to the next stage by producing scholarship based on their community engagement work. To learn more, contact Dr. Stookey, Chair Community Engagement Committee, at stookeysab@ccsu.edu by February 14, if you want to participate.


Mary Collins





Professors Clark, French and Butler work with New Britain schools on a special art and education project

They reached nearly 200 New Britain public school fifth graders. They involved two CCSU departments and nearly 100 CCSU students. They teamed with a nonprofit, the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP), with a special mandate to reach children of incarcerated parents.

The outcome: six to seven-foot tall masks produced by the various student groups that reflected their deepest emotions about loneliness, bullying, their dreams to be doctors and actors and more. The fifth graders from Gaffney Elementary School and DiLoreto Magnet School also worked with the CCSU students to stage plays with the masks at Welte Hall in December, 2011.

The project sprang, in part, from Dr. Barbara Clark’s professional work. In her doctoral dissertation, “Echoes from a Child’s Soul: Moral Imagination and Art,” she explored how children perceive the world and release their inner feelings. When IMRP approached her about doing a project in grammar schools that have some children with incarcerated parents, she decided to recruit internationally acclaimed mask artist, Larry Hunt, who came to CCSU and the New Britain schools over several days to create a framework for producing the masks and organizing performances. (For more on Larry Hunt: http://masque-theatre.org/AboutUs/About_Us.html). They wanted to create a “vehicle to get them to directly release their voice using a mask icon,” says Clark, an Associate Professor in Education. The CCSU students also helped their fifth grade groups to write creatively with a focus on organic and intuitive storytelling rather than formal techniques.

“You could see that many of the [ESL] students struggled to write in English but as the weeks went by they did improve. The children were beginning to perceive themselves as writers and artists. We did not see it as a formal lesson but as something that allowed them to play in their own minds.”

They faced considerable obstacles. First, logistics. CCSU students had to get to the schools and the fifth graders had to get to the college campus. All three professors that worked on the project indicated it would be extremely helpful to have vans available to CCSU faculty on short notice for moving groups of a dozen or so students from one place or another. And in the grammar schools themselves, the art teachers had only carts, no art room, which forced the groups to work on the masks in the hallways.

“We just had to make things happen,” says Jerry Butler, an Assistant Professor of Art. “With these sorts of projects, you just need to meet them where they are and take them where they need to go.”

Butler is continuing to follow up with murals at both of the elementary schools based on the students’ writings and masks. The masks themselves will be on display at COMMUNITY CENTRAL, in downtown New Britain, starting February 10, 2012 (the same date of the first Center for Teaching and Faculty Development program—so stop on by the exhibit after the CTFD program).

As the team of professors reflect back on the ambitious fall, 2011 program, they agree that they probably should have worked with one elementary school instead of two; they needed better logistical support from CCSU; they would have allotted more time for professional development for the elementary school teachers they paired with so those teachers could participate more in the program rather than just observe; and, finally, they feel that such major undertakings should be rewarded with some course relief.

The process of assessing learning outcomes is ongoing. Dr Joss French, an Assistant Professor of Education, said the program was especially rewarding for the CCSU students in the education program who are just a term away from their student teaching assignments. The mask project specifically addressed nearly every course and program objective, he says. “Designing curriculum, learning teaching skills, focusing on who they are as teachers—we really pushed the envelope in terms of the skill set we expected them to master.” And Barbara Clark said they are also assessing learning outcomes for the elementary school children. For example, they are comparing the students’ journal writing at the beginning of the term versus after the mask production eight weeks later.

Joss French and Barbara Clark have already published three articles on their work with students and masks and now have a book contract for Hearts and Minds Without Fear: Unmasking the Sacred in Teacher Preparation.

Their project is a wonderful example of professional research, teaching skills, course curriculum and community engagement all melding together in some sort of unpredictable soup to produce an outcome that resulted in important learning opportunities for all involved.

Mary Collins