Teaching the Teachers’ Teachers: An Example of Engaged Teaching for Individual and Social Change

Franca Ferrari-Bridgers
Queensborough Community College, CUNY, USA


In this article, I report the results of a service-learning (SL) project between northeastern community college students and detained students at a northeastern federal prison. The project fosters a transfer of public speaking and interpersonal communication knowledge from the classrooms to the prison educational center to society at large. This educational collaboration sets an example of how engaged teaching between students, faculty and incarcerated students can bring individual and social changes across different sectors of the population. Individual and social changes were measured by matching students’ reflections and incarcerated instructors’ group discussions with Eyler and Giles’s (1999) expected service-learning outcomes. The analysis of the reflections proves how, even in a short time span such as a semester, service-learning can be a tool for civic engagement and social change.


“I think service-learning has motivated me because I am very excited that I can help people who really need our help and it’s amazing how with a little effort and dedication we can be a ray of light to someone who needs to have at least a little hope in difficult times” (S1).

The words of Student #1 capture, in their simplicity, the essence of service-learning (henceforth SL) pedagogical and civic outcomes: motivation to learn, effort and dedication to serve the community and, most importantly, an understanding that students can become agents of change in their community. The idea that through the experience of SL students can think about themselves as “a ray of light to someone who needs to have at least a little hope in difficult times”exemplifies, in lay words, Dewey’s holistic and Kolb’s transformation approaches on learning. Service-learning, in fact, finds its origin in Dewey’s revolutionary philosophy of continuity, “based on a belief that people, as holistic beings, learn best by engaging mind, body, spirit, experience, and knowledge” (Kezar & Rhoads 2001, p. 162); and it is further developed in Kolb (1984)’s transformational learning, i.e., “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, Boyatzis, & Mainemelis, 2000, p.41).

According to Kolb’s learning cycle, students engaged in SL first, have the concrete experience of providing a service to a third party community partner, and then they reflect upon the experience. Intellectually reflecting upon experiential observations enables students to connect the academic content of their course to the service they provide to the community. Such a connection represents a transformational learning experience that affects students’ intellectual and civic life. Civically, as Jacoby (1996, p.5) states, SL fosters student learning and students’ personal development, because it allows students to experience and promote social justice advocacy. During SL students have the possibility to become social actors, who, according to Bell (2000, p.21), “have a sense of their own agency as well as a sense of social responsibility toward and with others, their society, and the broader world in which we live”. In their new role as advocates, students strive to higher quality learning because they are motivated by being personally accountable for the quality of their course deliverable, i.e., their service to a third party in need.

In the literature, the successful impact of transformational learning and SL on student learning has been well documented, especially among community college students, the target population of this study. In the last twenty years, in fact, pedagogical research has suggested that using High Impact Practices have increased student engagement and success, bringing pedagogical innovation and better quality teaching to community college students (Kuh 2008). McNair and Albertine (2012, p.32) both agree on the value of HIP in community colleges, and assert that “Our society can no longer afford to reserve ‘islands of innovation’ for a select group of students while others, often students traditionally underserved, receive an education more suited to the industrial age”. Though HIP “may not constitute a broadly applicable “silver bullet” for effective undergraduate education” (Seifert et al., 2014, p.557), across all undergraduate student populations, it has been demonstrated that HIPs enhance positive attitudes towards literacy, and cognitive and meta-cognitive critical thinking skills in underserved students (Cruce et al., 2006; Kuh et al., 2008; Loes, Pascarella & Umbach, 2012). Many studies (see Roney et al., 2013, Rosario et al., 2013, among many others) reported positive trends as far as retention, persistence, graduation rate and academic progress of community college students enrolled in HIP courses. The results of several studies conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities on community college students argued for the connection between Service-learning participation and increased learning by showing that Service-learning students scored statistically higher in five out of six measured learning outcomes: critical thinking, communication, career and teamwork, civic responsibility, and academic development and educational success.

In this paper, I look at the individual and social impact a SL project between a northeastern community college and a northeastern federal prison had on college students and incarcerated men. The project fostered a transfer of public speaking and interpersonal communication knowledge from the students’ classrooms to the prison educational center to society at large. I argue that this educational collaboration sets an example of how engaged teaching between students, faculty and incarcerated men can bring individual and social changes across different sectors of the population. In different capacities, both students and incarcerated men acted as agents of individual and social change while being personally transformed through SL by becoming self-aware of their individual transformation at academic and civic levels. Just by being at one of the two ends of a SL project, students changed their individual prejudices and social attitudes towards incarcerated people; while detainees reported to have improved their personal relationships in and out the correctional facility as a consequence of communication style changes.

The paper is organized as such. Firstly, I provide a description of the SL project in terms of its population, structural design and methodology used to collect the data. Then I present and analyze the students’ data. Finally, I discuss how the data supports the thesis that SL can bring individual and social changes, not only among the students, but also across different sectors of the population.

Project Design

During the course of three semesters (Spring 2013, Fall 2013 and Spring 2014), three different sections of Public Speaking flipped their roles from students to teachers: researching, planning, designing and creating a series of micro-lectures on how to improve public speaking and interpersonal communication skills for incarcerated men while reentering society. More precisely, students created college course material in the following subjects: (1) public speaking; (2) listening skills; (3) interpersonal communication and; (4) audience analysis.

Community college faculty, on the other hand played a liaison role between students and detained men by visiting the correctional facility and teaching the material students prepared. In turn, by using the students’ teaching material, detained men who volunteered as instructors at the Prison educational center, organized communication workshops for other incarcerated men currently enrolled in reentry programs. These workshops were designed to help detained students improve verbal and non-verbal communication skills when dealing with real life situations, such as communicating to family members, staff, potential employers, judges, guards and police officers.

One cornerstone of this project’s design was to ensure that no “intellectual vacuum” existed between our college students and our community partners. I wanted to avoid the surge of any “clear divide between the knowers (the scientists, experts, and intellectuals) and the known (the community members seen as an object of study, not a source of knowledge)” (Peterson, 2009, p.548). Therefore, community college students and faculty made sure that the transfer of knowledge, the students’ deliverables, were tailored to the needs of the SL partners. During visits to correctional facility, the college faculty and the incarcerated instructors spent time critiquing the students’ work to improve quality and effectiveness. In this way, the detained instructors had the opportunity to provide meaningful feedback to the students’ work. Students valued such feedback because it helped them to reflect back on the quality of their work.

Pedagogically, this SL project was built on several key elements of High Impact Practices described in Kuh (2008), Brownell and Swaner (2010) and Kuh and O’Donnell (2011). In particular, it satisfied the following four key elements described in Kuh and O’Donnell (2011, p.10).

  • “Significant investment of time and effort by students over an extended period of time;”
  • “Experiences with diversity, wherein students are exposed to and must contend with people and circumstances that differ from those with which students are familiar;”
  • “Opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world-applications;” and
  • “Public demonstration of competence.”

The community college students worked intensively in groups for over a month at the creation of the teaching material for the instructors at the correctional facility. They researched, planned, created and recorded a series of three-five minute voiced-enhanced Power Point lessons. Students spent time brainstorming how to choose the right vocabulary for their target audience, as well as the right image/visual to accompany the text. They were compelled to practice their speech delivery skills (fluency, volume, rate) before recording each slide, in order to arrive at the creation of an impeccable product.

Students’ teaching material was presented by the students themselves to the entire college community during various students’ exhibitions. This public speaking experience gave the opportunity to put to practice all of their public speaking skills, ensuring that the overall community college audience understood the educational and civic value of their project. In addition, the fact that students needed to tailor the deliverable to a specific underserved sector of the population made students aware of the real world use of their academic work. Detained instructors advised college students to create lessons for an audience whose level of education was comparable to that of an 8th grade student. College students had to carefully choose the right vocabulary for their Power Point presentations, trying to find a balance between simplifying the textbook language and introducing key speech terminology.

Finally, before participating in this SL project, the students had never interacted with or volunteered services to incarcerated men, nor had the instructors at the northeastern facility ever had the opportunity to collaborate with college students.


The two populations involved in this project were the northeastern community college students and the northeastern federally detained instructors.

According to the Queensborough Community College 2013-2014 Fact book, there were 3396 college students enrolled as firstime freshman and 899 as advanced transfer students. Our community college is one of the most diverse campuses nationwide, with 30% Hispanic, 22% Asian, 22% Black and 18% White students. Our students come from 143 countries, speak 84 different languages with 26% of the student population born outside of the U.S.A. Over 44% of freshmen in 2013 spoke a language other than English at home. As far as remediation, 68% of the freshmen were mandated to take remedial math, 22% remedial reading and writing. Students’ ages vary between 18 to 24 years old. Most of our students come from local high schools in Queens and, with few exceptional high school club experiences or individual charity donations, most of our students have never volunteered or been part of a non-profit association providing services to people in need.

The group of men at the northeastern facility consisted of 10 adults between the ages of 28 to 60 years, with longterm sentences, whose roles inside the facility were that of instructors and mentors of younger incarcerated men. Specifically, as instructors, the men were running a speech/debate club inside the correctional facility. In order to improve the academic quality of their course, they needed a validated college speech curriculum, a series of lesson plans, updated textbooks and Power Point lessons of fundamental speech communication topics. The instructors felt that a collaboration with community college students and faculty would have validated their speech club academically and added credibility to their program and instructors. Though the majority of instructors were good public speakers, they did not have an academic background to back up their experiencebased knowledge.

Expected service-learning outcomes and students’ reflections

Eyler and Giles’s survey of over 1500 students across the country, as described in their 1999 book “Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning?” identifies a series of possible service-learning outcomes that students are expected to achieve by the end of the service-learning project. I took into account six SL outcomes as indicators of individual and social changes among our students and, indirectly, also among SL partners. Because all social change is usually preceded or accompanied by individual change, it is impossible to draw a clear line between these two types of change within the students’ narratives. Therefore, in this analysis, I labelled the changes in students’ selfawareness of his/her knowledge, competence, personal growth and academic performance as “individual.” I labelled the changes that help SL participants to transform their perspective/attitude towards an issue or group of people as “individual and social.”

Table 1: Service-Learning Outcomes and Level of Change

1 Higher academic engagement (Gallini & Moely, 2003) and motivation (Simons & Clearly, 2006) than nonSL learning students given the more challenging course dynamics. Students in Service-learning projects have been found to be more academically engaged than nonSL learning students. Individual
2 Student’s acknowledgement of Service-learning as an experience that offers the students the possibility for personal development, for acquiring new interpersonal competence and exposure to diversity. Individual
3 An attested or demonstrated increase in self-knowledge and self-competence (see also Simons & Cleary, 2006). Individual
4 Tolerance and acceptance of diversity with consequent reduction of stereotypes and increases the understanding of the others (see also Simons & Clearly, 2006). Individual & Social
5 A new sense of self-efficacy that the students gain by putting in practice their learning and civic engagement after the course is completed (see also Bernacki & Jaeger, 2008). Individual & Social
6 Broader understanding of the social issues at hand that enables students to move from their individualized explanations about an issue to broader and more systemic, taking into account the multiple causes of inequality in a community (Moely et al., 2002). Individual & Social

Moreover, in support of Hatcher, Bringle, and Muthiah’s statement “through reflection, the community service can be studied and interpreted, much like a text is read and studied for deeper understanding” (2004, p. 39), I used students’ reflections to measure individual and social changes in the students themselves. As part of the Teagle Foundation project Student Learning for Civic Capacity: Stimulating Moral, Ethical, and Civic Engagement for Learning that Lasts, all community college instructors were asked to use the same set of reflection prompts. All the reflection prompts were derived from the AAC&U Essential Learning Outcomes and then they were reviewed and revised for accuracy by five experts of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. I did not distribute reflection prompts to the incarcerated men, but during the visits at the correctional institute, the faculty engaged the men in discussions about the SL project and its educational and individual benefits in the incarcerated men’s everyday lives inside the institution. These group discussions were organized in accordance with several tenets of the Participatory Action Research (Kemmis & McTaggart 1988) which are defined as “a collective, self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices” (p.5). In particular, McTaggart’s PAR tenet #4 was at the core of our service-learning project:

Participatory action research establishes self-critical communities of people participating and collaborating in the research processes of planning, acting, observing and reflecting. It aims to build communities of people committed to enlightening themselves about the relationship between circumstance, action, and consequence and to emancipating themselves from the institutional and personal constraints which limit their power to live by their legitimate, freely chosen social values (McTaggart, 1997).

In our specific case, tenet #4 was put in action during each visit at the correctional facility. The college faculty and the facility instructors reflected on the students’ material and devised ways to tailor this material for the design of the public speaking workshops for young incarcerated students. The educational goal behind the public speaking workshops was to help young incarcerated men involved in the reentry program to improve their interpersonal communication skills while interacting with their peers, staff and family members. Moreover, the facility instructors participating in our SL were asked to plan and execute a persuasive speech following the students’ teaching material. During this assignment, incarcerated instructors had the opportunity to reflect, plan and put into action what they learned while creating the speech. At the end of this series of handson workshops, the college instructor led a discussion to find out what individual and social changes internees experienced as the result of SL.

Data analysis

In this section I will look at how the students’ reflection and the incarcerated instructors’ group discussions meet the aforementioned expected service-learning outcomes. I assume that the service-learning outcomes are indicators of academic, individual and social change.

SL Outcome #1: High academic engagement and motivation to the course/learning

At academic and pedagogical level, on average, SL students received higher marks for their performance in their final oral exam than non-SL students in the same semester. Though this trend has not been systematically validated, I believe that SL students had more opportunity to practice their public speaking skills in a variety of settings, e.g., college fairs and group discussions, and therefore felt more confident during their final oral exam. Moreover, looking at the students’ reflections of S1 and S2 below, reversing their role from students to teachers, and being socially engaged by helping others through their academic work motived students to be more committed to their learning.

S1: “I think this idea has motivated me to study more.”

S2 “I feel really committed to this project and to learn more.”

I believe that the motivation and commitment to the course because of SL might be two of the factors that have pushed students to improve for their final oral exam.

As far as the correctional facility partners, during a series of group discussions about the effectiveness of the provided service, many of the SL participants stated they had learned new communication skills and improved their public speaking delivery skills. While discussing the SL project, the majority of participants said to have learned the following communication skills: being able to stay on topic while speaking; improving how to get points across while communicating with others; being more credible while speaking with others in a group; improving listening skills and learning how to write an informative and persuasive speech.

Individual change SL outcomes 2 & 3

The following table represents a sample of students’ reflections and incarcerated instructors’ opinions pertaining to individual changes through SL. Students’ changes range from self-awareness of personal development and interpersonal competence during group activities that promote equity in the community (S4, S7, S9) to self-knowledge and self-competence at the potential to feel empathy for the community around us (S2, S4). On the other hand, incarcerated instructors’ changes reflected their self-competence as public speakers and self-awareness of the positive effects of new interpersonal communication skills while communicating with family members, staff and other incarcerated men.

Table 2: SL Outcomes 2 & 3

Service-learning Outcome Student Reflection Internees Group Discussion
#2: Student’s acknowledgement ofService-learning as an experience that offers the students possibility for personal development, for acquiring new interpersonal competence and exposure to diversity S4: This ongoing engagement will impact my personal life, work and community by making me feel comfortable in a group activity and participating in different activities for the development of the community.

S9: Speaking among groups and individuals strengthened my commitment to equity by learning to use proper and appropriate speaking skills in order to engage in community services.

S7: SL shows me different perspectives. I was able to understand a different point of view from my group members respectively.

Incarcerated instructors believed they had improved their public speaking and interpersonal communication skills, not only for their public speaking class, but they also noticed improvement while interacting with family and staff or mentoring other detained men enrolled in different reentry programs.


# 3: An attested or demonstrated increase in self-knowledge and self-competence S2: Service-learning helped me to be more aware of this {helping people through education} and make a difference in the lives of others.”

S8: SL will allow me to feel more empathic and understanding to the people around

Incarcerated instructors indicated to have notably reduced their fear and improved personal confidence while speaking in public.


Individual and Social changes SL outcomes 4, 5, 6

The following three tables contain students’ reflections on their individual and social changes experienced through SL. As stated above, these changes took place first in the students’ perception of an issue or group of people and, then reverberating their effects at social level. For instance, SL outcome 4 represents the individual students’ change of attitudes/stereotypes or misconceptions towards incarcerated people. As shown in Table 3, all the students directly stated that SL has changed their perception of incarcerated people. SL allowed them to understand that many incarcerated men worked hard to improve their life in an attempt to pay for the committed crime. As far as the incarcerated partners discussing the importance of choosing audience appropriate topics and language, led many to reflect on ways to break racial and language barriers inside the facility and on how to integrate larger sectors of the prison population into the public speaking workshops.

Table 3: SL Outcome 4

SL – Outcome Student Reflection Internee Group Discussion
#4: Tolerance and acceptance of diversity with consequent reduction of stereotypes and understanding the others


S2: My perception of inmates did change by doing this project […].

S3: After Service-learning, my perception towards prisoners has changed drastically. […] This project opened my eyes […]

S5: The SL project impacted me by keeping me aware of people living differently than me and by making me realize that I should not judge people.

S6: This SL project did strengthen my commitment to civic and moral responsibility by teaching me about life in prison and changing my perspective.

S11: SL helped me to understand the efforts of the inmates to better their lifefor the crime they committed.

Northeastern instructors discussed the possibility of integrating the non-English speaking population in their speech clubs as a way to break language and racial barriers between different sectors of the inmate population.

Moreover, many incarcerated men realized the importance of selecting speech topics and vocabulary that are audience appropriate and do not offend any speech club member.


The individual change of perception towards incarcerated men is also reflected in SL outcomes # 5. In Table 4 students wrote about the civic effects of their changed perspectives. The cathartic experience of changing perceptions towards one of the most forgotten and exorcised sectors of the population, empowered students to become agents of change for the entire community (S1, S4). Students actually were able to see that the community around them is in need of help (S6, S11).

As far as the incarcerated men, the individual changes experienced through SL have motivated them to teach what they have learned from the SL project to other men in the facility.

Table 4: Civic Effects

SL- Outcome Student Reflection Internee group discussion
#5 A new sense of self-efficacy that the students gain by putting in practice their learning andcivic engagement after the course is completed S1: Now that I know that we can help people in this way, I want to spread the message to people who are around me, so that gradually we can integrate this idea to our students’ life.

S4: This ongoing engagement has strengthened my current commitment to civic and moral responsibility for equity.

S6: We learned about inmates and their hard work to help each other. This really changed my perspective of life in jails and made me want to help out more in the community.

S11: SL made me see that the community is in need of resources just like how the inmates need resources/material for their learning. A little help goes a long way.

Participating in this project has helped incarcerated men to realized how communication skills can bring positive change in real life situations. It has motivated them to use what they have learned to help other incarcerated men or family members to do better.


Finally, SL outcome 6 shows how students have gained a broader and more articulated access to education and how they can be an agent of change in the lives of others (S2). Through education incarcerated men can be integrated back into society (S7) and through learning communication skills, they can improve the way they communicate with others in and out the correctional facility (S2, S11).

Table 5: Access to Education

Service-learning Outcome Student Reflection
# 6 Broader understanding of the social issues at hands that allows students to be able to move from their individualized explanations about an issue to a more broader and systemic that takes into account the multiple causes of inequality in a community (Moely et al., 2002) S2: Service-learning helped me to be more aware of this [limited college education access] and make a difference in the lives of others.

S7: The SL project helped me to find ways in which people who are confined can be better integrated back into the community.

S9: This project made me more sensitive to the fact that people are trying to change their lives in jail. Also they need education on how to communicate with others so that when they come out they will be able to express themselves to the people around them.”

S2: “My perception of inmates did change by doing this project […]They might have repented of what they have done, or may not have, but having them learn and do something productive with their lives is a way of starting over.[SIC]”

S3: This project opened my eyes […] Education is something that should be available to everyone worldwide. Service-learning helped me to be more aware of this and make a difference in the lives of others.”



One of the central questions Meers (2014, p.45) posed in his article is whether “participation in service-learning supports increased student civic engagement in the long term.” The results of Myers-Lipton’s (1996) series of quasi-experimental studies provide an affirmative answer to the above question by showing a modest increase in civic engagement and civic responsibility with a reduction in prejudice and what the authors defined as “modern racism”. Similar results are confirmed by other longitudinal studies, such as Kiely (2004, 2005) and Moely & Ilustre (2013).

Given the cross-sectional nature of our project, it cannot be verified whether students actually engaged in long-term civic services once they completed our course. However, because the reflections represent students’ responses over the course of a few semesters, the content similarity of the elicited answers can be considered as a measurement of students’ individual and social changes. If one takes students’ words as predictors of their future behaviors, the analysis of the students’ reflections provided in the previous section can be considered as evidence that our SL project helped students to increase their sense of civic engagement and civic responsibility. The students’ reflections clearly show that being part of SL has helped students to change their opinion of inmates and their lives in prison, reducing common prejudices and stereotypes about detained people.

Looking first at the individual changes, outcome #2 refers to students’ individual personal development through participation in service-learning. Students’ reflections reveal students’ understanding of the civic application of the course content. The reflections suggest that breaking the barrier of studying alone by actively participating in group activities not only impacted the students by showing them “different perspectives” but it also helped students to understand that through learning they can “engage in community services” and “participate in different activities for the development of the community.” In this context, SL acts as a motivator for students to become active key players in their communities.

As far as outcome #4, students’ responses indicate that students changed their views about inmates and their lives in prison. This individual change can be interpreted as a social change as well. As a result of SL students now have a new understanding of inmates’ need for education and how education can help incarcerated men to change their lives. As S2 says “My perception of inmates did change by doing this project […] They might have repented of what they have done, and in some maybe not, but having them learn and doing something productive with their lives is a way of starting over [sic].”

All the students’ reflections support the claim that being part of service-learning can help to reduce stereotypes and increase one’s understanding towards marginalized groups. Reflection after reflection reiterates the fact that the experience of service-learning changed the students’ perceptions towards inmates [S2, S3,S6] but also helped students realize that they should not judge people without understanding their conditions [S5]. Moreover, as a result of helping others and understanding their circumstances, students became “more empathic” towards people around them [S8]. Most importantly, students had the opportunity to glimpse into the inmates’ lives, understanding that inmates try “to better their lives” as a redemptive process “for the crimes they committed” [S11].

A step further in the development of a commitment between the students and their civic engagement is visible in the reflections related to outcome #5. After having finally experienced that their academic learning can be concretized in a deliverable for a third party in need, “Now that I know that we can help people in this way” [S1], students reflected on their renewed sense of “commitment to civic and moral responsibility for equity” [S4]. For instance, realizing that “the community is in need of resources” [S11] compelled students “to help out more in the community” [S6].

Personal empowerment, the ability to produce a deliverable through a learning experience, fuels students to become more committed to their communities. The students’ reflections serve as a tool to measure how Service-learning changes students’ perspectives regarding their individual roles in society. The individual reward of being part of SL is evident in the students’ awareness that they can “make a difference in the lives of others.”

Finally, students’ social change can be captured in their understanding of the big picture of the educational condition of detained individuals and what our civic society can do to reduce unequal access to information, as depicted in outcome #6. Students’ reflections suggested an understanding of the active role detainees are taking in order to change their lives while in prison [S9], but at the same time they understood that having access to education can help to “be better integrated back into the community” [S7]. Moreover, students recognized the importance for incarcerated people to learn communication skills in order to “be able to express themselves to the people around them once out of jail”. [S9]

As far as the individual and social changes among detained instructors, SL encouraged participants to apply the newly-acquired academic knowledge to their everyday lives and propelled in them new levels of self-growth and self confidence in their ability to communicate in a more positive manner with different sectors of the population. Individual changes were reflected in the detainees’ comments about improved public and interpersonal communication skills that helped them to better the quality of their communication with other incarcerated men, staff members and family members. Also they expressed a newly acquired self-awareness of reduced fears and increased confidence while speaking in public. Moreover, the instructors discussed possible ways to integrating the nonEnglish speaking population in their speech club in order to break language and racial barriers between different sectors of the prison’s population.

At the social level participating in service-learning helped incarcerated students to realize how interpersonal communication skills brought positive change in real life situations and motivated them to use what they learned to help other detainees or family members to do better. Moreover, one of the goals of the instructors’ public speaking workshop was to help participants to improve verbal and non-verbal communication skills when dealing with real life situations such as talking to court and police officers, staff and potential employers.

As Frank, Omstead and Pigg (2012) state, differently from general higher education and vocational programs in prison, service-learning can help incarcerated people to see themselves and their lives “through the lens of higher education. When this happens the prisoner’s journey through post-secondary education evolves from being simply an educational experience into a transformative learning process” (p.31). This transformative learning process can be considered a key component in the re-integrative process back into the society. As abundantly pointed out in the literature, studies indicate that education is one of the tools able to transform incarcerated people into “engaged citizens” and to reduce recidivism (Chappell, 2004; Foley a Gao 2004, Erisman a Contardo, 2005). Education, in fact, increases self-esteem, critical thinking, and self-discipline, all attributes that combined “reduce the likelihood of a released prisoner coming back into conflict with the law” (Collins, 2008, p.78).

Our last remark refers to the particular structure of the SL project presented here. In the literature the typical model for SL involves reciprocal, face-to-face relationships between students and their partners in the community. By being exposed to unfamiliar circumstances, interacting and working together with diverse community partners, students gain a better understanding of the civic or social issues at stake. As Neururer & Rhoads (1998, p.322) state, service-learning “serves as a vehicle for connecting students and institutions to their communities and the larger social good, while at the same time instilling in students the values of community and social responsibility.”Moreover, as Jacoby (2009) suggests, personal and direct contact with the community partner helps students to develop a new “civic sensitivity” and sense of empathy that motivates students to become more engaged in the SL project.

However, for the SL project presented in this paper students never had direct contact with their partners, although students’ reflections showed a growth in empathy and a new understanding for the life conditions of their community partners. Lake and Jones (2008, 2012) identify four different approaches to SL: direct service with person to person or face to face interaction; indirect service that is not offered face to face but it is directed to the community in general; advocacy service whose goal is to raise awareness on public interest issues and; research service that focuses on collecting and presenting data. Our SL falls in the indirect service category not only because the students and their partners never met in person, but also because the purpose of creating a communication curriculum was directed to the entire community of the facility, incarcerated instructors, students and staff.

In the literature there are many successful examples of indirect service-learning projects, such as sending cards, handmade gifts or letters to hospices, children’s hospitals, veteran’s hospital or helping the instructors to design curricula, assessments or other pedagogical material for different types of institutions (Connor-Linton, 1995). Though students are not directly involved in fieldwork, indirect service-learning projects offer students the opportunity to learn about specific sectors of the community through the teacher’s research or social agenda and to apply their course knowledge for the creation of a service or product needed by the community partner. Most importantly, in the process of designing and creating this product/service, the lack of personal contact with the partner forces students to critically analyze the course contents and organize the information according to the student’s own understanding of how theories and knowledge can be applied to the needs of the community in question. As Connor-Linton (1995) states, indirect service-learning “sacrifices the immediacy of the student’s community service experience, but may enhance other pedagogical values of service-learning”; students have, in fact, the opportunity to “play different pedagogical roles” and different “service roles” such as research assistants and curricula designers in the case of QCC students (p.108).

Moreover, as Gurthrie & McCraken (2010) indicate, at times, a measure of anonymity between the SL parties might allow students to find their own unbiased voices to understand unconventional or taboo topics. As in the case of QCC students, the lack of physical contact between them and their incarcerated partners had the effect to “defuse” what Merryfields (2003, p.160), calls “triggers of difference”. Students had the opportunity to really think about the educational value of their services without being affected by biases and fears of having to enter a correctional facility and having contact with its ostracized  population As the reflections suggested, in absence of “triggers of differences” QCC students were able to reason against their own personal biases, to understand the value and the impact of their work on their partners and to see their partners in a new light: a light of redemption and hope.

Finally, in indirect service-learning project, the instructor plays a vital role not only because he/she has the responsibility to educate the students about their community partner, but also because he/she needs to create a sort of virtual environment that enables an open and ongoing communication between the parties that operate from different and remote locations. The instructor facilitates the dialogue between the parties through asynchronous discussions that focus on both the curricular objectives and the civic and social purposes of SL. However, being just a facilitator of the dialogue, the instructor needs to develop a teaching approach that fosters autonomy and collaboration between the parties (Gurthrie & McCraken, 2010). In other words, the instructor acquires the role of “facilitator of learning,” offering himself/herself as a resource, but at the same time fostering a student/partner-centered “educational setting,” where both parties “discover what it means to be autonomous, spontaneous, creative, and self-disciplined in their efforts to reach their own goals” (Rogers, 1967, p.57).

Independently of the type of approach to SL an instructor adopts with his/her students, this study shows that what matters most to students is to be able to deliver a service to a community partner by using what they learnt in class. Whether the service provided touches directly or indirectly the community in need, students involved in SL feel connected to that community through the service they provide. As long as the focus is on how to provide a service through a learning experience, I believe there is no one way or one best practice only in service-learning. All the four approaches to SL described above can be all equally effective if they enable students to transform their course knowledge into a concreate and deliverable service.


As the analysis of the students’ reflections show, SL acted as a vehicle of individual and social change among both populations. Students changed their individual and social stances towards incarcerated men and better understood the role education plays or may play in the life of these men. The incarcerated instructors on the other side reported to have changed the way they communicate with people inside and outside the prisonand to have developed a new sensitivity for sectors of the prison population that are excluded by the educational activities because of language barriers or cultural differences.

Despite the lack of direct communication between students and the prison instructors, the possibility to be all connected through the threads of service-learning made sure that the learning process was more than a mere memorization of facts or concepts, but became an instrument of personal and civic change. As a final note, while Student#1 felt that SL allowed her to be ‘a ray of light in the life’ of the incarcerated men, one of the instructors, when asked to reflect on the effects of the students’ material on his life, concluded his statements exclaiming: “Awesome! This public speaking training is a ray of sunshine for us.”


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About the Author

Dr. Ferrari-Bridgers is an assistant professor in speech and communication at Queensborough Community College. Dr. Ferrari-Bridgers’ research interests are in the field of linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive sciences and listening assessments. From 2012 to 2014 Dr. Ferrari-Bridgers collaborated through Service-learning with a northeastern federal correctional facility. In 2014, Dr. Ferrari-Bridgers was awarded by the Department of Justice and the federal correctional facility for her Service-learning work. Since 2015, Dr. Ferrari-Bridgers has been leading a series of college preparatory workshops for incarcerated students at Edgecombe Correctional Facility in New York City.

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.