Arnetha Ball, the Charles E. Ducommun Endowed Professor of Education, Emerita, has been awarded the 2020 Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize for making community engagement integral to excellence in teaching and research.
The Roland Prize was established in 2004 with a gift from Miriam Aaron Roland, ’51. Each year, the Haas Center for Public Service honors a faculty member with the award, which is unique at Stanford for its focus on the significant role that public service by faculty can play in higher education – benefiting students, communities and the faculty members themselves.
The Roland Prize presentation, which was postponed due to the pandemic, will follow the Race, Inequality and Language in Education Conference, on Wednesday, Oct. 21.
Through her teaching, service and scholarship, Ball seeks to improve teaching and learning in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. Her research has spanned countries with school systems that serve large numbers of historically marginalized students, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain. Her research illuminates social, cultural and linguistic factors shaping students’ learning – for example, traditions of oral and written expression in African American communities in the United States.
“Arnetha Ball’s scholarship and teaching have inspired and instructed a new generation of educators to seek solutions to the most pressing educational challenges by engaging the communities we serve. Her work and attention to the most vulnerable learners have been transformational,” said Daniel Schwartz, the I. James Quillen Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
Ball’s belief that educators need to understand the cultural contexts and assets of their students inspired her to establish the Race, Inequality and Language in Education (RILE) program at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, a program she co-founded in 2017 and currently chairs. The cross-disciplinary doctoral program expands opportunities for students and faculty to study the profound effects of race, inequality and language on students’ learning and development.
Community engagement central to learning
Ball’s research commitments deeply influence her own teaching practice, where she incorporates volunteer service in schools and youth-serving organizations in all of her courses.
As doctoral candidate Quentin Sedlacek wrote, “Glance at Dr. Ball’s syllabi or step into her classes and you will find her teaching is inextricably linked with volunteer service, from start to finish. These volunteer commitments are not layered on top of academic coursework; they are baked in from the beginning – opportunities for students to apply their new knowledge in service of others, and to thereby construct deeper and more meaningful understandings of their own.”
For Ball, the best way for students to understand the cultural and linguistic assets of young people is to work directly with them. Students in her education courses often find themselves engaged in memorable activities with youth outside the classroom – whether immersed in games at the local Boys and Girls Club, composing rap songs about the digestive system at the nonprofit Mural Music and Arts Project or running a writing program for East Palo Alto youth.
She explained, “We want volunteers to spend time with the kids outside on the schoolyard, go to basketball games, sit down and play word games … so they could understand that kids are quite successful at communicating their ideas within non-school environments. Through community-engaged learning, Stanford students have opportunities to work with youth and young children who may not be considered ‘high achievers’ in the school environment, but are running the programs and demonstrating group leadership at the Boys and Girls Club.”
Ball’s teaching practice is shaped by her pioneering work on teacher education in which she developed a learning model that she has described as “combining theory, best practices and actual work in communities with diverse populations in ways that facilitated their own theory posing and generative thinking.”
This proved to be a powerful framework for teaching both undergraduates and graduate students at Stanford, many of whom remained involved with their partners and projects beyond the course.
In fact, Sedlacek noted, “I know multiple colleagues whose dissertation work grew out of projects they conducted in Dr. Ball’s classes.”
In nominating her for the award, doctoral candidate Efrain Brito wrote, “Dr. Ball’s courses are organized around the fundamental and enduring questions in education – engaging students in community-based research, classroom-based research as a tool for social action and surveying the landscape of urban education in the United States. Her courses equip Stanford students with the frameworks, strategies, tools and understanding that they will need to take on these challenges.”
Serving as a mentor and role model
Ball joined the Stanford faculty in 1999 after seven years on the faculty at the University of Michigan. In 2019 she was elected to the National Academy of Education for her contributions to education research and policy, and she received the National Council on Research in Language and Literacy Distinguished Scholar Award. She is also a fellow and former president of the American Educational Research Association and a past U.S. representative to the World Educational Research Association.
In 2020, Ball was a recipient of the President’s Award for Excellence Through Diversity, honoring her “for giving future educators the frameworks, strategies and tools they need to serve diverse student populations, and for inspiring them to serve these populations through her own enthusiasm, energy and unwavering commitment to service-learning.”
Ball’s success navigating an academic career while maintaining commitments to volunteer service has inspired a new generation of scholars.
Efrain Brito, a doctoral candidate in the RILE program wrote, “As one of her students, I have been inspired to dedicate my own academic pursuits to integrate community, service, research and education for the benefit of society. Dr. Ball’s belief in community-engaged learning and service has provided a roadmap for this work and has fueled my efforts and those of countless other students.”
Reflecting on the importance of mentorship in engaged scholarship, Ball noted, “Each of us works toward social change as part of the mosaic of all those who work toward justice. Regardless of their age, I like to see that light come on in students’ eyes as they realize how important and powerful they are in the endeavor of making this a better world for everyone.”
Brito concluded, “She is a coach and teacher, champion and advocate, mentor and role model – year-round. Her students know that they can be instruments of change in society and they want to be those agents of change.”