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students acting out: re/approaching service-learning

Okay, so it’s been a pretty long time since I’ve sit down to write to this blog. Life keeps happening, and that’s a good thing, but sometimes it happens so quickly and with such intensity that it’s hard to find the time to pause for reflection–even though it is so very important. Historically, this time of year is always busy for me–finishing up the spring semester, trying to keep on top of work, enjoying the distractions of spring, and so on. This year is not much different, except that I have a few new interests and preoccupations–and maybe a challenge or two–that are keeping me busy and away from the glow of my computer screen–again, a good thing.

They were overwhelmed (or maybe lazy and immature), didn’t know where to start, and ultimately let their inertia get the best of them.

Work has been very challenging and fun this semester, as I’m giving this whole “service learning” thing another whirl. I tried it last spring with disappointing results. Students lacked motivation and interest; they never got past their own inertia and generally had an attitude of indifference that sucked the life right from me. I remember joking with my office mates, saying, “This is the semester I have finally lost faith in humanity.” I was joking, but truly I felt demoralized in a way I had never felt before in my teaching career. It was a hard semester.

One year later, I’m taking my lessons learned and enjoying a much better experience. This semester I’m doing a much better job of “scaffolding” to use a bit of pedagogical parlance. Last year, I threw the students into the thick of it, asked them right from the start to begin designing and implementing service–and to a larger degree–“activism” projects of their own. They were overwhelmed (or maybe lazy and immature), didn’t know where to start, and ultimately let their inertia get the best of them. It was a miserable failure in most instances. The success I am enjoying so far this year is due to an adjusted strategy that incorporates the following:

  • Embracing “service” rather than “activism” (which proved too scary for most students last time)
  • Leading by example and having a boatload of fun myself (while pulling the students along for the ride)
  • Setting goals bigger than the traditional academic experience and trusting that learning will come from it
  • Ensuring these “bigger” goals are met (even if a lot of the students flake out)

maybe “service” first, and “activism” later

The first adjustment I made this semester was to focus on “service” before “activism.” Last time, I really pushed this idea of activism–of making important changes to the structures in place that create or perpetuate the problems to begin with–rather than just attending to the symptoms of the problem through service. I believe both service and activism are important (and, in many ways, service is a kind of activism), but most students weren’t quite ready for the level of initiative and the resistance faced by the outside world when doing “activist-learning.”

Service comes from a place of kindness and responsibility, rather than from resistance and upheaval.

Service-learning is easier (but still not easy). Service feels better than activism in many ways because nobody fights one’s desire to serve. In fact, in most cases, people welcome you and thank you for the work you’ve done. It feels good to serve–unlike “-isms” which are hard pills to swallow. Even the word “activism” carries a connotation that doesn’t sit well with some students. They don’t fully understand the nuance of the term and generally have negative associations with the word. Again, this is where service feels very different for students. It comes from a place of kindness and responsibility, rather than from resistance and upheaval. I still want to push on toward greater activism in my classes, but for now I’ll settle for service. Good things are getting done. That’s what I wanted more than anything.

leading by example

Service and overall civic engagement is important to me. This is why I’ve made it a focus in my classes; however, I’d fallen out of the habit of getting involved in these activities as much as I would like. This semester, I vowed to show my students how it’s done. For the first half of the semester, I put together a handful of service-learning outings–each of which I would attend and participate in–and asked students to plan to attend at least one of these experiences. If their schedules didn’t allow them to attend any of the several events I arranged, they would have to plan and follow-through with a service-learning field trip of their own. (Most found a way to go to one that I had arranged.) The idea here was to pave the way for the students. All they had to do was show up, participate in the service experience, and write the critical reflection that followed. Ideally, in a service-learning setting, students would design their own experiences based on their own interests and areas of concern. That would come later.

Teacher/student roles fell away and we were working together on a single mission to help people in dire need.

During this initial experience, students got the chance to feel what it’s like to participate in a service project and to enjoy the sense of classroom community that comes from working together. It was kind of neat to work side-by-side with students outside of the classroom. Whether we were packing food in teams at Feed My Starving Children, boxing pasta at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, or problem solving most efficient ways to sort shoes at the Share Your Soles Foundation, teacher/student roles fell away and we were working together. It was humbling for me as we set our focus not on grades and lesson-plans but rather on a single mission to help people in dire need.

setting bigger goals

With each passing year, I inch closer and closer to a teaching/learning experience that has very little to do with grades, evaluation, “products” exclusive to classroom, carrot-and-stick tactics, and anything that resembles traditional notions of school. The step I took this semester might have been more mental on my part than much else, but it is making a big difference. Since taking on this service-learning thing, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of “action.” About a year and a half ago, I became really frustrated thinking about all the time and energy spent in classrooms across college campuses (and schools) everywhere. And for what? Students shuffle about, take their tests, get their grades, and–if they are lucky–graduate. Filling in bubbles with number two pencils (or writing essays that no one but a teacher would ever read) struck me as a short-sighted waste of time. With the world in such crisis, I felt incredibly irresponsible sipping my coffee in front of my classes leading discussions that never got beyond the hypothetical. It was time for a change. I wanted our time together to result in more. I wanted it to be immediately useful not just to those in the classroom, but to people in our communities–people in need. At the heart of service-learning is the idea that we can both learn (and meet curricular goals) and act in ways that are truly meaningful and helpful to others all at once. So this is what I had set out to do.

Filling in bubbles with number two pencils struck me as a short-sighted waste of time.

This shift that I most recently made in my approach is a significant mental shift further toward the immediate action. My early experiments with service learning kept teaching goals at the forefront of my mind. Honestly, this semester, I am keeping the service goals at the forefront of my mind instead. I want our class to accomplish something of importance for our community. I want the results to be measurable and real–and not worry about the “school” stuff so much. The result? Students are engaged, scurrying to keep up, and honestly I believe they are learning and performing well academically even though the focus is now on other, bigger things. When you’re in the world, working with others, doing important work–the learning just happens.

meeting those goals with or without the students

There are three structural components to the service-learning work we are doing as a class this semester. During the first half of the semester, as I mentioned above, I arranged service-learning experiences for the students to sign-up for and attend. Easy-peasy. For the second half of the semester, it was the students’ turn. I offered resources and support, but ultimately, they had to identify or create service-learning opportunities of their own and follow-through with them. (The idea was after seeing me set things up during the first half of the semester, they could do it for themselves during the second half.) The final capstone to this semester is a service-learning/volunteer fair called “ACT OUT: Education through Action.” At this event, students showcase their service-learning experiences and research through a poster session. The community organizations they worked with are also invited to exhibit their organizations at information tables adjacent the students’ displays. The event will be further bolstered by having a small set of “spotlight” speakers–service leaders from our community–present at the fair. The entire college community is invited to attend. This event is a big deal, and I made up my mind from the beginning that it would succeed with or without my students.

The event must succeed, and I want my students to be a part of that–but I will not allow the event to bomb in the name of “learning through one’s mistakes.”

Making this project a success with or without my students? Does that sound like something a teacher should say? Maybe not. In fact, it’s not something I would have said last year. I have tried student-designed and student-run events in the past with very mixed results. I’ve always believed in taking a hands-off approach to these kinds of events–letting the students run with them for better or for worse. I figured that learning through these experiences didn’t always result in a quality event, but the learning is what mattered. This semester, my thought process is just a little bit different. My approach this semester is that I want the event to be a success no matter what. If it is a great success, I want my students to believe it was because of what they did and to feel the rewards of that. If my students totally flake out and drop the ball on the whole thing, I want the event to be a success anyway. That’s my thinking. The event must succeed, and I want my students to be a part of that–but I will not allow the event to bomb in the name of “learning through one’s mistakes.” This shift, I think, has really amped up the intensity of the planning for the event and students are feeling it. This is a good thing. They know a lot is on the line.

as for me?

One cannot help but be changed when serving others. By participating in this work with my students at the start of this semester, I’ve gotten hooked. I’ve been getting more and more involved with some of the organizations I introduced my students to at the start of the semester. Also, in pushing my students (and sometimes dragging them behind me) toward this “Act Out” service-learning fair, I have been reaching out to more and more local non-profit organizations who are doing some amazing things right in our own backyard. I’m hoping that I can continue to build relationships, get more deeply involved, make this first of many “Act Out” events a success, and keep the momentum going. Things are happening. Things are getting done. We are acting now, and it’s just the beginning…

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