Launching a New Service-Learning Class: A Teacher’s Perspective

by Joy Mazur, guest blogger, English teacher, Morris Knolls High School, Rockaway, NJIMG_4368

I’m trying something new. I’m a rebel, a renegade, outside the law. I’m going rogue.

I’m making service-learning its own class.

I know, I know — service-learning, by definition, must serve the curriculum: that is, it’s not about the service itself, but the service in service (get it?) of practicing skills and applying knowledge. You can’t make service-learning the content.

But what if you could?

Really, the content in my new full-year service-learning course next year (open to Seniors only) isn’t “service-learning.” It’s language arts skills: communication, research, writing; and college and career readiness skills, like collaboration, leadership, use of technology, practicing critical problem-solving skills, and acting as a responsible and contributing citizen. Students may take the course as an elective or as their Senior year English requirement, so they will be practicing and applying these skills regularly. The curriculum content is flexible, but will have a loose framework in our Character Education Core Virtues, and may cover the historical and philosophical roots of service.

There’s a bit of nagging doubt — because aren’t those skills corollaries to any service-learning project in a content-area course? Couldn’t I just incorporate service-learning in my current English classes?

While I have started to include service-learning as part of some units in English 11 Honors, and I have awesome colleagues in the building who incorporate some form of service-learning as well (although not everyone calls it that), this limits the experience to only our students. If we believe this is a valuable approach to teaching and learning, why should the chance be limited to those students who, through the luck of the draw, end up on our rosters? Requiring every teacher in a district to participate in service-learning may address that problem, but without mass buy-in, it may also result in watered-down, forced, and/or resentfully submitted unit plans.

Engagement is key. So, why not start with the most motivated staff and curious, engaged students? The energy from this cohort, hopefully, will inspire a ripple effect of more teachers getting on board. And I’m ready (or I will be, after next year) to turnkey my own research, seminars, and experiences into meaningful professional development in this area for my colleagues. By devoting a full-year course to service-learning, and allowing it to fulfill an English requirement, my district has demonstrated that we value and support service-learning as something essential to a student’s education, rather than something extra.

Nonetheless, I’m aware of some potential speed bumps:

Engaging the experts without stepping on toes. We have a very active community of service-oriented clubs in our school. How do I learn from this existing network while also establishing service-learning as distinct from community service, and not offending colleagues who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to running these organizations and building relationships in the community? I’ve already discussed with some advisors the possibility that their clubs could be community partners for students in the service-learning class, who may be able to investigate their needs and design projects to support the work that is already being done.

Making service-learning as accessible as possible. It has been my philosophy from the beginning of the course proposal process that a service-learning course should be open to any student who wants to take it. My administrators, mindful of the potential messiness of teaching this course, have placed a hard cap on enrollment. As a result, students must “apply” to take the course, and include recommendations from teachers and counselors. While grateful for the vote of confidence I have been given to run this new course, and the meaningfulness of a guaranteed smaller class size, I worry that this additional gatekeeper — the application — might dissuade the very type of student who could most benefit from the service-learning experience: the student who most needs to see herself as part of something bigger, as capable of making an impact, as a leader, might not want to bother with even the slightest chance of rejection. With this in mind, I have worked closely with the School Counseling office and our Gifted and Talented Coordinator (who also oversees an application process) to develop the application and encourage a diverse cohort of students to apply. I’ve also sought input from both the lead teacher and the Supervisor of our Special Education department, to try to anticipate how to make service-learning as inclusive as it can be.

Keeping the dreams big and the goals small. When I first floated the idea of a service- learning course to my very supportive supervisor, her advice was, “Decide if you are proposing a course… or a program.” I had to admit that in my mind’s eye, this would naturally blossom into a sort of service-oriented Work-Study program (or Cooperative Education program). In some ways, I have already become an ambassador for service-learning in the district, as my proposal presentation introduced the concept to both building principals, the Assistant Superintendent, the Curriculum and Instruction committee, the School Counseling departments, and the Board of Education. Since the course was approved, I’ve reached out to and answered questions from colleagues, students, the Home and School Association, and the community. But in reality, I proposed one course, and the course hasn’t actually run yet. There are practical questions that I haven’t yet answered, like: If the course is entirely skill-based, with the content and focus being decided by the particular cohort of students taking it that year, how do I plan? How do you write a unit plan when the content of the unit is completely student-driven?

Keeping it authentic. Already I am fielding legitimate, but sometimes difficult-to- answer, questions: Will I be able to use this course to complete my Girl Scout Gold Award? We could really use some help with (x, y, z) in the building. Maybe your students could help with that! Isn’t this just a community service class? Will this be, like, way easier than a regular English class? Do you go on a lot of field trips? The answer is inevitably some version of “Yes and no” or “It depends.” Introducing this as a new course gives me a lot of creative freedom, but also a great deal of responsibility to keep our focus on the essential qualities that make service-learning unique, and valuable.

Living up to the hype. I did a lot of promoting in the process of proposing this course, and got a tremendous amount of support at all levels. Service-learning is really an easy sell, after all: it’s student-driven, problem-based, authentic, civically-minded, collaborative… all while addressing concrete academic skills! Who wouldn’t vote for that?

I gained most of my resources for this proposal at the NYLC Educator Institute in Philadelphia last fall, and that weekend, one of our mantras about service-learning became: “It’s messy.” I now wonder, since service-learning is new to our district, and relatively new to me, and certainly new in this format, do any of us really understand how messy? In every meeting I had to pitch this course, I reiterated that some failure will likely be a part of the learning process for students as they grow to understand the realities of project management, grant-writing, and working with community partners. My administrators said they understood this. And hopefully they do!

I’ve also tried to emphasize that while I will be a liaison and point person, I won’t be managing multiple student projects myself. Working toward the higher steps of Hart’s Ladder of Youth-Adult Partnerships should transfer ownership to these near-adults, who have elected to take on this unique level of responsibility during the school day. In fact, students are already moving to the center of the class: as part of a service-learning unit in my classroom this year, inspired by our district summer reading book (Front of the Class by Brad Cohen), a handful of students designed what they thought of as a “wishful thinking” course centered around empathy. They ended up working closely with me to refine the proposal I had already begun, and to promote service-learning both before and after its official approval.

I’ve been a public school teacher for 15 years, and have been wanting to start “Community Service Co-op” for almost as long. I thought of it as my own “wishful thinking” class. It wasn’t until recently that I began doing the research and discovered that it was a real thing, called service-learning, for which curricular support and pedagogical resources abound! I am so grateful to NYLC for their quality professional development and ongoing support through the Generator School Network, which gave me both the confidence and the vocabulary to bring this concept to fruition in my school. I’m also quite lucky to work in a district that will support this endeavor that is unique among public high schools in our area.

I feel invigorated and inspired, even though the course hasn’t started yet, and the response from students has been truly uplifting. They are ready to do something different, something meaningful, something real.

What seemed like a crazy idea is a natural fit with the reasons I got into teaching in the first place, and the things I’ve found to be most important in education. For me, it’s not a rebellion — it’s a revolution.