Connecting Curriculum with Community: Service Learning Projects Apply Academic Skills and Knowledge to Address Real-Life Issues

Article excerpt

LAST YEAR, 15 STUDENTS IN THE MONTPELIER (VT.) HIGH School's Advanced Placement Spanish class paid class-time visits every week to a nearby dairy farm. They interacted with the Mexican laborers by conversing with them in Spanish, having picnics together, and playing cards and soccer. As the students advanced their Spanish verbal skills, they also befriended the workers, helping to ease their feelings of loneliness.

Identifying a community problem or need and helping to solve it via student-led initiatives is at the heart of service learning. This is exactly what the 15 students did by forging bonds with the migrant workers. "It's not just that kids were handed a problem and then told to bring about a solution. It's ideal to have students take ownership, which involves deeper-level thinking," says Matthew McLane, community-based/service learning coordinator for the Montpelier (Vt.) Public Schools. "They need to understand the issue and help create ideas for solutions."

Elson Nash, associate director for program management at Learn and Serve America, a grant program of the Corporation for National and Community Service and USA Freedom Corps, calls service learning "the glue that makes things stick," noting that when students feel engaged and empowered, they learn more effectively and connect with real-world issues. Projects can tackle social issues with global impact or fill in a smaller local need using creativity and ingenuity.

Funding from Learn and Serve America makes it possible for more than 1.5 million students from kindergarten to college to devote nearly 20 million hours in service learning projects annually in 1,600 local programs across the country. Additionally, about one-quarter of the nation's elementary and secondary schools have adopted service learning programs, with 40 percent of these making service learning an integral part of their curriculum. And 55 percent of the K12 districts that were granted Learn and Serve funds (totaling $39.5 million) were located in low-income areas, according to Learn and Serve's "Budget Activity Report" on 2009 activities.

Research linking higher academic achievement with service learning projects is limited but growing. This fall, Learn and Serve plans to launch a large-scale study to track and compare student progress by testing in classrooms across the United States with and without service learning. A series of studies by Shelley Billig, vice president of RMC Research Corporation, links higher state test scores with service learning participation. Students in high-quality service learning classrooms also were found to have higher average daily attendance and less tardiness than students from comparison classrooms.

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Creating Partnerships

The Montpelier project is an example of the teaching strategy that combines service activities with learning objectives. While using and improving their Spanish-speaking skills, students helped farmers forge a connection with their neighbors and combat the isolation they feel living and working in a predominantly white, rural state.

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The visits were one aspect of a five-year relationship between Spanish class members and local farmers. In partnership with the Vermont Department of Agriculture (DOA) and Vermont Migrant Education Organization, students created and translated written safety documents mandated by the state legislature. The DOA, recognizing that some Mexican dairy farmers were illiterate in their native language of Spanish, sought the students' help in translating and conveying the information orally. During class time over a two-month period, students used Audacity software to create a CD featuring safety tips and training in Spanish. The DOA distributed the CDs to 20 dairy farms that had employed Hispanic workers, according to Diane Bothfeld, Vermont's deputy secretary of agriculture. According to McLane, this information was also uploaded onto several iPods so farmers could listen to the lessons while they worked or during their free time. …