Putting Service Learning Experiences at the Heart of a Teacher Education Curriculum

Article excerpt

Introduction: A Tale of Two Student Volunteers

What follows are excerpts from the journals of two young adults writing about their experiences in a service project. Note the differences between the content and attitudes reflected in their work. Aldous Huxley is quoted: Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what has happened to him. In which case has the student done something with what has happened to her?

Excerpt from journal of student volunteer: Today I got to the nursing home at 2:00. Talked to some ladies. Passed out popcorn at the movie. Went home at 4:00.

Excerpt from journal of student participating in service learning project: Child read "A Game for Kim " which she loved. I had her write some summary sentences. She tried to write as much as she could remember, not really sticking to my instructions. Is it part of third grade thinking that they try to do more than is asked, or do they have a hard time following instructions? Ask in class - what are third graders capable of?

Commenting on the first student's journal, Conrad and Hedin (undated) posited that the student was surrounded by human drama and missed it all. She was enveloped in human emotions - loneliness, struggles, dignity, and injustice, to name a few. Any number of health-related careers were available for observation. The second student was reflecting on her experience as a tutor, generating questions about the thinking abilities and processes of eight-year olds and thus learning from her time in the schools. For this student, participation in community service had become "service learning" and her remarks demonstrated a key benefit of this powerful pedagogical strategy: Students, through their service-based learning experiences, become active participants in the construction of knowledge - about themselves, others, the content-based information learned and used to support their goals, and the world in which they live (Howe, 1989).

In the 96th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, service learning is defined as "an educational activity, program, or curriculum that seeks to promote student learning through experiences associated with volunteerism or community service." However, as is evident from the first student volunteer's comments about her experiences at the nursing home, there is a significant difference between "giving service" and actually learning as a result of engaging in the service activity. Hayes and Comer (1997) state: Service to others, particularly those who are in need and less fortunate, and service to the larger community through unselfish acts of caring and kindness are defining characteristics of a great and compassionate nation." Therefore, for teachers, the task must be to help their students construct knowledge from their participation in community service, and to truly nourish their hearts, making them feel the personal rewards associated with "unselfish acts of caring" while also helping them gain new insights and skills related to curricular goals.

The Situation in Maryland

To promote the development of a "habit of altruism" and to provide opportunities for more active engagement in the learning process, all candidates for high school graduation in Maryland, as of 1997, must complete at least 75 hours of "service learning". Shortly after this requirement was initiated, the faculty of the Educational Studies Department of St. Mary's College of Maryland, the Public Honors College within the University of Maryland system, surveyed students about their own experiences completing the high school service learning requirement. Their responses generally indicated that most students put in the requisite number of hours but often learned little or felt little reward from the time spent clearing beaches of debris, organizing a dance for a senior citizen center, or painting and repairing a run-down playground. Occasionally, a student's description of what he or she did indicated that the teacher in charge was able to make the service component part of a larger whole. …