Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Build a Bridge between Service and Learning: Service Learning Creates a Bridge of Interaction and Shared Purpose That Improves Student Learning and Creates Better Schools and Stronger Communities

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Build a Bridge between Service and Learning: Service Learning Creates a Bridge of Interaction and Shared Purpose That Improves Student Learning and Creates Better Schools and Stronger Communities

Article excerpt

Countless cities--New York, Paris, London--are physically divided by rivers, requiring inhabitants to build bridges to unify their community. Like cities separated by geographic features, schools and their surrounding communities have remained distant and largely isolated from one another, despite mounting evidence that a closer relationship would benefit both. Up to now, no well-developed set of shared purposes and principles has compelled schools to fling open their doors to the community. Apart from the PTA and occasional school volunteer efforts, schools rarely invite the community to actively engage in the work of educating young people. Likewise, community investment in schools tends to be narrowly focused on the usual budget, school redistricting, and school board battles or the teaching of controversial subject matter.

But schools and communities have much to offer each other. One of the strongest bridges that can be built is service learning. This school reform strategy, a way of teaching and learning that involves students in addressing community problems, can dramatically close the school-community divide. Service learning creates a two-way bridge of interaction and shared purpose, resulting in better schools, stronger communities, and improved student learning. Through service learning, schools and students alike are redefined as contributors to the community.

Service learning owes much to innovative teachers like Barry Guillot. Built like an NFL linebacker, Barry is a soft-spoken middle school science teacher from St. Charles Parish, next door to New Orleans. For more than a decade, Barry and his successive classes of students have transformed a fragile 28-acre former dump site on Lake Pontchartrain into a living wetlands classroom. Students are introduced to the wetlands as kindergartners when they take part in community presentations on the need to be good environmental Stewards. Their instructors are Harry Hurst Middle School LaBranche Wetland Watchers, students from Barry's school who have been planting trees and exploring science at the nearby park-as-classroom. Now they demonstrate their new knowledge and skills, taking on the responsibilities of educators and coaches for young students, guiding them on how to test water for salinity and to identify local flora and fauna. As Barry says, quoting from a student's journal, "I think if the animals and plants could talk, they'd say that we're their heroes."

Over the next two years, their model will reach a new level through a service learning initiative sponsored by a federal grant to the National Youth Leadership Council from Learn and Serve America, a division of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Through this initiative--designed to improve student learning in science, technology, engineering, and math--Barry and his students will share their model of teaching environmental science with schools in Chicago and Minneapolis that are developing their own local environmental science projects. Partners such as the National Middle School Association, the American Association of School Administrators, and the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy provide additional technical expertise and curriculum support to participating schools. Similar grants from Learn and Serve America to school programs sponsored by Youth Service America and the Education Commission of the States represent the growing appreciation of the role that service can play as an ingredient of education reform when purposefully tied to curriculum.

A BRIEF HISTORY

A form of experiential and progressive education that harkens back to John Dewey and even Aristotle, service learning has never been a mainstay of public education. Few teacher education programs have focused on this way of teaching, and some educators find it challenging to extend instruction beyond the physical walls of the school. According to a recent survey of K-12 principals, about 24% of schools in the United States offer students this experience- based method of teaching and learning (Spring, Grimm, and Dietz 2008). …

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