The Fall Semester was my first service-learning class experience. While I consider our Writing Studio to be service learning, working with a few select students on a specific project is a far cry from managing a service-learning class experience. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea and knew there would be value, but despite the wonderful support provided by Morehead State University’s Center for Regional Engagement it took me a while to dive in. Part of the problem was struggling with how to implement service learning in my specific classes. I loved the projects embraced by so many of my colleagues, but I wasn’t sure what would work for me. However, after teaching a couple of my comic-themed First Year Seminar classes and talking about them with friends teaching middle and high school an idea was born.
My FYS classes study comics through a variety of lenses (history, culture, psychology) and mine comic narratives for important lessons about life and humanity. They write papers and create digital presentations, but for our service-learning class those products are used to inform conversations with middle school students in our region rather than serve as simple disposable assignments. The students we work with attend a high-need school and are often at high-risk for dropping out. We know our little comic projects won’t make or break these kids (or their futures), but we hope to plant some seeds of hope and spark some curiosity about college and technology and reading that just might inspire some kids to stay in school long enough to find another seed and spark. However, the service-learning experience also offers some tremendous benefits for my students.
Service learning gives a class an authentic purpose. Engaging students in the purpose is problematic in many general education classes. We can make it fun and some students will engage, but too many students (in my experience) see general education classes as just a hurdle to clear on their path to graduation and degree. However, my students quickly realize that the middle schoolers are real people with dreams and hopes and that realization is followed by the idea that they possess information these kids need and want about life, literacy, college, and comics. I have seen engagement ratchet up as my students work with real purpose.
Service learning provides a real audience. Even before my students meet their audience, the fact that someone (in fact many someones) outside our class will see their work inspires a lot more interest and care. They seem to worry a lot more about the opinion of some kids they may never meet in person than they do about me – and that’s OK by me.
Service learning gives writing context. I believe one of the reasons so many students struggle with writing transfer is that so much school writing has no real rhetorical context. My students don’t have to imagine an audience, there are real middle school students asking real questions and sharing real goals. Similarly, my students have a real purpose and focus for their writing.
Have you tried service learning to engage and inspire your students? How do you engage and inspire your students? Do you believe service learning can benefit students as well as the community?