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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 6

At Your Service

For five years, I have been a middle school literacy coach in a Los Angeles suburb known for generational poverty, crime, and gangs. The community is crisscrossed by major truck routes, railroad tracks, freeways, and an airport and is encircled by landfills and power plants. It is also home to mostly Latino families struggling to make ends meet. Starbucks, Macy's, AMC Theaters, and Office Depot are not to be found here. I live only seven miles from my school, but I live a world away.
One of my first responsibilities as literacy coach was to implement a new reading intervention program for students who had scored Far Below Basic on the California Standards Test. Such students are poorly equipped for academic success and often struggle with stressful home lives and undiagnosed learning difficulties. Many of them feel disconnected from school and disappointed by life.
When I counsel the lowest-achieving of my students and ask, "When did you give up on school?" they always have an answer. Most mention 3rd or 4th grade; some remember that failure seemed the only option as far back as 2nd grade. We all know these kids. It seems easier for them to refuse to try than to face daily embarrassment and shame when learning doesn't come easily.
These students are a microcosm of what schools face across the United States. The most recent High School Survey of Student Engagement is dismal reading (Yazzie-Mintz, 2006). Of more than 81,000 students responding, 50 percent say they are bored in class every day, and 17 percent say they are bored in everyclass. When asked why they are bored, 75 percent say the material taught in class isn't interesting, nearly 40 percent say the material isn't relevant, and one-third say there is no interaction with teachers. Of students who have thought about dropping out of school, about one-fourth say that no adults at school care about them. Clearly, we educators are often out of step with students' perceptions of what meaningful school experiences should be.
How can we reengage disconnected students with a zest for learning and hope for the future? How can we prepare them to be contributing members of society? The answers to these questions are important for all students, because if we can figure out what works best for our most reluctant learners, we will be headed in the right direction for all.

Keys to Reengagement

  • Active learning, including project-based learning, and structured activities for effective interaction with peers.
  • A wide variety of methodologies, including scaffolding, to make learning achievable.
  • Rigorous instruction embedded in meaningful, authentic activities using students' curiosity and interests.
  • Development of metacognitive skills.
  • Learning climates that encourage a sense of humor, fun, choice, and student empowerment.
  • Supportive relationships with adults in nonthreatening environments.
  • Discussion of complex ethical issues and real-world problems with multiple solutions. (Caskey & Anfara, 2007; Intrator, 2004; Oliver, 2006; Wenglinsky, 2004; Wilson & Horch, 2002)
One approach that incorporates all of these components is service learning. In service learning, students build academic skills and knowledge by working on projects that address real needs in their communities. A wide body of research validates the positive effects of this approach on academic achievement (Billig, 2002; Civic Literacy Project, 2000).

Learning About Service Learning

I first began using service learning extensively as a classroom teacher in a school demographically similar to my current school, where I was asked to create an elective intervention course for the school's most academically at-risk 6th graders. These students had few discernible skills and showed little interest in learning. To reach them, I decided to develop an entire curriculum built around service learning.
One of the tenets of true service learning is to give students ownership of their service learning projects (National Youth Leadership Council, 2008). To honor this principle, at times I allowed students to choose topics to investigate. For the sake of my own sanity, though, I also introduced topics and then assisted students in gathering background information and determining what service learning projects would best demonstrate their learning and also help others beyond the walls of our own classroom. Students were excited about the opportunity to investigate authentic issues, such as school safety, bullies, children's nutrition, the elderly, people with special needs, and the environment.
Topics for meaningful service projects were never hard to find—and rarely too costly even for a teacher with no budget. For example, like most middle school teachers, I was concerned about students' lack of proper nutrition. I had observed that for many students, both breakfast and lunch consisted of Cheetos and soda. We engaged in some initial activities to determine students' nutrition knowledge—for example, in one calorie-counting activity, students discovered that they had exceeded their daily fat allowance by the time they finished breakfast. When students found out how much they didn't know about nutrition, they were interested in learning more and sharing their new knowledge with other 6th graders. They developed a nutrition quiz, administered it to all 6th grade homerooms, and graphed the results. They created nutrition posters and a brochure about the elements of good nutrition. Eventually they visited each 6th grade homeroom, hung their posters, handed out brochures, and discussed with classes the importance of proper nutrition.
Next, students conducted a service learning project using the expository books they read in class. They wrote reports on these books and published them as illustrated booklets that we shared with students in nearby elementary schools.
My first small grant enabled me to select and purchase $500 worth of books, which led to our books-on-tape project. Students practiced reading aloud fluently and with expression and then taped themselves reading a book. Students donated the books and tapes to our 3rd grade pen pals.
We also adopted a local hospital. After they studied poetry, students applied their poetry-writing skills to create holiday greeting cards for hospital patients. The greeting cards were placed on the dinner trays of geriatric and pediatric patients. When the hospital asked for artwork for the pediatric ward, we were happy to oblige.
Our most ambitious service learning project was a reflection of my belief in the importance of raising students' awareness of the larger world. When conflict broke out in Kosovo in 1999, I wanted students to understand how wars affect people's lives. I began by bringing in several articles that demonstrated how the conflict affected not just soldiers, but also civilians—including children. My hope was that my students would gain empathy for the children of Kosovo and want to make a personal connection with them. My original idea was that students would learn to sew by hand and create stuffed hearts with "We Care" written in the language of the region to send to Kosovar children displaced by the conflict. I soon found out, however, that the only donations desired were monetary. Suddenly I found myself looking for materials for a lot more hearts and for people to help us sew so that we could raise funds by selling our hearts to people in our community.
Soon the mothers in the school parent center agreed to help us, their sewing machines speeding up the process. Then the 8th grade honors English teacher offered her students' services. Imagine the empowerment my lowly intervention 6th graders felt when they had the opportunity to teach older students how to sew! We donated our $800 earnings to the International Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, and the leftover hearts went to cardiac and pediatric patients at our adopted hospital. Our project was featured in the local newspaper, the kindly reporter referring to my students as "heroes."
Given a year of instruction in the form of service learning, students' academic skills, interest in school, and motivation to learn had grown exponentially. My students not only had improved dramatically in reading and writing, but also had become more thoughtful, reflective people who saw themselves as potential problem solvers and participatory citizens. During four years, my intervention students never faltered. A statement from one student said it all: "I never knew I could be a hero."

Bringing Service Learning to Another School

In 2002, a firm believer in the power of service learning, I brought what I had learned to my position as literacy coach at my new school. To support teachers' participation in service learning projects, I began to seek grants in earnest.
One of the students' favorite service learning projects was writing their own stories, which were "published" in professionally bound books. Because most of the students hadn't completed a long-term project in many years, I would have been satisfied if 50 percent of them had produced books. To my delight, 85 percent proudly completed their books. Students traveled to a nearby elementary school to read their stories to younger children and then donated their books to classroom libraries.
Last year, one of our 8th grade intervention classes created the Panther Pride Guide for students preparing to enter middle school. The students traveled to our feeder elementary schools and shared with 5th graders their advice on getting ready for middle school, handing out copies of their Panther Pride Guide. It was a successful service learning project for all. Pre- and postsurveys of 5th graders' attitudes toward middle school showed 70 percent negative descriptors on the presurvey and 80 percent positive descriptors after our presentations. And the 8th graders? They learned even more, having experienced a rare opportunity to exemplify leadership and positively influence the lives of others while developing important skills in writing and word processing.

Getting Your Feet Wet

In my 32 years as an educator, I have looked for creative ways to engage students' interest and increase their learning, always with the most reluctant learners in mind. Now that I am a literacy coach, service learning is at the top of the list of instructional strategies I recommend to teachers looking for ways to improve their practice.
To get started, teachers can easily tweak many assignments already in place into service learning projects just by asking, What's an authentic audience for the products of this assignment? There are many resources available to teachers, as well as grants specifically geared toward service learning (see "Resources for Implementing Service Learning").
Once you get your feet wet with service learning, there's no getting out of the water. Best of all, reluctant learners will joyfully dive right into the deep end with you.

Billig, S. H. (2002). Support for K–12 service-learning practice: A brief review of the research. Educational Horizons, 80(4), 184–189.

Caskey, M. M., & Anfara, V. A., Jr. (2007). Research summary: Young adolescents' developmental characteristics. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Civic Literacy Project. (2000). Standardized test scores improve with service-learning. Bloomington, IN: Author. Available:www.ri.net/middletown/mef/linksresources/documents/ServiceLearningBetterScores.pdf

Intrator, S. M. (2004). The engaged classroom. Educational Leadership, 62(1), 20–24.

National Youth Leadership Council. (2008). What makes it work? [Online]. Saint Paul, MN: Author. Available: www.nylc.org/discover.cfm?oid=3154

Oliver, B. (2006). Resistant and reluctant learners. Just for the ASKing! 2(9) [Online newsletter]. Available:www.askeducation.com/newsletter/newsletterMAR-06.htm

Wenglinsky, H. (2004). Facts or critical thinking skills? What NAEP results say. Educational Leadership, 62(1), 32–35.

Wilson, L., & Horch, H. W. (2002). Implications of brain research for teaching young adolescents. Middle School Journal, 31(1), 57–61.

Yazzie-Mintz, E. (2006). Voices of students on engagement: A report on the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University. Available:http://ceep.indiana.edu/hssse/

End Notes

1 A source for high-quality blank books to use for such projects is Bare Books, www.barebooks.com.

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