The Case for Service Learning

This quotation really resonates for me right now. Last night I submitted a section of my teaching memoir to my writing group about a class I created for my high school that involved service learning. Using the Problem-Based Learning approach developed in medical schools, my students learned to define a problem and the criteria for an effective solution. That guided their research and helped them to generate and evaluate solutions. They worked problems for the school and the larger community. One year my students even worked for a Chicago law firm on a problem in Toledo, Ohio! Each of these problems became a form of service to others as my students struggled to figure out how to provide the answers their “clients” sought.

For so many of my students, this service became transformational, changing their views about themselves and their place in the world. Some redesigned the gardens for a local historic site, some figured out strategies to promote the Post-Prom celebration to keep students safe after prom, and some helped redesign the eighth-grade orientation. One group not only redesigned a vandalized part of a local trail for the county, but they chose to do the hard physical work of rebuilding. And when vandals struck again, long after they’d received credit in class for their work, they repaired it on their own time. Time after time, I watched students discover the satisfaction of doing something helpful for others. For most of them, this was a new experience. This class showed them the enormous payback for their efforts.

I even saw that reaction among my creative writing students. When they wrote children’s books, we took field trips to local grade schools to read them to children. I’ll never forget my hulking football star sitting cross-legged on the floor of a second-grade classroom, reading his story to a rapt audience. Out of that grew a collaboration with classes from a grade school within walking distance. We visited them once, and they returned the favor. My students partnered with children to write children’s stories, which they sent home with the children. Having a real audience for their work fed their sense of satisfaction, but the gratitude of the children and their teachers, expressed in priceless, hand-drawn thank you notes delivered to the class, gave my students special satisfaction.

Dieter F. Uchtodorf wrote, “As we lose ourselves in the service of others, we discover our own lives and our own happiness.” And from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Live’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” I watched students embrace those concepts because they had experienced them firsthand.

If I ruled the world [a phrase I used to use with my students], I would mandate service learning for all high school students. Only through experience can they discover the satisfaction and happiness that derive from doing for others. And if our young people understood that, wouldn’t that change our society for the better? As generations of graduates entered the world with a desire to help others, wouldn’t we all benefit?

Best Buddies at Graduation

Last week we had the pleasure and privilege of attending our middle granddaughter’s graduation from a Chicago public magnet high school. The ceremony was held at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place in Chicago because the school auditorium was too small for the class of over 450 and all of their supporters. The event was lovely if long, and we especially enjoyed seeing a certain young woman prance across the stage with grace and confidence to receive her diploma. The class stats were mind-boggling: every student was headed to a four-year college, and they’d logged countless volunteer hours in the community, won numerous academic and athletic championships, and earned $56 million in scholarships! Memorable and impressive, to be sure. That’s part of the package of a top-notch magnet school.

The part we didn’t anticipate happened when the Special Education students walked across the stage to pick up their diplomas and certificates. Part of the mission of Whitney M. Young Magnet School is “To give students with disabilities the same high school opportunities as their non-disabled peers.” In addition to a sizable faculty and staff, the school has a Best Buddies program that pairs regular and special ed students. Some of these students could not make it across the stage without physical support; a couple had trouble following the directions. But each and every one of them received the same response from the audience of parents, friends, and peers: loud cheering and applause with great gusto. This is a truly inclusive community where high-achieving students whose academic success is often a given appreciate and celebrate the success of those who have overcome obstacles to be able to march across that stage. Their genuinely joyful response was uplifting.

When I commented on it, I was assured that those who have attended multiple Whitney Young graduation ceremonies experience that every year. Being part of that kind of school culture, with genuine inclusion, prepares students to work and live with others regardless of their circumstances. It gives me hope for the future.

Keeping Students Safe

Another school shooting… Yesterday one student was killed and eight injured by gunfire at a Denver-area charter school. We barely react any more. We’re too accepting of this “new normal.”

Education Week reassures us: “With two large-scale school shootings in 2018—17 killed in Parkland, Fla., and 10 killed in Santa Fe, Texas—public fears about school safety and gun violence are high. But the data show that, on the whole, schools are one of the safest places for children.”[1] Is that supposed to be comforting? Schools should be safe places. We should be doing more to keep all schools safe. But we don’t know how.

Just last week Florida’s House of Representatives passed a controversial bill that would permit classroom teachers to carry guns in schools, and the Governor is expected to sign it. How can this be the answer? Even if I had been thoroughly trained to use a gun, my fear of guns and the reality that many of my high school students could have overpowered me and taken it away suggests that teachers toting guns might only add to the problem. We are called to the profession for our love of learning and desire to empower students to experience that. How many teachers are drawn to policing? What would be the impact of gun access on their relationship with students?

Wouldn’t we be better served addressing key issues?

  • What drives shooters in the first place and what we might do about that?
  • What can we do about access to guns by individuals who show signs of being unstable?
  • How can we better identify those individuals?
  • Why would any civilian need bump stocks and semi-automatic rifles? Can we outlaw those?

I had high hopes that the courageous students of Parkland would drive a serious discussion that led to meaningful problem-solving here. I was naïve. But we need to look at the root causes of school shootings and address them directly, instead of settling for dangerous “band-aids” like arming teachers, band-aids that themselves might just lead to more wounds. Our students deserve that. So do our teachers. The time is now.


[1] http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/District_Dossier/2019/05/eight_students_injured_in_denver_school_shooting.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news2-rm&M=58826339&U=1603651&UUID=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

Conquering the Canopy Walk: a Metaphor

The canopy walk at Sacha Lodge, Ecuador

I don’t do heights. I don’t much like snakes, mosquitoes or heat and humidity either. How then, did I find myself 94 feet above the jungle, walking 940 feet between three strong metal towers on a swaying bridge? By climbing fourteen flights of steps in 98゚heat with 90+% humidity.

A better question might be why, or even how? The answer speaks to educators. Our trip facilitator knows me well and he knew the situation. He’s helped me overcome my limits before, though perhaps never so dramatically. We talked about the canopy walk before I even left the safety of my home. He knew how to help me choose to go.

He said, “You can do it, I know you can, and I’ll help. Just take your time – we won’t rush you. And you won’t want to miss it.” He made me believe in myself enough to overcome deep-seated fears because I believed him. I could, he’d help, I could take my time, and I’d be sorry if I skipped it.

It’s worth noting that when we kayaked the Lake Country of Italy with him two years earlier and I chose not to take a clumsy funicular up to a frightening height, he didn’t push me. Instead we had a wonderful paddle. So if he said this wasn’t to be missed, I wouldn’t miss it.

And I had additional support to see me through. Our kayaking buddy Ada, with whom we’d taken two other trips, had seen my bypass the funicular and knew I wanted to do this terrifying climb. She promised to walk with me. I would not face this scary challenge alone.

So I climbed. At halfway up I questioned my sanity, but I kept going. When we finally reached the top of the first tower, the view of the jungle’s canopy was breathtaking. The drop to the ground below looked gentler than it must have been, and I finally caught my breath. Dripping in sweat, cursing the heat and humidity, I did take the time to do a 360゚view. My husband had patiently climbed right behind me, but at the top I lost him to his camera. While he clicked away, taking pictures I knew we’d both be glad to have, I headed out on the walkway toward the middle tower, determined to complete the walk before I lost my nerve.

The first half felt fairly stable, and I found myself looking ahead and around rather than down. This isn’t so bad, I thought to myself. I stopped briefly at the middle tower, winded and dripping with sweat. I need to finish this, I thought, and I can do it.

Sadly the second 450’ swayed far more. Whimpering, I practiced self-talk. I wanted to quit but knew that the closest path to the safety of the ground was straight ahead. Happily my friend Ada walked back to join me. I kept my eyes on the back of her neck and hung on to the coarse rope cable to gain an illusion of control. My legs were trembling when we reached the far tower, but I had done it – I had completed the dreaded canopy walk and was alive to tell about it!

Now I just had to make my way down 14 more flights of stairs. Since everyone else was captivated by the view, I worked my way down slowly. I wanted to kiss the ground when I reached it, as I had after my son talked me into riding Big Thunder Mountain in Disneyland, but the mud seemed unappealing. Finally the others  joined me and we hiked back to the lodge though the jungle. Dehydration and fatigue sapped my energy, yet I was triumphant! I had just done something I’d been sure I couldn’t do. I could have been faster, more graceful, less noisy in my whimpering, but I’d done it nonetheless. And now, when I face new challenges, I will be a bit more confident because of this triumph.

Next month I’m going to model a semi-transparent dress in a runway show. I’ve had garments I’ve designed on the runway before, but I’ve never had to model them myself, and this garment is particularly problematic.  But I will remind myself that I completed the canopy walk, and that will see me through.

Why write about this in a teaching blog? Because sometimes our students feel as apprehensive as I did. We may not understand why, but we need to recognize their fears and help them conquer those fears. Those who don’t share my acrophobia may never really understand how hard this walk was for me, but they can help me succeed by acknowledging my true feelings and showing me how to overcome them. We need to tell our students, “You can do this. I’ll help you. Take your time. You’ll be glad you did.”

And in collaborative, constructivist classrooms, we need to encourage their classmates to support them the way Ada supported me. I am reminded of a presentation in our American Lit class by a student who struggled with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. When he stood up to speak, he started biting his arm. Quietly the other members of his group stood up, surrounded him, and nodded encouragingly. He was able to present his part of their material. With their support, he triumphed. Far less dramatic situations happen in classrooms every day, and teachers and classmates can make a difference. Students who overcome their fears and do something they thought they couldn’t become empowered to tackle additional challenges. It’s up to us teachers to help that happen.

Finding our Common Humanity

“Kids and Cuban friends on balcony of Hotel Leon Varadero Beach Dec ’54”

We just returned from an amazing ten-day kayaking trip in Cuba, and I’ve been thinking about how much I learned and how I learned it. Though we love to kayak in foreign waters – a wonderful and different way to explore new places – a bigger draw for this trip was my long-time wish to return. In 1954 my family spent part of winter break in the first resort hotel in Varadero Beach, Cuba, during Batista’s regime. I knew nothing of the politics or corruption there, so for me the trip was wonderful, set apart from our other frequent family travels by two distinct epiphanies.

First, my beloved brother Peter, gazing at the wondrous expanse of silver-white sand, challenged me to help him figure out just how many grains of sand there were covering the shoreline. I would never have thought about that without his prompting, and we spent endless time collecting sand, estimating the number of grains each time, and trying to extrapolate those findings into a likely total. Peter introduced me to a new way of thinking about the world around me.

The second involved the local children we befriended. I don’t remember the name of the boy, but I will never forget Marielle. I’ve always loved languages so, although I was only seven, I had brought a Spanish-English dictionary. I worked to learn phrases so I could talk with locals. A bit older, Marielle wanted to learn English and often glanced longingly at my book. She lived near the hotel, so my parents agreed to walk me to her home before we left so I could give her the dictionary to keep. This was not the first time I’d visited a place with a different living standard from my own affluent suburban upbringing – our parents were invested with our understanding that diversity. Other places had failed to make a lasting impression. This time, though, I visited the home of my new-found friend. Her family had so little, a dramatic contrast to the lifestyle I’d always taken for granted. That visit taught me not to take my comforts for granted, not to be so egocentric.

This long-awaited trip to Cuba reinforced that learning. We had the privilege of staying in casa particulares, private homes owned by Cubans who rent rooms to tourists. The Cuban economy uses a dual-currency system: Cuban pesos for locals who are paid by the government, and Cuban convertible pesos, worth 25 times as much, for use by tourists. This system creates what our wonderful guide Roberto calls an “upside-down pyramid.” Professionals like his doctor father and teacher mother must live on a miniscule salary in Cuban pesos, while those who manage to work in tourism improve their financial standing dramatically. Having lived through the 1990s economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union left Cuba stranded, he himself changed his career path to tourism so he could help support his family. Putting any political judgments aside, I found the resourcefulness and friendliness of the Cubans we met inspiring.

The biggest lesson I bring back from this experience is our common humanity. Two of my favorite experiences emphasized this. Our hosts just outside the old town of Trinidad welcomed us warmly. When Marisol said, “Mi casa e su casa,” she really meant it. Hot and sweaty on arrival, we were treated to Canchanchara, the traditional drink. Once fluent in French and Italian, I’d made little progress in my study of Spanish before the trip, and Marisol and her husband and son spoke virtually no English. But we communicated with gestures and smiles and my occasionally looking up words in my second Spanish-English dictionary. The next afternoon, when we returned from a hike through the old town after a river paddle, again sweaty and tired, we sat on their back portal. Her son came to invite us back into the gardens where it was cooler, and they surprised us with refreshing limonada. The pictures I’d brought from our 1954 trip fascinated the family, and we felt a strong human connection.

The next day we visited the beautiful city of Cienfuegos, where we were treated to a stellar performance by a local choir. Music is a constant in Cuba, and we’d enjoyed singers and bands throughout our trip. This time, however, felt very personal. The choir began with a heart-felt rendition of the American song Shenandoah, moving me to tears. The other pieces were in Spanish, but their spokeswoman kindly explained the content of each before singing. I loved the piece about the person who though he could sing, who really sang like a duck as exemplified by their quack-quacks during the song!  During their last song they invited us to come up and dance with them – a wonderful experience! Afterwards they invited questions and comments. Overwhelmed, I barely managed to get my words out… but I told them that I could not sing and was the duck, making them all laugh, and that I had loved their performance because they made me realize that for all our differences, we shared a common humanity that too often gets forgotten. My tears weren’t the only ones.

This choral group is as good as any I’ve heard, yet they struggle to raise the money to record their work, and they must sell their CDs to pay for their trips to competitions despite how professional and accomplished they are. Once again I was reminded of how much I take for granted.

All of which made me think about why I became a literature teacher in the first place. Not everyone has the opportunity to travel widely, to meet people from other places who live very differently from ourselves and to realize how much we still have in common. We appreciate many of the same gifts: a laugh, a smile, a song, friends, sharing a good meal… But anyone who can read simply needs a library card and time. Through stories and books, we can discover so much about the rest of the world.

I was excited to see some progress in the 80s and 90s – albeit excruciatingly slow – to have children’s textbooks include a variety of people, so that all students might see themselves reflected on the page. As a teacher I helped include books in the curriculum that showed my students very different lives. If I were still in the classroom now, I would look for even more ways to do that. The canon is broader than it used to be, but educators can be more strategic in what they choose and how they use it. I used to tell my freshmen that Romeo & Juliet is a story they can recognize: two teenagers so “hot to trot” that they sneak around behind their parents’ backs, heedless of possible consequences. When my sophomores read the riveting memoir Warriors Don’t Cry, they had to imagine what it was like for Melba Beals and the other eight students to integrate Little Rock High School, to face down the hatred and opposition of segregationists. When my seniors read The Plague by Albert Camus, they faced a world where medical care could not save the victims. Well-written stories bring other worlds to life. We need to include them in our curricula. Our students can and should learn that while much divides us, more unites us. The human experience transcends local differences.