Building Community, One Student at a Time

BY JOE BROOKS, Founder, Community Works Institute

Each summer I have the pleasure to guide two of the longest running service-learning driven professional development events in the world, CWI’s Summer WEST, held in Los Angeles and Summer EAST in Burlington, Vermont. I am fortunate to work with some of the most dedicated K-16 educators from across the U.S. and around the world. Year after year, CWI’s Summer Institute have been an unforgettable week of inspiring collaborations, training, curriculum planning, and networking opportunities. Veteran guest faculty who join us, some for many for years, share model programs, provide guided support for curriculum planning. Unexpectedly rich collaborations are always at the mix. The dialogue goes deep but the outcomes are usually concrete. But the essence of the Institute cannot never be put quite in words. It is essential and it is work of the heart.

I can’t over state the importance of this event to my vision and enthusiasm.”
Julie Metzler, Director of Community Arts and Service
Kansas City Art Institute

Our CWI Summer Institute participants typically include a highly diverse group of K-16 teachers, administrators, from schools large and small — independent and public — along with community based educators and program leaders — from across the U.S. and around the world. Participants range from veterans to “beginners”. Some are veteran educators new to service-learning. In addition to expert training, the Institute provides a rich collegial environment for collaboration and the synergy of ideas and experience from the wealth of vision, talent, and experience represented by our participants. CWI’s Summer Institutes always include school and community based teams who come both for training and planning, but also for much needed retreat to do big picture thinking.

Service-Learning is Essential to Education

I see service-learning as a crucial piece in a larger effort to connect and engage students with real world issues, which goes back to my days as a middle school, teacher with a sometimes less than enthusiastic band of lovable hooligans.

My approach when working with teachers is to first consider place as the context, with service-learning as the strategy, and sustainable communities as the goal. “Where are we?” “Where do we teach?” And knowing that each community shares similarities, commonalities, and difference, we begin our work by considering what sustainable communities can or should look like.

I find it crucial to also understand how to connect students to a sense of place — their place — in intentional ways that will inform their experience with service and social action. There is a bit of an art form to place based education. And, Student voice and creating real reciprocity (genuine deeper and complimenting relationships) are absolutely inherent to high quality service-learning. An emphasis on social justice and diversity should be an intentional and natural part of this process as it unfolds with students. This should be considered upfront as we design curriculum and projects. For many students these experiences that we offer are eyeopening and life changing. That’s the idea. Institute team rates are available

“I would absolutely recommend CWI’s Institute. I now have a direction to take my program. We are moving from a community service model toward service-learning. I’ve gained confidence that we should move in this direction. Joe’s understanding was strong, sensible, and practical.”
N. Elijah Sivin, Teacher / Dean of Student Life
Poly Prep School, Brooklyn, New York

Finding the Bigger Learning Picture, in Your Own Backyard

Student voice, reciprocity, and understanding our community are closely linked. Voice leads to engagement and engagement leads to informed discovery. We understand student voice as part of a development continuum — an ongoing process, where it is essential that students participate in making thoughtful choices We also understand that teachers face limits of time, comfort, and experience. The same is true of crafting learning experiences in the local community. We work to find the right mix for each project and circumstance.

The largest goal in work my with educators and schools is to set a long term process in motion that is grounded in a shared belief that student voice, reciprocity, and possessing a sense of place hugely deepens student engagement in learning, and in the world around them. This process takes time, practice and is always well worth the effort. Is it sometimes complicated? Yes. but that suggests real world characteristics and we learn and evolve from our experiences just as our students do.

The process of inquiry and discovery, involved in place based education, leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of community itself, in all its forms. This in turn leads to looking at sustainability — uncovering the interconnectedness of people, cultures, place, the natural world, and our own role within that. I use a process that I call “community ethnography” to facilitate students (and teachers) exploring and understanding the place they call home. We begin from a premise that every place is unique and special with a story to tell. The Institute includes compelling opportunities to practice place based service-learning through community ethnography.

After three decades of “discovery” in this work, I still consider service-learning both essential as a teaching tool but far deeper than many of us thought when we first set out to connect our students to their place.

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About cwi blog

Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
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