Breaking Through with My Least Favorite Teaching Assignment

By DIANE SHINGLEDECKER

I had been a Community College Instructor for over ten years, and I honestly did not know what to do about this one class: Business Editing Skills. Its description in the course catalog included the words spelling, punctuation, grammar, and proofreading. It was a course designed to give Administrative Assistant degree students solid English skills: a commendable goal. But the Administrative Assistant degree is embedded in our Computer Applications Department, and I was a computer software instructor. I could expertly find my way around any Microsoft software and teach my students to do the same; and, truth be told, I had strong English skills — but that didn’t mean I wanted to teach spelling, grammar, etc., etc. I was hired as a full-time faculty member with the understanding that I would teach all the department classes that the latest retiree had taught, and that included Business Editing Skills.

I gave it the old college try and got through teaching the course for a number of years. But there was no excitement — for me or my students. Grammar exercises were tedious and spelling repetitious. I mixed things up with catchy videos and proofreading children’s books, but the bottom line remained the same. It was my least favorite course to teach, and I wanted to hand it off to another instructor as soon as possible. Getting through a course was never my desire; if I couldn’t find a way to teach it well, I didn’t want to teach it at all.

While all this was going on, I became more and more passionate about weaving service-learning modules into my other classes. When I taught my department’s capstone class, my students coordinated a yearly campus-wide computer eCycling drive. The project was breaking down department silos as it encouraged collaboration between computer, engineering, and environmental science students, as well as student government, sociology, and philosophy (!). Students were excited about coming to class to work on a “real” project that was making a difference.

I was also finding ways to build confidence in our Computer Application students by growing service-learning tutoring opportunities with the Biology and English Second Language programs. As our on-campus efforts helped students develop Excel and keyboarding skills, my students’ passion grew along with their confidence. I just didn’t see the possibility for service-learning in my least favorite class… yet. I just had to get through teaching that class, so I could get back to the ones that I really enjoyed. But in the back of my mind, this just didn’t sit well with me.

Then I starting hearing about instructors who were integrating service-learning online through indirect, virtual projects. I read an article about an instructor who was having his students work with non-profit websites, and that gave me an idea. My students could proofread websites for non-profit community partners in the greater Portland area. I wasn’t exactly sure what we were getting into, but I thought it had to be better than the textbook assignments that were boring all of us.

“What I like about this experience is that it made me stronger inside for who I am.”

At the start of the term, my students each picked a non-profit they were passionate about and wrote them an email message (perfectly written, of course) asking if they could proofread their website. Then they dug into the website questioning punctuation and spelling while not even realizing they were applying the rules they were learning in class. Suddenly, commas mattered! The students wanted to help their non-profit partners, so they were getting excited about making sure the grammar and punctuation was correct. Were we actually enjoying this? There was also something more — this “comma project” was service-learning to the next level for my students. Let me share a few examples of what was happening.

One of my students was a veteran of the war in Iraq who suffered from post-service issues and often came to class with alcohol on his breath. During the first few weeks of class, his attendance was sporadic; and his interest was lacking. He came in late and left early. I tried to reach out to him, but I wasn’t making much of a connection. Then I introduced our proofreading project. He started taking interest in the work of proofreading his website and showing up for class. His attitude and demeanor noticeably. He had chosen the Mission in downtown Portland for his community partner. In a reflection assignment, he shared that he had been homeless and had been significantly helped by the Mission when he was younger. This chance to give back to the people who had helped him was life-changing. Until this project, he didn’t believe there would ever be a way to return the favor and help them — not for him! He had a relationship with the people in this organization, and so he cared deeply about the service of proofreading. My veteran student and the Mission were now helping each other — it was a two-way street. I honestly never saw the possibility for this in this project.

Another one of my students was also a sporadic class attender with a different story. A 20-something, female student from Russia, she was squeezing in classes around caring for four younger siblings and holding down a part-time job. Passing the course was all that mattered; attendance and becoming engaged clearly didn’t matter. I’d had this student in previous classes and knew her story. I always wished I could reach out to her more and pull her into really becoming a part of the class. Then our proofreading project started. When time allowed, which wasn’t too often, this student volunteered with the local Search & Rescue Unit in her town. She looked up to everyone involved with this agency and greatly admired what they did. She asked if she could proofread their website for our project. What a difference this made! She really cared what the people at the Search & Rescue thought of her, and she saw the project as a way to be a part of their team. It wasn’t a school assignment to her; it was a way to work with Search & Rescue. She never missed another day of class and did a great job on the assignment. She built a stronger relationship with the team in her community that she really believed in. Again, I had no idea this would happen. Remember, I just wanted a way out of those boring, repetitive grammar drills!

Of course, not all students rose to the occasion in this service-learning project. There was the usual group of students who wanted to work with the Cat Adoption Agency or the Humane Society solely because the animals were cute. But there were still other students who picked websites that stemmed from a personal relationship. A local breast cancer counseling center was the choice of a student whose mom was battling breast cancer. A middle school’s website was chosen by a mother who felt her English skills weren’t good enough to volunteer at her son’s school.

“I hesitated to proofread the website because I am a foreigner, and the writer of the website is an American. How could I find an error on the website? The more I found errors, the more I had interest in the project. It was a great opportunity for me to improve my English and to help society.”

A teenage pregnancy website was the choice of a female student whose friends hadn’t always made the best choices; she wanted to make sure other young females had the resources to make better choices. A student victim of domestic abuse found the power to face her past when she proofread her chosen website. These students had a relationship with or deeply cared about those helped by the agency they chose. My students didn’t just want to proofread their chosen website because they had the skills to do it; they wanted to proofread the website to help others they cared about. Charity-level service-learning stepped up to the caring level of service-learning in the most unlikely place — on a computer screen looking for misspelled words and misplaced commas.

“I learned that anyone at any time can be helpful. What I liked most about this experience is how I can be useful regardless of the fact that I am still studying and have not graduated yet.”

“What I like about this experience is that it made me stronger inside for who I am.”

It’s funny. My department chair recently found someone else to teach the Business Editing Skills class for our department, so I wouldn’t have to teach my least favorite class anymore. I turned the offer down.

Diane Shingledecker is the District Service-Learning Faculty Coordinator specializing in Career Technical Education, as well as, a Computer Applications Instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. She is an enthusiastic alumni of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer Institute on Service-Learning. She has been incorporating service-learning into her classes for the past 13 years and helping other faculty do this for the past 3 years. She is a participant in Portland State University’s Graduate Certificate Program in Service-Learning.

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