Service-Learning as a Valuable and Viable Instructional Model


Emily is Kindergarten/Grade 1 Looping Classroom Teacher in Montpelier Vermont. She attended CWI’s Summer Institute on Service-Learning with a team of colleagues from her district. Emily’s school district has been working hard for a number of years to make service-learning a core part of all students’ K-16 experiences.

As CWI’s Summer Institute approached last summer I felt strongly that I knew what I was looking to gain from the week’s experience. My goal was to learn more about the purpose and strategies of place-based education. I was also seeking a better understanding of education for sustainability in hopes of folding the ideas around a shared vision of bettering our schools, communities, and practice for sustainable living into my practice. As one member of a team of teachers, I also wanted to learn more about how I can do more than just espouse my beliefs in the benefits of service learning experiences. When I reflect on the varied experiences I had at CWI‘s Summer Institute, I consider how the people I met, stories I heard, and varied learning activities will help me carry my service-learning work forward. Conversations about sustainability, equity in education and diversity have also found a place in my thinking about my own pedagogy.

Education for sustainability was a frequent focus, and constant under-current to the many fulfilling conversations I had with colleagues in my study group. To get our head, and service-learning filled hearts around the concept, our group found the underpinnings of sustainability deeply rooted in our shared understanding of reciprocity.

That when we give, we also agree to receive.

That when we offer help, we also agree to be helped.

That when we teach, we also agree to open our minds to learn.

Not only did our thinking move from the idea of giving as the medium of service, it morphed into the mutuality of service as the connection between communities, an avenue for a shared sustainable experience that is a give and receive amongst, between and is truly communal. The sustainable piece is embedded in the value all participants share in building relationships, learning from one another.

I have often struggled with how to share my belief of service-learning as a valuable, and viable instructional strategy with unconvinced or overwhelmed colleagues. This spring I participated in a district-wide “think tank” of other like-minded service learning-focused teachers and our goal was to develop a platform for our district’s administrative team to develop a “guaranteed a service learning experience for all students at every grade level.” What I learned from CWI workshop leaders, read from case studies, and witnessed as I listened to Institute colleagues across the week, is that service-learning experiences cannot be forced, or mandated by school leaders. Rather, school leaders and teachers who do want others to engage their students in service learning, can help faculty best as SL guides and supporters. We all need to work with colleagues who will help us remove barriers in the way of great instruction, and there are many well-known barriers to service learning.

Learning to think about what we teach, why, and the student experience is an important lens from which to view a service-learning approach to teaching. We must believe in the purpose and understand the meaning of what we set forth to accomplish. I discussed this approach with colleagues throughout our week together at CWI. The varied conversations stirred my thinking about collaboration and colleagueship as I experienced it this past school year.

It’s no wonder I felt so satisfied upon leaving daily conversations with a colleague about student needs, strategies for positive discipline, instructional choices for jazzing up a canned literacy program, or a routine choice I made to engage students in a lesson or meeting conversation and why. Unbeknown to us, we created a checks and balance system from which we drew our energy (fueling up intellectually so to speak), pre-tested & assessed our thinking, and took risks knowing we could make mistakes. We took care of one another and encouraged each another to try another approach. Our system helped us think about our independent instruction as shared instruction and our students as beneficiaries. It also became a system, I recently realized, that nourished my thinking about pedagogy, and bettered my practice through collaboration.

What I know about the importance of this practice bloomed from my experience at CWI, but what did come from my learning at the institute was its name: reflection. I know the power of reflection as an instructor. I also know the power of reflection as a student, and for my students (it is a common practice in my instruction, particularly during daily closing meetings with students). I gained new reflective strategies from Institute, and enjoyed opportunities to reflect on my learning during the institute with new colleagues on the diverse topics of sustainability and place-based education.

I hope to further explore the concept of place-based learning in my practice. I learned from CWI the importance of taking my learning “outside of the box.” Through reflective experiences since the Institute, I believe some of my most powerful learning took place with CWI colleagues in the place of learning — on the lawn. This approach to teaching and learning has affirmed my belief in teaching and learning in the place from which we need to learn from for all students.

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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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