Trust Your Students, They Will Shine

By STEVEN COLANGELI

Steven teaches science at Middlebury High School in Vermont. He has done remarkable work investing his students with responsibility for their own learning through service-learning and sustainability projects. He has developed a curriculum for alternative education students that integrates science, math, and health units into a sustainable food systems curriculum with an extremely active learning component. Steven is an alumnus and current faculty member of CWI’s Summer Institute on Service-Learning.

Don’t enable your students; trust them and they will shine.

This was the introduction to my presentation at last year’s CWI Summer EAST Institute on Service Learning, in Vermont. I live just down the road was honored that CWI’s director Joe Brooks asked me to come and talk about some of my service-learning projects I have done with my students.

The focus of my talk was on the work I have been doing with having students learn how to grow their own food, as well as food for the school. Integrating science, math, and health units into this sustainable food systems curriculum has been challenging but extremely rewarding. As the national obesity epidemic and associated health risks such as diabetes are on the rise, I feel that all students should know: how to grow their own food; know what it means to eat healthy; and be able to cook a healthy affordable meal that comes from fresh local ingredients.

How does all this connect with service-learning? The better question to ask is how does it not connect to service-learning. Community Works Institute’s Joe Brooks asked me to write a reflection about my experiences with service-learning. As I started to wrap my head around what I was going to write, I kept thinking about all of the service-learning projects that I have done with my classes over the past ten years and wondered was their common theme. 

What I quickly realized was that all the projects had been successful and the learning experience for my students as well as for the community members and or other students they worked with was rewarding and educational. This is not to say that there were not bumps along the way, or students that were challenging, but I can honestly say that I have never had a bad experience with a service-learning project even when my students were not as prepared as perhaps they should have been.

Let me back up and give you a quick overview of my own educational experiences. My first job was teaching science and health at a “pull out” alternative high school for students with behavioral and emotional difficulties. I transitioned to Union 32 High School in Montpelier Vermont for the next six years, teaching many different science subjects with all ability levels including many advanced level classes. For the past two years I have come full circle and am now teaching at Middlebury Union High School in Vermont. I am teaching in an Alternative Education Program for students’ in 9th to 12th grade.

A bit more information about my current job is also relevant to my story. Students are in the Middlebury Union High School’s Alternative Program for a multitude of reasons, but it is fair to say many don’t see school, or receiving a strong education, as an important part of their life. This makes my job both challenging and exciting since I need to provide the most relevant curriculum possible while also trying to instill the value of a good education into my students.

Part of why they are disillusioned is that many of them have never been successful in school, even though many are very intelligent. They have had few positive experiences in school and have few positive relationships with teachers, administrators, and community members. Why is this important to my story? I had been sold on the power of service-learning after my first year at U-32 High School in Montpelier. I had done many projects there — including one that will go down as one of my most memorable days of teaching, but that is another story.

When I got to Middlebury and starting working at the alternative program I became worried that these students might not be able to handle the responsibility, majority level, and overall focus, that would be needed for a solid service-learning project. After mulling this over I figured that I would just give it a chance since it had worked so well in the past.

Fast forward to this June, as I write this, and I have now completed ten service-learning projects with the Students in the Alternative Education program. These projects range from teaching younger students about composting, gardening, forestry, the human body systems, and greenhouse production, to educating the local community about the importance of eating and purchasing local foods. Students have even participated as experts at the schools wellness day and nutrition awareness day for the work they have done with the schools gardens and greenhouse. A group of them won a local entrepreneur award for the work they did growing micro-greens for the school cafeteria in the winter months.

My first sentence at the beginning of this article was “don’t enable your students, trust them and they will shine.” But why is this? Why did my disenfranchised students step up and shine? This is what I wanted to find out. Was it that the projects made the curriculum relevant? Was it the pressure of not looking “stupid” in front of an audience, or was it something else. I tried to find the answer by asking my students reflective questions at the end of the projects as well as anecdotal evidence from observing them during their projects.

So what did I conclude? I am still not quite sure, but I fell the general reason they do so well is that it is a positive experience for them, and one that is real. Think about the difference between taking an essay exam on the chemistry of soils or providing staff members of our school with a soil test for their home garden with recommendations on how to improve their soil. This may not seem like a big deal to some. But think about the experiences many of these students have had in the past with teachers. Now, these very same students are providing a service to teachers as well as educating them on the importance of having a healthy soil and how to achieve it. When you think about it from their perspective it is crazy to use a test focused system, with no reason or opportunity for demonstrating practical knowledge to others. I believe it is also not only about having positive experiences, but about providing a safe place for students to build their own confidence and to feel good about themselves.

One of my female students who comes from a tough home life, and has a tough exterior became the sweetest most engaging person when teaching elementary students about the respiratory system or how to plant lettuce seeds. The elementary students would hang on her every word and she had them laughing out loud with their full attention. It was as if she was a different person

and so the culture of our program during these projects took on an amazingly positive vibe that is difficult to adequately explain or describe.

So where do I go from here? First, I need to always follow my own advice. No matter how many times I do service-learning projects, I still find myself trying to micro-manage the students and find myself getting extremely anxious leading up to a project. I need to fully trust them and not enable them. The second is to try and capture the essence of service-learning and the positive experience it provides and provide this to my students everyday. My hope is that my next reflection will be on how I achieved this second goal.

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