By JONNY RODGERS
Jonny is the Director of Service-Learning at Campbell Hall School in Los Angeles and is an alumnus of CWI’s Summer Institute on Service-Learning and Sustainability.
Wow. What a week! I’m not sure how to fully reflect on such a rich experience in summary form, but maybe a loose, informal reflection will still be helpful. I came into my week at CWI’s Summer Institute knowing very little about service-learning or education for sustainability. The only real experience I had was in place-based learning through outdoor education, so I was very familiar with learning about nature while in natural settings.
Before the Summer Institute I would have categorized “outdoor education” experience as essentially and intrinsically different from service-learning. Now I can’t help but think that the complete learning experience almost has to include service-learning, education for sustainability, and be place-based. I look back on my experience in so many different schools growing up and realize now that all the most impactful and memorable learning experiences I had included those three elements. I now realize that to treat community, place, and the greater goal of a sustainable relationship with our planet and all its inhabitants as separate from academic pursuits is to do one’s students, and one’s community, a great disservice. I also see that all complete education integrates the story of the individual learner, the story of their community, the environment, the greater story of the Earth, humanity at large, and the universe itself. This allows for a deeper understanding on the part of the learner as to where they fit in the big picture, and perhaps even what their purpose in the greater story might be.
In creating that sense of purpose and belonging, the learner is much more likely to be driven to participate in the larger story of the surrounding environment and community because they see themselves as an important part of that community rather than a separate observer. In fact, this idea of shifting the perspective of the learner from “observer” to “participant” is my biggest take-away from my week with Community Works Institute. I strongly feel that there is no such thing as a separate observer. We are all participants in our local and global communities, whether we embrace that role or not. Our actions, or our inaction, affects our communities and the environment every moment in subtle and overt ways. Helping students to both recognize and embrace this fact is my new mission as an educator.
The concept of inviting students to “fall in love” with their subject matter is a simple but revolutionary concept. It re-engages students with the learning process in a way that allows students to take pride and ownership in what they are learning. The idea of using that love to direct the students’ energy toward benefiting their community and environment in fun, meaningful, and sustainable ways seems like an educator’s dream, one that once seemed farfetched, but now feels achievable.
I would never have come to this belief on my own, and especially not in such a short time. The people with whom I worked this week were an inspiration, and I believe that our large and small group discussions were the most influential and eye-opening element of the week. All the different experiences and perspectives allowed us to search for the most effective common best practices, and really unpack what each one entailed. I feel not only well informed as to how to go about doing the work, but truly galvanized to do it.
Other factors that I feel were instrumental in making this week transformative for me were the “Community Ethnography” project, Mike “the water guy”, Kelli Dawn and Paula’s presentations, as well as Darin Earley’s frank talk about partnerships. The principles and best practices CWI’s Summer Institute provided from the beginning of the week were also a solid platform from which to leap into the practical applications of these approaches. The most important part of the week for me was the RiverLore project discussions, which allowed for an avenue to start planning how all the things we learned about this week might be put into practice. The fact that it has an application beyond the week, that I now actually have a network and team of educators working toward a common goal, is amazing. It really grounds the work and allows me to immediately start implementing the things we learned.
I can’t express how excited I am to connect schools and communities with each other using the shared topic of the LA River. It has the potential to be a fully integrated learning experience. The river is such a rich resource, I can easily see how virtually every subject taught at the school could find a way to connect to the river without much of a stretch. It could provide a larger context for the learning process at the whole school and give all the students and faculty a shared sense of purpose beyond just general education and college admission.
That is a very exciting idea.
I think it’s time for the learning paradigm to shift from compartmentalized learning to fully integrated education. Instead of all one’s subjects being completely disconnected from one another, they could all be connected by a common theme — in this case the river and its surrounding communities. It has the potential to incorporate every aspect of the educational landscape for each student. So many subjects can be taught through the lens of the river, and be driven by the common mission of giving the river a voice, sharing its story, and re-integrating it into the community at large. This shared mission can act as a metaphor for the great shared mission that I believe every student and every teacher should take part in: giving the Earth a voice, sharing its story, and re-integrating it into the global community.