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The Journal has been published by Community Works Institute (CWI) since 1995, in support of teaching practices that build community. The Journal features essays and reflections along with curriculum overviews that highlight the importance of place, service, and sustainability to a relevant and meaningful education.

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Teaching for Social Justice Through Collaborative Ethnography


We had a great conversation in Los Angeles recently, with veteran educators Felipe Sanchez and Alexandra Gonzales. We’re building a community focused pedagogy K-16. It’s all here and they said it so well. Join us for the next stage. at CWI’s Summer Institute on Place Based Service-Learning, in Burlington, Vermont and Los Angeles.
learn more:

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Through The Personal Lens: Reconceiving Language and Education


hector vilaHector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners.

“When I initially signed up for this class,” writes Megan, a first year student at Middlebury College, “I imagined that it would be objective. Scenarios for Teaching Writing.”  Megan goes on to say that she “instinctively latched on to the meaty education buzzwords, teaching writing.” She had no idea what the course would be — perhaps a course where the teacher imparts information and students pass it on to their assigned mentees, 10th graders in an English class at Media and Communications High School in Washington Heights, New York City.  This is simply the external architecture of the course. The course is an inquiry into our commitment to Education writ large; it means to challenge pre-conceived notions, individually and culturally, about the purpose of education; and it asks student to investigate their identities so as to better actualize a purposeful life.

The course is done by privileging writing—the Middlebury students’, the Media and Communications students’ and theories of composition. This becomes our method.  It is accomplished in the classroom at Middlebury, face-to-face in Washington Heights, where we visit students during the first week, and online (Google Docs), where Middlebury students tutor and mentor their 10th  grade partners, justifying their approach by addressing a theoretical framework for working with student writing. The conflation of face-to-face and online work is an elegant way to address the complex needs of students, at Middlebury and in Washington Heights; it is a sustainable architecture for a K-16 continuum; and, perhaps most vital, it opens a dialog between communities that never speak to each other. Continue reading

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Engaging Children Through Playful Learning: A Case Study


engaged learningCommon sense tells us, when we do what we love, we do it well.  When work is fun, we are more creative, we are more thoughtful, and we want to keep building upon that success. Best practices in curriculum design start with that same wisdom. Students who are engaged in meaningful, creative learning projects that connect to the real world are more motivated to succeed. These students are invested in an excellent outcome. Doing something that matters compels kids to expect more of themselves and perform at a higher level than if the greatest motivation was merely a good grade or a gold star.

So how do we go about designing project-based curriculum that allows for deep and effective learning?

After many years of successfully designing such curriculum, we believe that an effective project-based curriculum needs to be:

  1. Authentic
  2. Experiential
  3. and Reflective

Continue reading

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Sustaining Service-Learning: Lessons From Two Decades of Change


service learningMartha Rich recently retired after twenty years as Head of School at Thetford Academy in Vermont. Thetford Academy is public-private school and has been designated a National Service-Learning Leader School. Martha has served as a faculty member of Community Works Institute (CWI) and has also been deeply involved in the national movement around professional learning communities. In this article Martha responds to our request to share her school’s experiences working with CWI’s Best Practices for Service-Learning. More information on these practices can be found at

“You can’t mandate what matters.” This pronouncement heads the list of Michael Fullan’s lessons for reform in The New Meaning of School Change. I first read Fullan’s work years ago, when I was a fledgling administrator seeking advice on the change process: How does it happen? What should I do to move it along? Most important, how could positive changes be sustained? Fullan’s research offered a set of “lessons” for people like me, though most of his statements looked more like paradox than prescription. If you really “can’t mandate what matters,” how should a school leader proceed? Continue reading

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Not a Chain Link or a Picket Fence: Social Justice Pedagogy in an Urban Garden Project


social justiceTara Affolter is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Studies at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. She has spent the bulk of her career in high school classrooms, teaching English and theatre and working for social justice in public school systems. She is keenly interested in finding ways to build fully inclusive communities within schools, colleges, and universities.

There was a flurry of activity as I stepped into the urban garden that students from my college were helping construct at the Bronx Academy of Letters (BAL). Ben was attempting to set up boards to roll the wheelbarrow up the steps; Kenny was kicking a soccer ball with his siblings (waiting for the next load of dirt to arrive); Janet was checking the radish plants and Jacob began ushering me to the garden beds.  A tour began and the four students pointed out the raised beds, different plants, and the barrels they had acquired and sawed in half to use as planters.  Their stories bounced off of each other, overlapping into an excited and slightly more adult version of “show and tell.” Continue reading

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Imagining the Possible, Then Making it Happen


Paula Cohen is a veteran 2nd grade teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District.

Most of my teaching career, I have defied the book. I’ve strived to put learning in context, connect students to issues in the community and make learning as relevant a process as I can. Meanwhile I work hard at helping students reach mastery and upholding the great standards. I signed a contract after all. It is always a great juggling act and way more work than following the “book” or program. The accomplishments do feel great, but there is always this sense that there wasn’t enough time or fluidity in the project. It could have been so much more if it didn’t have to have such a premature ending. Ever experienced that gnawing sensation?

Then I discovered that I can do a whole lot more on my own time outside of the classroom. It is the perfect storm for affecting change without all the restraints the classroom poses. Being a teacher offers access to youth, plenty of unmet needs, and an instant community to plug into. The only thing the contract greatly lacks is time. So limited and restrictive is the little time we have with our students. That’s when I discovered the benefit to offering my own surplus.  Continue reading

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Dispelling the Myths of Reflection


Carrie Williams Howe, MEd is the Interim Director of the Office of Community-University Partnerships and Service-Learning (CUPS) at the University of Vermont. She works primarily with faculty and students in academic service-learning and community-based research. A member of the National and Vermont Campus Compact Consultant Corps, Carrie also has experience leading international service-learning programs for students and teachers. 

reflectionIt has happened more times than I can count…I’m talking about the possibilities of service-learning with a faculty member; we’re discussing the value of hands-on experience, the possibilities for translating academic concepts to real-world application, the possible partners in our community and then…we come to reflection.  Body language changes; instead of leaning in eager and excited, colleagues, or students in my class, lean back and squirm. We’ve hit uncharted territory; preconceptions that surround the word “reflection” are tainting the conversation.

Reflection activities “provide the bridge between community service activities and the educational content of a course…direct the students’ attention to new interpretations of events…and provide a means through which the community service can be studied and interpreted” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999).  It is perhaps one of the most examined and written about aspects of service-learning pedagogy.  And yet, it is also one of the most misunderstood aspects of this learning approach.

In my work with faculty members and students over the last six years, I have noticed that the preconceptions that surround reflection cloud our discussions. Instead of waxing creatively about ways to elicit critical thinking (as I used to perhaps unfairly expect), their minds are whirling with pitfalls, assumptions, and pessimism.  Eventually, I recognized that my words were wasted if I didn’t first attempt to dispel their doubts.  So I have begun to tackle the concept of reflection by starting with the assumptions, “nipping them in the bud” before turning to the creation of activities.  As a result, I find that the conversation that follows is more freely embraced. Continue reading

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Transforming the Academic Classroom: University Students and Children in a Homework Program Write Poems Together

California State University at Channel Islands

channel islandsClaudia M. Reder , Ph.D. teaches at California State University at Channel Islands. She is the author of My Father & Miro and Other Poems. Her interests include storytelling, poetry, and encouraging creativity in the prospective educators she teaches. A poet in the schools for twenty years, she brings her experiences into her university classes.

Today I am excited
Because I meet new College people
Looking forward to Having fun
–child from The Poetry Project

The poetry service-learning project began with the question: What would happen if prospective teachers, who were mostly unfamiliar with poetry, created poems with children? Would these students accept the possibility that poetry can be a journey of discovery? Could the experience of helping children make poems enable students to become teachers who are not fearful of poetry, who enjoy incorporating poetry into their classrooms?

Students often need help with risk-taking. They want to know what is “right” and “what the teacher wants in order to do well.” In this poetry service-learning project, students were taught how to discover and use their own resources and creativity. They learned how to be flexible, to respond to children who were reluctant readers and writers, and to collaborate with each other in poetry writing. The aim was not to write a “correct” poem, but to ignite the creativity in themselves and the children. Poetry expresses the essence of an experience or feeling or idea and therefore is an excellent medium to help children articulate what is most important to them. Continue reading

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Nature Journals: An Enduring Marriage of Art and Literature

nature journal
Deb Crowder has taught elementary, junior high and high school art, and has been a senior high art teacher at Monadnock Regional Junior-Senior High School in Swanzey, New Hampshire for the past twenty-one years. She recently completed requirements for a M.Ed degree from Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, NH.

On a bright, sunny, but chilly April morning, I was accompanying my second period Art 4 class through our high school’s back parking lot, when suddenly there was a flurry of squealing and excited gestures from several of my junior and senior girls. “EEEUUU!” Jess exclaimed, as Julie pointed at a large, brown waterbug on the pavement. My class gathered around to marvel, mostly with revulsion, at the size of it, and Julie immediately decided to name it “Pierre.” I feared the waterbug was doomed in the parking lot, so I carefully picked up the motionless insect and carried him on my sketchbook out to the stand of large old white pines where we were planning to draw in our nature journals. I set Pierre on the ground where he could pose for those who decided to draw him. He revived after sitting in the sun and moved around, but he was quiet long enough for several of us to make a sketch of him. I recorded this event with a drawing of Pierre and a narrative in my nature journal, and know that when I look at that entry years from now I will be transported back to that morning and enjoy the fond recollection of my students reacting to Pierre the waterbug. Continue reading

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