Seeing the Larger Context


sylviaSylvia is a veteran middle school teacher in Montpelier, Vermont. She is an alumnus of Community Works Summer EAST Institute on Service-Learning.

I served in the Peace Corps in West Africa, a region with a long history of outside assistance and an even deeper cultural history. My fellow volunteers and I spent three months in training and two years in service, a miniscule amount of time when compared to the deeply ingrained customs and habits of the communities in which we lived and worked. We had goals and objectives designed in conjunction with the country’s national government; and we often faced significant opposition in the host communities. It was hard to “get work done.” It was nearly impossible to “make change,” especially considering the transitory nature of our presence compared to the generational stability of our hosts and their cultural systems.

It was difficult to frame our time as “successful.” By western measures, we didn’t “do” much. In response, many of us began to speak of the personal growth we experienced. I have noticed this same response from others who have volunteered or worked abroad in other contexts. Lacking a tangible or physical result from our efforts [often just a few days or weeks], we come to focus on what we learned personally: tolerance, greater understanding, a wider worldview, just to name a few.

service learningI have come to consider this Institute reflection as a commodification of the experience. What was intended to be a selfless act of giving turns into a consumer experience. In lieu of the deep and lasting change we intended to effect, we accept instead an admirable personal growth, something to which we can point to justify the time spent. We got something for the time we put in. It was worth it—for us.

During her presentation at CWI's Summer Institute, teacher Julie Dolan asked a question along these lines: “Does reflection change the nature of the service? Does reflection make it more about you and thus detract from the service [which is ostensibly about someone else]? When she asked this question, I immediately thought of my Peace Corps-related ponderings.

Early in the week at the Institute, we learned that reflection is (in part) what makes the student experience “service learning” as opposed to “community service.” The reflection is where the learning takes place, we were told. I agreed then and I agree now. But I’m pondering the nuance, especially given the time constraints of student projects. Many community projects don’t end as intended, or don’t end on schedule, or don’t end at all, despite our wish for timely closure. In these instances, students may not feel successful. Their reflections—the essential part of the service learning experience—may then tend to focus on what they learned, personally; and while that is important, it’s not the only important thing. They also need to understand their role in the larger community context, and how their efforts contribute to change, even if it’s not the picture-perfect, tied-with-a-bow outcome they’d hoped for or envisioned.

Marijke Hecht, another Institute participant from Pittsburgh, pointed out how important it is to talk with students about how long real change takes, and that maintenance of your efforts is usually an ongoing affair. This really resonated, as I believe it to be true, and yet as educators we often look for projects that are discrete, time-limited, and achievable. It’s important to bite service learningoff a chewable amount, so to speak, and important for young people to see the results of their efforts. However, for change to be lasting and real, the results of a single project may be only a small part of a much larger whole.

“Is the need real? How do you know?” We were asked to consider these questions, along with “Do students understand the need, and what they are doing to meet it?” Combining Julie and Marijke’s ideas with my own, one big takeaway for me from the Institute is that of helping students see their work in the larger context of the community need. We don’t necessarily have to find short-term, discrete-outcome projects; in fact, many projects with true and lasting impact won’t fit this description at all. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile, or that the students’ efforts are wasted. Quite the contrary. But it is our role as educators and facilitators of service learning projects to make sure the students understand the impact of their work.

Rather than thinking of service work as a sprint, perhaps we should think of it as a long-distance run, and a relay at that. We may run the first leg, or one in the middle. On some projects we might cross the finish line, while on others we might “only” prepare the track. It’s all important, valuable and necessary to “make change” and experience real “success” in real communities.

This year, as I work with teachers to design and implement service learning projects, I want to be sure to focus on the context in which their project is taking place. Making sure that the students understand how their efforts fit into the community need will be very important. The students may not run the entire race. But I want them to understand which leg they’re running, who’s handing them the baton and to whom they’re passing it, and what the finish line looks like. With that information, they are more likely to understand that real change takes the dedicated efforts of many people over time. I want to help teachers use reflection to help their students understand that personal growth is not something that happens in lieu of tangible results, but rather that a changing mindset is a hoped-for outcome braided into the longitudinal and meandering nature of sustainable change in real communities.

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