Service Learning in the University Classroom

Kristen Sipper-Denlinger, Azusa Pacific University

Azusa Pacific is a faith-based university with a population of about 9,000 students, located in the greater Los Angeles area.  We have a strong service learning program, involving classes throughout the university.  In the English department, we have three programs currently in operation, but it is possible to utilize service learning in many different ways to enhance your class and your students’ experience.

What is service learning?

Service learning is an opportunity for your students to do work out in the community that is relevant to their work in the classroom.  Students partner with local agencies and do a set number of hours (as required by you), and usually do an assignment or reflection on this experience.

What we do at Azusa Pacific University:

APU’s English department currently has three service learning programs, one for ENGL 434 (Children’s Literature), one ENGL 406 (Advanced Composition), and one for ENGL99 (College Reading and Critical Thinking).

For Children’s Literature (which I teach along with another colleague), we require our students to serve for five hours reading to children.  They do this at local pre-schools, book stores, and churches.  Previously (prior to 2012), our students also went into local at-home daycares to run storytimes for children.  In 2012, our local public library got funding for a community read with the book Farewell to Manzanar.  For this project, students teamed up with the library to go into local elementary schools and run projects connected with the book.  These projects help our students to see how children interact with literature and also help with those who want to teachers.

For Advanced Composition, students work in small groups to create lesson plans, present curriculum, and with senior-level English classes at a local high school.  Students observe two class periods to see how teachers run their classes and conduct lessons.  APU students then prepare three lessons and teach their lessons with their classmates to a group of high school students.

For College Reading and Critical Thinking English class, students read to children at a local elementary.  The children at the school are struggling with English, so having a college student help them builds their confidence.  For our college students, it helps them strengthen their own language skills and also helps to build confidence.

Why service learning?

Benefits to the student:

The “millennial generation” is very socially oriented, which means that they enjoy working in groups and in more active settings.  SL is ideal for this generation because it allows them to be more practice than theory oriented.  It also allows for them to work in groups in the community, which can enrich their learning experience.

Service learning puts theory into practice.  We can often as educators employ a ‘top down’ pedagogical approach, where we teach theoretical approaches and then give examples.  Service learning allows students to see the practical applications of a theory, thus allowing us to better build on this knowledge.  For example, during a lecture, I mentioned that reading to young children is extremely important, even for children who are pre-verbal.  A student replied that indeed, when reading to an 8-month-old infant during story time, she was surprised at the level of interaction from a child so young.

It also:

¨  Provides practical experience for their future employment

¨  Builds their resumes

¨  Allows for networking with local agencies, which can lead to future employment

All of the above can also help to answer the question, ‘what do I do with my English degree?’ or ‘What is the value of my liberal arts education?’  For example, we have had many students say, ‘I enjoyed working with pre-schoolers more than I thought I would.  I think I might like to be a pre-school director.’  Or, ‘I thought I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, but after working with both kindergarteners and middle-schoolers, I was surprised to find how much I bonded with the older students.’

Benefits for the Professors and the University:

Service learning provides tangible support to the theory that you present to your students and puts that theory into practice.  We can often as educators employ a ‘top down’ pedagogical approach, where we teach theoretical approaches and then give examples.  Service learning allows students to see the practical applications of a theory, thus allowing us to better build on this knowledge.  For example, when discussing why authors of picture books often use repetitive text, a student might say, ‘Yes, I noticed how much the children enjoyed repeating “I do not like green eggs and ham” while I was reading last week.’

It also adds new insight into class discussion, as students can say, ‘Yes, I noticed that trend when I was doing my service learning,’ bringing in examples you may not have even thought of.  This will help students take more of an active interest in the class discussion.

Service learning also engages students with different learning styles.  Some students are more kinesthetic learners and learn better by doing.  This is an ideal way to teach those students. An active and successful service learning program can also positively raise your university’s profile within the local community.

The Downsides:

Many students are reticent to do service learning, as they are “far too busy” to do “extra work.”  Today’s students do indeed have a lot on their plates, balancing part-time jobs and campus activities.  It can be challenging for them to fit service learning into their schedule.  The way to get around this is to make your expectations known on the first day of class so that they are prepared and not surprised.  Many universities will mention the service learning requirement in the catalog, so students know what to expect.

This is also a very time consuming process.  Placing students in programs can take quite a bit of time (both in class and outside) at the beginning of each semester.  Fostering partnerships in your community can also be time consuming.  But we promise, it’s worth it!

The Practicalities of Service Learning:

There are things you can put in place to make your service learning activities run more smoothly.

If they don’t already, encourage your university to create a service learning office. These offices can help you liaise with local agencies to put programs in place.  They can also help you hammer out the details of projects.

You should also make Student Learning Objectives clear to students.  Helping to make objectives clear helps your students to get the most out of their experience.  For example, you might say in your assignment description or on your syllabus, ‘by reading to young children, you will gain real-world experience with how children relate to books, which will help you to better be able to evaluate and appreciate children’s literature.’

It can also help to create an assignment that allows for student accountability/reflection.  This reflection can help to solidify for the student what they learned through their experience.  For example, my students write a three-part reflection that first discusses their expectations (eg. ‘I was not looking forward to this assignment because I am a naturally shy person and get nervous when having to read aloud), then discusses their experience (eg. ‘When I first started to read, it was difficult to get the children to settle down, so I…), and lastly their reflection (eg. ‘I was really glad for the opportunity to complete this assignment, as I learned…).

Also remember that there’s a balance between encouraging students to take control of the task and giving them too much leniency.  While can be a great idea to let students come up with their own projects, be sure to set guidelines and expectations.  Have students approve their programs with you first and make sure that they have someone to supervise their project and this person understands the above mentioned student learning objectives.

Encourage students to go in groups.  As millennial-generation students are more social and community oriented by nature, they will often find this less intimidating if they can go together.  This will also help for later class discussion on the project.  That said, make sure to keep groups very small (no more than 3-4 students).  When groups are too large, students usually get less out of the assignment.

How to Create Partnerships:

Partnerships can be created anywhere!

For example, you can use local librarians: ask if your students can get involved with story time or tutoring.  Local school principals can help by letting your students come in and observe classroom activities or letting your students come in and read to children.

It’s important to get students involved: many already have contacts at schools/churches/daycares.

Also remember that there’s grant money out there: work with local agencies to apply.

What our students are saying:

“Thank you so much for the superb opportunity to interact with local children.  [The ELF] program is a rare gem, and the work you do it admirable.  I will miss participating.”

“This experience opened my eyes to the world of books that children see. I got to see what the children enjoyed about books, the questions they ask, and how much they actually understand. I had a lot of fun interacting with the kids.”