In college, I took a service learning course. It was a literature course centered around the theme of “the odyssey” in literature. We read “The Odyssey,” of course, along with other literary works depicting journeys (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Cold Mountain were my favorites). For the service part of the course, we volunteered at a local juvenile detention center. We spent one hour a week with adolescent girls who were already headed down the wrong path in life. I was apprehensive about the project, but I quickly discovered that I really enjoyed it.
It’s an old cliche that “life is a journey,” but for me growing up, I always imagined it to be one filled with possibility and excitement. I was raised to believe I could be or do anything I put my mind to. For so many of these young girls, no one had told them that they could choose the road they traveled down. No one had let them dream. That class didn’t just open my mind, it opened my world. It made me realize that I wasn’t just fortunate to have food to eat and a roof over my head; I was blessed to have people in my life who recognized and encouraged my potential. I would do something significant with my life someday because no one had ever told me that any other possibility existed.
“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” — Albert Einstein
I’ve forgotten a lot of what I studied in college, but I remember what I learned from that class. And I remember because, for once, education wasn’t restricted to the four walls of the classroom. Education became much bigger – both more challenging and more exciting.
I teach students now who take English classes as a means to an end. They didn’t come to the United States to study English; they came here to study business or engineering or nursing. My class is yet another obstacle in the path of their ultimate goal. They ask, “Why do I need to take this class?” And if all I’m teaching them is how to identify topic sentences or form adjective clauses, then I don’t have an answer to their question. But what if the language class became more than that? What if the language class became a portal for meaningful communication? What if I could show my students the value of the language in connecting with and helping others?
A colleague mentioned to me her interest in adding a service-learning component to our curriculum. I love the idea. I would love to know what others have done. Please share if you’ve ever tried this with your students.