Service-learning In Classroom Stirs Debate

July 27, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,

When Laura Mullen scanned her seventh-grade daughter's last report card of the year, she spotted something unexpected: Hayley already had 70 of the 75 service-learning hours she needed to graduate.

Months before, she'd only had 40 hours. And while Hayley had worked with her student government throughout the year, that didn't appear to be the source of the jump.

"I have always thought it's mostly community-based hours - going out, volunteering," Mullen, of Baltimore County, said.

But she and other parents have learned that the hours, once a point of fierce controversy, can accumulate through in-class projects and lessons.

"Students get community service credits just for going to class!" wrote another county parent, Dave Greene, last month on his blog BaltoNorth. "They don't have to leave the school or do any extra work!"

That fact, Greene contends, makes service-learning "look ridiculous to students, breeding disrespect for schools and cynicism about government."

But local and state educators say the idea of infusing service-learning into the curriculum and the classroom is one used, to different degrees, throughout the state.

Part of the confusion appears to lie in how service-learning is defined, and how school districts have incorporated it into their classrooms. It is not the same as community service, school officials say.

"It's not just the idea of sending a kid out to get hours and not understand what they're working on," said Julie Ayers, the state Department of Education's service-learning specialist. "This is much more focused on learning and civic education."

As such, doing it during the school day reinforces the learning aspect, Ayers said.

Yet an integral part of that learning is putting lessons into action - which can take the form of direct or indirect service, as well as advocacy - and reflecting on what was done, education officials say.

Reflection is a "critical part" of good service, said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who, as founder and former director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance, pushed for the requirement in 1992. "Experiences that aren't thought about often don't have as much impact as they could," she said.

Maryland is the only state with a service requirement for graduation, according to the state Department of Education.

Townsend pushed for service-learning because she "believed that to be good citizens, you had to know that you could participate," she said.

Julia Jasken, an associate professor at McDaniel College, said that having structure for service-learning, as opposed to relying on student initiative, is important. "That kind of model puts a lot of pressure on the organizations because they want to help, but at the same time, the students are coming to them without the support and, a lot of times, the training they need," said Jasken, who taught a new spring course on writing for nonprofits, which included a service-learning requirement.

Like Mullen, other parents said they understood the hours to be something earned in a more extracurricular setting.

Baltimore County parent Pixie Bruce said she was "surprised and shocked" when she was told what her daughter had done for her service hours: creating a drug awareness poster and participating in a "math-a-thon" fundraiser, but not other activities outside of class. "It was very enlightening to me," Bruce said.

That students seem unable to account for their hours suggests the reflection aspect, deemed crucial by education officials, is not happening, Greene said.

Zoe Camp, a rising senior at Catonsville High, said in her experience, students usually are told when projects count as service-learning - and the reflection piece, often a form students fill out, "gives you an opportunity to really think and to connect with the values that you're learning."

While some of her peers might see that portion as just another form to complete, Camp said she thought most recognize its importance.

Still, Camp recalled wondering, on occasion, about some of her hours. "Sometimes I wish they could be a little clearer," she said, adding that being able to request a breakdown would help.

Carroll County parent Carmela Guthart said her daughters regularly kept track of their hours. Although her kids also served outside of school, she said, not all parents support, or encourage, such efforts.

"There are children who would not be able to gain their service-learning hours if they did not have the ability to gain it through school," she said, describing in-class projects as "a necessary component."

Students can have a rich experience within school, depending on how it is structured, Townsend said. "If the student doesn't realize they've done service, it certainly eviscerates the purpose. ... Kids can go to soup kitchens, and they can learn nothing. It really depends on the reflection and the education."

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