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Tying Service to Academics

Page history last edited by Jon Raimon 11 years ago


Why link service to academics?


The literature on service unequivocally argues that if service is to be meaningful, it should be tied to academics. That is, the service should deepen academic understanding and the academic understanding should deepen the value of the service. (See work by the National Youth Leadership Council for more on the connection between academics and service -- http://www.nylc.org/ ). This sabbatical and my fourteen years of coordinating the service program at LACS confirm the power of the connection between service and academics. (However, as I argued in the first section, Service Projects from Scratch, genuine, student driven interest is even more vital to a meaningful learning experience than any other factor, including connections to the curriculum.) During the sabbatical, I supported a number of academic linked service projects. I will discuss three of them here as models, including their strengths and shortcomings.


Economics, Hunger and Service


Perhaps the richest learning experience came from a unit Ms. Sofi Gluck and I taught on the connection between poverty and service in her Economics classes at Ithaca High. A unique aspect was that Ms. Gluck was willing and able to devote a full week to lessons so that information could be introduced, mulled over and digested. Moreover, Ms. Gluck had surveyed her students’ interests at the beginning of the semester and poverty was one of the areas they wished to focus on. Here is an overview of the week:


Day One – Even before we began, Ms. Gluck had assigned short readings about poverty and hunger so students would have a background on the basic economic issues and statistics. Then the first day we met I offered more emotive, narrative entry points into the topic, beginning with excerpts from important American writers, including James Baldwin, Dorothy Allison, Sherman Alexie, and Raymond Carver. We then handed out quotations on poverty, social class, and hunger, along with writing prompts. The students (and teachers) wrote and shared their initial thoughts and feelings on the topic. Sharing these initial reactions with each other helped students become aware of issues of inequality and equity in our community, as well as increasing empathy. Here a link the document with the quotes and prompts – Initial Reflections on Poverty, and below are excerpts from some of the students’ responses. (Note: I am using brackets to rewrite some details that might reveal the identity of the students.)


[In the sport I play] I notice from other peoples’ cars, and the way they talk about money that I am on the low end of the spectrum. [One of my parents lost their job] and I get no benefits. My friends are all safe to assume they can go to Cornell…Me, I know that there is less chance of getting in just because [my parent] doesn’t work there.


I personally think social class is a major factor in how people feel about each other at Ithaca High and how well one does at Ithaca High…I disagree with Sherman Alexie’s quote: ‘Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty teaches one how to be poor.’ I think poverty teaches one how to persevere because without perseverance, there is no hope…Even with social statuses placed to determine success in high school, poor people break barriers, and become educated and successful.


I see people [at Ithaca High] who wear Polo shirts and chat with unlimited texting on Iphones while they stock up on food in the lunch line. I see them, and I am angry. Angry that I am getting free lunch, that my cell phone is five years old, and that my family home computer is from before I got out of elementary school.


In middle school for the first time I was referred to as ‘trailer trash.’ I have lived in a trailer my whole life…and it is very nice, neat, and clean. It is much cleaner than large houses I’ve been to, yet some people refuse to believe a trailer can be a nice home free of disgusting things that can label it ‘trailer trash.’ Even in high school I’ve had friends refuse to believe my house could be nice when they haven’t visited it, just because I live in a trailer. I would much rather live in a small yet livable trailer than live in a large messy house.


The first time I was aware of the effects of poverty was in middle school when I wondered why my house was bigger, newer, and cleaner than some of my close friends…a good friend was finally able to have me over for dinner and when I walked into the messy, small, and tense environment of her mother’s one-bed room apartment in a project, I really started to see what it looked like to be poor [in our community].


Philanthropists have been doing wonderful things for the poor for years. But it cannot be as simple as donating money, donating clothes, etc. I’d rather not see ‘the poor’ as a commodity of self-acceptance. To really understand the loss of dignity many people face by accepting aid, one would have to step in the shoes (or lack thereof) of the poor, and how many people are willing to do that?


Social class at [Ithaca] High School, I’ve noticed, tends to distinguish academic performance and extra curricular activities. It tends to be the lower end of the rural communities or the lower end of the downtown / urban population that are often seen cutting class, getting bad grades, and not participating in various sports activities…I think social class definitely influences the organization and distribution of socio-economics as far as those of lesser income tend to be in the easier / Regents classes. However, I do not think poverty and class determine how people treat one another.


Social class is definitely somewhat divided between Regents and honors and AP classes at Ithaca High. I think this divide effects how students feel about each other...Since the recession and since my family has become poorer, I am much more conscious of what I have and what I don’t. 


Day Two – We had an expert from the community, Jennifer Bertron from the Food Bank of the Southern Tier (http://www.foodbankst.org/index.asp?pageId=75), share a role playing exercise entitled Hunger 101. This exercise pushed students to consider poverty and hunger in our community from multiple perspectives and to gain insight into how difficult it is to make ends meet. Students had to create a budget based on background information on their ‘character’ and then feed themselves and their families for a day. This clearly connects to heightening empathy, as well as working on problem solving and combating bias. If you are interested in the details of this activity, please contact Jennifer Bertron jbertron@feedingamerica.org. She is a wonderful educator and has a variety of activities to share.  Below are photographs from the Hunger 101 activity:






Day Three – Using an article Ms. Gluck handed out as background information on economic policy regarding food relief and incentives (When Work Doesn’t Pay"), Ms. Bertron presented an overview and analysis of hunger in our community. This pushed the students to apply analytical thinking to service issues. Here is a link to the power point she presented: Hunger 101 Presentation 


Day Four – Here is when service was overtly linked to the information on poverty and hunger, though students knew from the beginning that I was there to discuss service. First we discussed service options related to poverty and everyone brainstormed what kind of service work would suit them the best. Of course, one major challenge is that these were second semester seniors with little time left in Ithaca. Yet I made it clear that almost all of these service options would be available in most any community they traveled to after leaving Ithaca High. I helped the students decide on the kind of placements that interest them, even if they were not able to pursue them immediately. Here is a list specific of service options linked to poverty that each student read and discussed: Service Placements Related to Poverty


We also discussed a piece Ms. Bertron suggested, the introduction to the book Sweet Charity , by Janet Poppendieck. The piece challenged students to consider whether volunteerism, in fact, made social ills worse by placing a Band Aid on the problems. This forced students to once again think critically and consider important paths for addressing matters of social justice.


Day Five – We used our final time together to put the issues in a larger societal and political context, including a ranking activity on social change versus charity. Ranking Exercise.  We had discussions about capitalism, responsibility to help others, social change, and related issues. Students then reflected on the whole week. Below are some of their observations, beginning with Ms. Gluck’s thoughts:


Jon spent a week with my three economics classes and managed to captivate this difficult audience of 2nd-semester seniors.  By mixing reading, journaling, role playing, and discussion, Jon appealed to a variety of learning styles.  Jon began his week with my class by sharing reflections on poverty from a wide variety of sources including novelists and prominent thinkers of various backgrounds and political persuasions.  Jon helped to strengthen our classroom community as well as students' understanding of poverty by asking students to share their own reflections on poverty.  He arranged for a very effective guest presenter, providing simulations, readings, concrete information and a chance for discussion on current poverty issues affecting our area.  From Jon's work with my class students gained not only a greater understanding of issues surrounding poverty but also a critical perspective on service and it's role in alleviating poverty or affecting social change, as well as a deeper connection to each other and our local community.  His skill in facilitating and organizing this poverty unit allowed students from a variety of backgrounds to feel safe in sharing with and learning from each other.  Jon helped to make our discussion of poverty personal for the students, and thereby created a deeper and more memorable learning experience. 


I liked the discussions because it gave the class a chance to reflect together on important issues that they or people they know have faced. Poverty is closer to home than many of us would like to imagine, and this exercise will almost certainly help myself and others be more motivated to contribute time and effort.


I definitely think I will be more likely to volunteer now. What we learned about poverty this week was shocking. I really had no idea how severe and chronic the problem is.


I really liked how some people made it personal (with personal stories). Even when I can’t relate t them I really respect what they had to say and I think everyone had really good points and took the discussions seriously.


I really liked how [the teachers were] more of moderators in our discussion, really letting us speak and guiding us rather than doing much arguing. The conversation got hearted but it never turned ugly. I learned a lot about the viewpoints that were different than mine.


[The week has] really influenced my views and made me want to volunteer on a local level.


I’ve already volunteered throughout my high school career but now I have more incentive and it seems more meaningful.


[I think we had] a realization that students do seem to recognize that there are class and racial divisions, but seem guarded about how to redress these divisions.


I liked the activity where we were assigned a person because it was hands-on and showed me how hard it is to feed a family with very little money.


Post Script: Ms. Gluck and I attempted to include a service assignment that would push them to go into the community. Yet this was a challenge because it was second semester and because of matters of equity – not all of them could easily drop their other responsibilities and leap into service work. However, we did come up with possible assignments that have the option for service work, especially if this is done first semester so the service work can continue on if the student wishes. This is important because, as the National Youth Leadership Council argues, duration is a key element for effective service (http://www.nylc.org/). Even students who could not fit in direct service work could still learn about service agencies and help to promote their causes through creating websites, pamphlets, and written pieces for an Ithaca High service bulletin board. This is something Ms. Gluck and I will continue to discuss and work on. Clearly, having actual service efforts stemming from the unit on poverty would make the week more meaningful, especially with on-going reflections about the interplay of the service and the Economics curriculum.


Boynton, The Great Depression, and Service


Another example of linking service and academics occurred at Boynton Middle School. Ms. Cindy Kramer and I collaborated twice this past school year, once connecting service to the Progressive Era and once to the Great Depression and the New Deal. The latter was particularly successful in that the students clearly made connections between historical responses to the Great Depression and service efforts in our community today. We used the classic Social Studies framework of Reform, Relief, and Recovery (http://wikihistoria.wikispaces.com/Relief,+Recovery,+Reform) to help students analyze how current agencies, from Catholic Charities to the Worker’s Center, fit into these categories. They were able to see how responses to the Great Depression have continued to influence the kinds of services our community provides, be it through the government, religious organizations, or grassroots efforts. In order to make the lesson interactive and kinesthetic, we used a matching game. Each student had on her or his back either the name of a human or economic service agency or a blurb describing an agency; then students silently matched up the name of the agency with its proper description. This link leads to the names and descriptions: RRR Exercise.  We also had pamphlets from each agency to help them understand the details of just how that agency helped the community and whether it fit the Reform, Relief or Recovery approach. We ended by offering service options for students to pursue at those agencies, as well a guide for how to set up a placement: Getting Started on Service and Middle School Service Placements. All of these activities opened the eyes for some of the more sheltered students to the reality of inequality and questions of equity in our community, as well as issues of bias and how best to ameliorate social injustices.  The main drawback was that, in the end, we were not able to incorporate a concrete service project. Limited time and the school ethos came into play here (See the Challenges page for more details on what is meant by school ethos).  Here are photos of the RRR activity:







Research, Human Rights, and Service


One final example of linking academics to service stemmed from the efforts of Kristina DeCicco in her Global Studies class, along with support from Ross Cregan’s accompanying English class. Ms. DeCicco and I had worked together during an ICSD workshop on service learning that Sue Schwartz presented (with my support) in the fall; we then built on that work to interweave service into a particular assignment. In this case, all of her students wrote a full blown research paper on a human rights issue and, for Mr. Cregan’s class, read a related novel or memoir. So as to deepen the meaning, they added a service component to the assignment. Each student had to find a way to address some aspect of the human right abuse through service. This took various forms, from fundraising for an international organization dedicated to supporting women’s rights to tutoring Ithaca High students who had been displaced from their home country because of war or repression. Because international service work was not generally possible, we encouraged students to act locally on a related issue.  For instance, one student interested in indigenous survival in Latin America volunteered at the annual LACS benefit concert and dinner for the Akwesasne Freedom School – a Mohawk immersion school that has an on-going cultural exchange with the Service Class at LACS. 


Below is a photo of an LACS and Ithaca High School student working together at the benefit for the Akwesasne Freedom School.



Certainly, we faced challenges. Even though a graduate student from Cornell and I supported the students, meeting individually to help them find meaningful service connections, not every student was able to do just what she wanted; some of them could not fully get their heads around finding local service projects that connected to international issues. Still, overall, it was a great success. The project culminated in an evening where students shared their service work and research to parents and the wider community.  I applaud the teachers and students for taking this risk; it would have been easier to stick to a standard research paper, but, according to the students' reflections, the service element made the whole effort far richer personally and academically.  There is no doubt that this assignment helped them consider issues of social justice and build their confidence as agents of social change.  Below are photographs from that evening:












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