April 10, 2012

"Service is the Rent We Pay for the Privilege of Living on This Earth" - Shirley Chilsom

This weeks blog (due to grading and the holiday) is from the vault.  Enjoy...

Mandatory Service seems like an oxymoron, in the sense that one is being forced to perform or participate in what is generally perceived to be an inherently voluntary act. However, when it comes to service learning in schools or in urban communities, one can see that there is a strong need to for youth to reach out to either their own population or populations in which they share common boundaries. These youth perhaps might otherwise not be engaged in learning about their communities or the inhabitants, if service was not a part of their school curriculum, religious or non-profit organizations mission or purpose.

In my experience as Assistant Community Learning Program Director at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, oftentimes I had to explain to sophomores from, in general, a higher socio-economic background, that their mandatory high school graduation requirement of two semesters (approximately 20 weeks) of service was required, but it was up to them to decide what type of service experience they wanted to perform (afterschool program, working with seniors, homeless, hospital setting, etc). Oftentimes I repeated a quote from Marianne Williamson which says “It is not up to you what you learn, but whether you learn through joy or pain.” Having to participate in service learning, regardless of your background, has been shown to raise academic performance, self esteem, connect students to their communities, and fosters an increased acceptance of diversity (Newman, Wehlage, Lamborn (1992), Blyth, Saito & Berkas (1997), Billig (2004)). Regardless of whether or not these students had previous experience with service through their churches or synagogues or other out of school organizations, creating a shared experience behind service for all of the sophomores concerning issues surrounding community, “isms” and social justice, really made their excursions into the community an overwhelming success. One of the major questions in examining this approach to service learning is – why did students respond to mandatory service more positively than many who have been required to perform service and had less than stellar results?

Service learning has the potential to transform lives. When people (especially high school students) are required to perform service, it is incumbent upon those who place the requirement or are stewards of the implementation of the requirements to make sure students are trained to be prepared for a vast array of experiences. When the adults are not trained correctly, the likelihood of students having a positive service learning experience is greatly reduced (Seitsinger, 2005). It is incumbent then that we as both researchers and educators make sure that when students are mandated to perform service, the adults are also mandated – mandated to undergo rigorous training in order for authentic service learning to occur. When we are diligent in our implementation of training adults to administer service learning programs, then the experiences of students are more likely to be positive, sustained and has the potential to be life altering experiences in which students will want to engage in for the rest of their lives.

One of the final benefits to having mandatory service is the motivational effect. In short, students need positive reinforcement and positive examples of service in order to have a favorable impression of service. Being mandated to do service – especially when programs are of high quality and possess all of the characteristics of “successful” service (Seitsinger, 2005). While working at Lab, the positive effects on the students were many. I saw students who were afraid, skeptical and uncertain about themselves and what they had to contribute, blossom into confident, concerned and engaged budding community activist. In our program, one of the benefits which seemed to be an unintended consequence was that these students would discuss their experiences at home, with their parents and others, who in turn were in positions of authority and/or influence in the city or community. Therefore the engagement of their daughters/sons had a direct impact on their own visions of the city and the community which affected their professional practice (whether they were lawyers, doctors or university professors). It will be interesting to see as the mandate for service learning expands into public schools, how this mandate will affect family members and guardians of the student participants.

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