Service-Learning: A quest, not a destination.

Service-Learning:  A quest, not a destination.

 By Peter McConville

 The Wicked Witch of the Waste tries to steal the milk bottle to place in one of her landfills in Burlington High School’s compost education play,  CompOZtable (Photo: P. McConville)

Last September, History teacher Jessica Little-Hayes and I embarked on a year-long classroom journey centered on sustainability and sense-of-place. We marched off, along with 12 unwitting students, into uncharted, interdisciplinary territory armed with little more than our respective History and English endorsements and a vague idea of where we were headed. Our class didn’t even have a name. What we had were bold notions of shattering paradigms, reinvigorating our practice, and forging meaningful relationships with our community. We met both failures and success, and even lost a student or two along the way. We discovered (and don’t worry, I’m going to ditch this colonialist metaphor at the end of this paragraph) that our destination could be realized, but that the journey would be hard. Real hard.

 As a staunch believer in constructivist education (that we learn by doing), I often feel restricted by the traditional classroom. Working in a conventional high school, compartmentalized into its various subjects, it’s easy to lose track of the big picture of education as teachers and administrators struggle to complete our sundry assigned roles. So every year I assign my five paragraph essays, teach SAT vocabulary, and administer reading quizzes on Jane Eyre. And to what end? The active participants in my class end up being able to communicate more effectively and understand some of the finer points of Victorian literature, sure, but at the end of the year I have to recognize that the tasks they’ve - hopefully - completed are mine:

designed by me, administered by me, and assessed by me. It’s rare that a student completes a task for its own sake, or to put it differently, because she sees intrinsic value in that task beyond the next report card. It’s rare that a student is required to look at a unique problem, brainstorm a solution, and implement that solution while creating a meaningful, positive impact in people’s lives. The successful student learns how to do, but she doesn’t necessarily learn how to solve. The distinction matters.

 It was for these reasons that Ms. Little-Hayes and I invited Jessica Sankey from Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD) for an in-class presentation with an eye toward creating a mutually beneficial project between our students and the local waste management concern. Jessica presented our students with a dilemma: one of our local elementary schools was interested in starting a composting program, but staff was worried that the students wouldn’t be able to grasp the fundamentals of composting. “There will be chaos at the waste station!” the staff cried, and so our students agreed to work with CSWD to educate the students at Burlington’s Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) on the particulars, and joys, of composting. Less than two months later, the eleven remaining members of our class took the stage to perform CompOZtable at IAA (formally H.O. Wheeler Elementary). It was a ten-minute production, entirely written, produced, and directed by the students enrolled in what we’ve come to call the “Seminar on the Culture of Place”.

The play follows the lunchtime adventures of Elenasauras, dinosaur and cafeteria patron, as she tries to figure out the complexities of the cafeteria’s rubbish station. “Where does all this trash go?” she asks after her lunch, only to be informed by the Compost Fairy that all her refuse is not trash, but the makings of nutrient-rich soil and desirable recyclables. The Compost Fairy tells her where everything should be disposed (“clean aluminum foil and empty milk containers in the recycling, food scraps and paper towels in the compost”), and together, with the help of a talking banana, a lemon, a paper towel, a milk carton, and a piece of aluminum foil, they defeat the Wicked Witch of the Waste, ruining her evil plan to “cover the world in landfills.” The play was a critical success (see the November 7th, 2010 Burlington Free Press), and there was a two show mini-tour sponsored by CSWD that winter at area elementary schools.

 Both affectionately and disdainfully referred to as “The Play” in our class, CompOZtable stands as a symbol of all that is wonderful and difficult about service learning. True service-learning needs to be an organic process – something difficult for our students to get their heads around at times. We’ve spent ten plus years teaching students to think in a predictably linear way, and breaking down the walls of clearly defined expectations felt to many like we removed the training wheels too fast.

 The play was conceived in fits and starts of creative activity. Students argued about plot-points, characters, and dialogue. Rehearsals extended the class day and pushed the limits of many students’ patience. As I mentioned, one student quit, not just the play, but the class. Through it all, however, the class coalesced in a way that I had never seen before. Students came out of previously impervious shells, leaders emerged from the back of the pack, and the entire group was showered with positive feedback from the community. To this day our Compost Fairy still finds herself being sighted by eight year olds at the supermarket.

 As a teacher, the benefits of working on a project like our play were immediately visible. The students learned how to solve a problem from concept to execution, they had to work together as a team, they encountered snafus, both unexpected and of their own design, and they reaped the rewards of hard work. The greatest testimony to service learning, however, will always belong to the voices of our students. As one student recently wrote in a classroom reflection,  “I believe that the quest to get there teaches us more about ourselves than the lesson or the experiment does. Because it is not always the subject matter, but most often the way we learn that subject matter, which is essential to learning a lesson.”

Peter McConville teaches  English at Burlington High School in Burlington, VT. Both Peter and Jessica Little-Hayes participated in Shelburne Farms’ Education of Sustainability Institute in the summer of 2010.

 

This article appeared in the SSP's Spring 2011 Newsletter.

Download a PDF of the article here.

Download the entire Spring 2011 Newsletter here.

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