Service-Learning in the Classroom: A Book Review

Many people engage in charity work and service projects during their lifetime. Whether it is a requirement for a school program, a church function, or even out of the desire to help others, service projects happen frequently across the country and the world. Unfortunately, it is rare for volunteers to critically think about whether or not their projects are truly addressing a community need, or working to change the systematic process that allow for problems to persist. Service Learning and Social Justice: Engaging Students in Social Change addresses many benefits to service learning in the classroom as well as potential problems and flaws in a service-learning environment. The author, Susan Benigni Cipolle, begins by describing her career as a French teacher at a Catholic school in Minnesota. Cipolle (2010) notes the discomfort some people have with the term “social justice” because of the loaded implications the term has — both religious and political, perhaps in modern times much more political — but that social justice is a term that is supposed to be analogous with “transformative social action, civic engagement for equity, or moral and civic responsibility” (p. 3). But most importantly, the book asks what it means to teach students how to serve successfully and continuing with meaningful service for the long-term.

The book is a concise piece, including 136 pages of direct content and a helpful appendix at the back of the book. Cipolle also includes charts and other visuals to support her argument and as an aid for educators to easily digest the material presented. To understand the formula for committed service, Cipolle initially asks adults how they have benefit from service-learning geared towards social understanding (p.17). The results are that long-term service-learning programs — think the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other similar programs — especially demonstrated more promising results of continued service, showing people who engaged in service-learning volunteered more often at food banks and homeless shelters, were more likely to initiate or join other service projects, and served more hours than those who went through “community-service” programs (Cipolle, 2010, p.18). However, Cipolle (2010) indicates at the conclusion that“[Experiences] in service alone will not generate a commitment to social justice” (p. 135).

Though the book focuses on the service-learning education of white Catholic students, it can easily be applied to service-learning courses and projects around the nation with any group of students. Cipolle’s methods on how to grow and maintain a service-leaning course or program are general and cost-efficient enough to be implemented into a variety of schools. In Chapter Eight, Cipolle (2010) introduces the reader to an effective long-term solution to constructing and maintaining any kind of service-learning program within schools (p.111). While gathering students who want to participate is not an arduous task, it is the mixture of students, supportive administrators, a willingness to adjust policies and classroom management, and engagement from other faculty together to maintain the program may become tricky (Cipolle, 2010, 112–3). Cipolle (2010) offers the requirement of a service-learning course to graduate, which would guarantee for the majority of students to ideally take the task seriously, perhaps falling in love with service-learning in the process. However, in a school that struggles with their graduation rates, it would not be as effective, simply because other classes may be a barrier to finishing the degree as well as time restraints of balancing work and core classes. It is worth reconsidering and redesigning for schools with struggling graduation rates.

As for the implications of the book and scholarly value, it is worth reading and having on hand, especially for educators at any school at any time. Admittedly, the book is narrowly focused on white students from private, religious settings, mostly because that is where Cipolle has spent much of her teaching career. Catholic schools are surprisingly more open to the words “service-learning” and “social justice.” In a public school, some switch in rhetoric may be required before doing a service-learning program to convince students that the words should not be associated only with one religious (or areligious) affiliation or political party.

Cipolle also talks extensively about the influence of white privilege on the upbringing of both her Catholic pupils and for other white students. White privilege, as Cipolle (2010) suggests, prevents many white students from understanding how to effectively not engage in the problem, but how to solve the problem simply by addressing their own advantages (p. 60). Does that imply that other students do not benefit from service-learning or need to learn the meaning of social justice? No, the book is not limiting in that regard, but rather addressing the necessary concept of how white privilege can cause white students to not consider the “problem” that students are addressing in a more critical way. Say for example, students wish to do a trash pick-up in a neighborhood. While honorable and most definitely needed, the most effective way to have a lasting long-term effect would be to commit to regular clean-ups and perhaps even lobby for stricter littering legislation. Theoretically consider other roots of the issue. Maybe trash builds up in the area due to a lack of trash cans, or maybe a lack of garbage trucks visiting the neighborhood. Service projects are only thoughtful Band-Aids — which are only temporary — but not thoughtful cures if the “why” is not fully considered. You cannot, regardless of your background, know without asking the community you want to serve. Though all students benefit from learning about the history of systematic racism and other biases — racism, nativism, and other discriminatory policies in the United States and beyond — Cipolle bravely addresses the complications of white privilege and community service in her book in a nonjudgmental and understanding manner. (Cipolle, 2010, p. 61).

Works Cited

Cipolle, S. B. (2010). Service-learning and social justice: engaging students in social change. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.