Service-Learning: Education in Meaningful Problem Solving

By Diane Remenar, Hackley School Modern Languages Department

Last summer, as I prepared for the new year in teaching the AP Spanish Language course, I saw some information on an AP teachers conversation thread online about the new Service-Learning component recently piloted in some AP programs, including AP Spanish Language and Culture. This new dimension of the AP program gives students the opportunity to earn a “Distinction for Service-Learning” commendation on their transcript, earned only when students participate in meaningful Service-Learning projects on both a global (“indirect”) and a local (“direct”) level.

Under the leadership of my colleague Emily Washington, Hackley has embedded Service-Learning into the Spanish curriculum in Spanish V and Post AP Language and Culture classes over the last decade. Given this, and Hackley’s commitment to expanding opportunities for learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom, melding Service-Learning into our AP Spanish curriculum presented exciting possibilities, and I set out this year to discover how we could best engage with this opportunity. How might I connect studies in Spanish language with service on a global level? How might we engage Hackley’s huge global network in connecting students more directly with service?

I began by thinking back over my own history and connection with global education to my years living and studying in Mexico. In the 80s through 1996, before joining the Hackley faculty, I taught at Marymount Cuernavaca, located about an hour and half south of Mexico City. I reconnected with a former colleague at Marymount Cuernavaca, who told me about work she and her students were taking on to support children of migrant farm workers. She was planning a trip to their camp in early December, accompanied by alumni and benefactors of the school, in order to engage children in the camp in a number of activities, and to better understand what support this community needed, and she encouraged me to join her.

Diane Remenar in Mexico

“Service-Learning” vs. “Community Service”

“Service-Learning” and “Community Service,” while sometimes interconnected, are not at all the same. The Marymount Cuernavaca project offers an excellent representation of the distinction between “Community Service” and “Service-Learning.” Community Service typically involves the delivery of goods or services to a community one hopes to help, generally beginning with a collection of goods or funds and ending with the delivery of what has been collected. Service-Learning, in contrast, is a teaching strategy, built on thorough and thoughtful work to learn about the community and to understand what the community needs and why those needs exist. The work is grounded in study, research, and other academic components and skills-development anchored in the curriculum.

Depending on how a project is framed, a Community Service component may well be a natural extension of the Service-Learning project. As students plan and execute a response to the needs identified by the community they have studied, the curriculum provides the tools by which to carry out this deep-dive into learning. As students investigate, research and support the “why,” digging deeper into why this problem exists, they gain skills that will help them address real world problems. Service-Learning is, therefore, an exercise in deep, meaningful problem solving. Providing our students the opportunity to use the Spanish language as a means by which they can solve a real-world problem, was the ultimate goal of integrating this strategy into the AP curriculum this year.

Narrowing the Distance: “Direct” vs. “Indirect” Service

Because of their proximity to the migrant farm workers’ camp, my former colleague and her students at Marymount Cuernavaca were able to engage in “direct,” hands-on service through the activities her students developed for and executed with children in the camp. My Hackley students, in contrast, would not be able to travel to Mexico to do the hands-on work, and so ours would be an “indirect” Service-Learning project.

The Marymount Cuernavaca students began with research, working to understand what drives people to migrate, and to understand the structures in their society. The fact-finding trip I took part in supported the student work by assessing the most pressing needs. During our visit, we gathered information, and engaged the children in the camp in various activities. Working on this foundation, my colleague’s students led their school community in a grade-by-grade community service effort to collect various supplies to support hygiene needs in the camps — toothbrushes, toothpaste, etc. The fact-finding trip also laid the groundwork for establishing a relationship with the community partner, which would be extended further when the students traveled to the camp to work with children in the camp when they delivered the supplies.

While my students’ efforts would, by necessity, be “indirect” and from afar, our goal was to diminish the distance and make this learning as direct, immediate, and hands-on as possible. My students and I worked throughout the fall to prepare for my trip. My students connected by email with my friend’s students in a Sociology class. They practiced their Spanish as they built relationships with their Mexican peers, comparing notes about their school days. They investigated the camp itself with Google images, and digested United Nations studies about the human rights issues faced by migrant workers. They came to understand the reality of food insecurity — in places like the migrant worker camps, but also in their own communities. Researching Mexico’s geography, they came to understand how far Mexican workers travel to find labor.

Hackley students show off the projects they have prepared for children in the migrant camp.

As my students came to know, the migrants are mostly indigenous people, and the children speak both Spanish and Nahuatl, an Uto-Aztec language about which Hackley Spanish students have learned in class. The camp with which Marymount Cuernavaca partners is a temporary home to many children who, for six months of the year, travel along with parents from hometowns where there are no jobs. This camp, which exports all its produce directly to the United States, using U.S. technology and following U.S. farm protocols, does not permit the child labor that is common in other migrant camps. The families have nothing — living accommodations are bare bones spaces divided by plastic sheets or blankets — but they are together, safer than they would be at home in mountain villages plagued by violence brought on by organized crime. The children are well cared for, and they are excited about school.

Through their research, my students began to understand the complex layers under-girding what might otherwise seem like a distant “community service” project. As they began to unravel the onion, they developed the language-based global perspective that would support their ongoing work.

Video literacy lesson connects Hackley students with children in Mexican migrant camp.

Looking for a way to engage from a distance with helping these children, my students focused on the value of reading to children to build literacy. They created videos of their classmates reading Spanish-translations of books from the Mo Willems Elephant and Piggy series, and planned a craft lesson to go along with the books, preparing all the necessary supplies to support the children in taking on these projects. I brought the videos and the project supplies with me to Mexico.

As the Mexican children created paper bag puppets from the supplies we brought, their joy in having an actual possession of their own was palpable. Their gratitude, in turn, was a valuable message I carried home to my students so they could begin to grasp the reality of what it means to have nothing at all. At the same time, my students came to understand that living in the camps was actually better than what these children experienced in their own communities. In the camp, families stayed together, and children were safe, fed, and educated.

I returned from the trip with photos, videos, and stories. Sharing my students’ work with my former colleague created space for a collaboration on both ends, and an opportunity for reciprocity. My students learned about Marymount — it opened their eyes to see how similar this school is to Hackley, in contrast to the expectations they had had about “Mexico.” Further, the videos and photos of children in the migrant camps affirmed to my students that children living in abject poverty are and can be happy. Their work provided an important literacy lesson for the children but also opened their eyes to the lived-experience of a population very different to them.

Bringing the Lessons “Home”

This foray into Service-Learning had provided my students access to an experience that changed perspectives and challenged assumptions. They saw the resiliency, creativity, and resourcefulness of the people there, which in turn challenged them to consider how this resonates in our own context, effectively connecting the lessons they took from their global indirect service experience to their local context, where their service can be direct.

Our students began to ask, what does it mean to be “resourced” in our local communities. It’s hard to grasp the reality of others in our extended community when we ourselves are so resourced. My students set out to research the percentage of children in their own communities who qualify for free or reduced lunch. They had to determine what income level qualifies families for this benefit, and divide it by the number of people in a household.

Most of our students had no idea that people in their own communities struggled with basic needs in this way. The exercise made visible to them the reality of how little families in their own communities live on, and made real the idea of “need.” This new awareness and understanding of the complexities of real-world problems provided my students with the tools to partner members of the community to address genuine need-based issues here in the United States. “Those people” transform to “our neighbors,” fostering a sense of reciprocal community working together to find solutions.

This spring, my class forged a partnership with WestHab, a non-profit originally founded to address the affordable housing problem in Westchester County that has branched out in a range of community support programs including the Dayspring Community Center in Yonkers, for whom Hackley students planned their Direct Service project. At this Yonkers location, WestHab organizes many events for their community including, but not limited to, youth programs and food distribution. Parents of small children coming for food distribution on April 18, a school holiday, would likely need to bring their children along, and this presented an opportunity for our students to partner with the Community Center by planning activities for those children. Community members who seek these food resources typically arrive early, take a number and then wait until their group number is called before receiving their food. Some arrive as early as 11 am and often do not leave for another couple of hours. It is very organized, but takes much time, and we could easily envision the challenge parents would face in managing small children in the midst of this lengthy distribution process, and we saw the opportunity to replicate our Mexico project of promoting literacy to young children by reading books to children and doing crafts related to the books on that day. The directors of WestHab warmly embraced our idea.

Through the course of the day, Hackley students read to children, tried to engage older children in reading themselves, and invited everyone to participate in crafts projects. The day concluded with a session of song and dance, Hackley students leading the singing of Spanish language songs they had learned for the occasion. Grateful parents reported that their children were having a wonderful time and it made their efforts to secure food for the family much easier. The children themselves proved something of which our students perhaps needed a reminder: children are children, the world over. Their laughter, the joy they find in friendship, their eagerness to learn and to share, is universal. My students reflected afterwards that these children — most of whom are from Latin American immigrant families — seem very much like the students they saw in my videos from Mexico, and it reminded them that communities of need exist not just in faraway places, but here in our own backyard. Having seen this, it adds to their worldview — you can’t unsee what you’ve come to understand.

Dance party in Yonkers

Oh, and Remember, it’s Part of the AP

Thinking about the power of these lessons and the opportunities they create, we almost forget that the origin story here: we began seeking ways to build out the Service-Learning opportunity in response to the new “Distinction in Service-Learning” commendation created for the AP course. Remembering this, however, does not take anything away from the substance of the learning and of the work; instead, the external validation of the “AP commendation” just reminds us that there is academic challenge and value in this work. Already at Hackley we see Service-Learning applied to math and science studies in Lower School classrooms, across Middle School Spanish and Drama classes, and Upper School History classes. How might embracing the deep academic merit inherent to Service-Learning inspire teachers, students, and their parents to prioritize this learning? How might we apply this thinking elsewhere across the curriculum?

The origin story is beautiful, but the fruition story is even better.