“Anyone can be great, because anyone can serve.”
“The time is always right to do the right thing.”
–Martin Luther King Jr.
I believe that citizenship is not a passive status, but an active process. From Washington D.C. to Somerville, MA, the pathetic state of our dreary, divisive, ineffectual, and money-driven politics results in large part from reduced citizen participation.
When citizens do not actively engage the world, they do not understand it. They become more vulnerable to ideology and to the simple-minded nonsense pushed by spin doctors whose goal is to manage impressions rather than convey truths.
The institutions that nurtured communities—extended families, neighborhoods, churches, service organizations, unions, precinct organizations, political clubs, fraternal organizations, and so on—were also venues in which people discussed current events, challenged each other’s perceptions, and formed opinions. As these institutions have all disintegrated, citizens have become more isolated. They have become more susceptible to the pabulum broadcast on television and the hateful and cartoonish views transmitted through talk radio.
Coming together to make a difference in their communities is one of the few ways in which citizens now learn political and economic reality, one of the few contexts in which they listen to each other and test their assumptions. You can bet that Somerville citizens who organized to change real estate developments at Lincoln Park, Craigie Street, Park Street, Max Pack, Magoun Square, Assembly Square, Union Square, and the Inner Belt have a much better understanding of how Somerville’s politics work than do citizens who remained uninvolved.
Another outcome of institutional disintegration is that schools are increasingly burdened with functions that family and community once performed. Among these are moral and civic education. As with most subjects, civics and American History are largely forgotten once the tests have been taken and the grades awarded. There is little lived experience to attach these subjects to in students’ minds.
A partial solution is service learning. It is based on what the ancient Greeks called “praxis,” and advocated by such educators as David Kolb and Paolo Freire. Students learn concepts in their classes and learn from practicing the concepts in their communities. The concepts guide and inform the practice; the practice illuminates and tests the concepts.
Service learning can involve assisting nonprofit agencies to improve people’s lives. Or older students tutoring younger students in such basic skills as reading. Or students participating directly in political organizing.
Lisa Grabelsky teaches at Winter Hill Community School. Last fall she required her students to spend three hours working in the offices of the presidential candidate of their choice. Students initially resisted, but once into it, they were enthusiastic. They became more engaged in their studies. Their sense of self worth increased.
This suggests some benefits that go beyond learning a subject. Students who do service learning have lower dropout rates and more positive attitudes toward school. They are better prepared for the work world.
By working with each other and with people outside school, they form bonds and begin to reweave the ties of community. They discover their own capabilities by making a tangible difference in something that matters. They often bring their parents into the life of the community.
Last month, three Teach-for-America veterans with roots in Somerville led a community meeting to discuss possibilities for service learning in Somerville. After a terrific presentation, attendees engaged in lively and wide-ranging discussion.
Many thought that service learning should be a requirement. Former aldermanic candidate Fred Berman said that we think math or reading is important enough to make it a requirement. If we believe that citizenship and community service are important, we should require them as well. He suggested that younger kids look up to older kids, and older kids can set an example of service.
Others were more cautionary. They said that requiring service learning puts an additional burden on already-burdened teachers. Its quality can vary significantly based on the teacher’s enthusiasm. School Committee member Mark Niedergang expressed ambivalence about requiring it.
Rob Hollister, Dean of Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, suggested an alternative to requirements: create service learning opportunities that are compelling. He added that students who have done service learning enhance the colleges that they attend and enrich the quality of their education. He believes that colleges can support service learning in their local communities.
Regarding when to begin service learning, School Committee member Mary Jo Rosetti thought that the younger that it begins, the more effective it will be. I agree. It’s possible to find something meaningful for kids to do in almost every grade level. Rosetti and Niedergang believe that we should research the best practices across the U.S. and then improve on them.
Local activist Alex Pirie anticipated that service-learning might suffer from a disparity in students’ income levels, where the more advantaged are more able to participate. He thinks that there are solutions, however. Others said that students with little to do at home have become enthusiastic participants.
An official from the Massachusetts Department of Education said that its important to “map” services performed onto the curriculum. That is, to effectively align service activities with their related subjects to yield the greatest learning.
Pirie, described an unanticipated benefit of the service learning in which he was involved. Adults are better behaved when young people are watching them. And students’ intolerance of tedium makes meetings go faster.
By the end of the evening, my mind was alive with the possibilities and challenges of implementing service learning. My ward’s School Committee member, Adam Sweeting, praised the Teach-for-America vets for bringing together parents, teachers, union officers, School Committee members, administrators, and activists. He thought it was a great first discussion of what is happening and what could happen. I think that he’s right, but I wonder who is going to make it happen.