Service Learning at a Distance
I’ve been using a service-learning approach in my ENGL 2089 Intermediate English Composition sections for almost 20 years. Since first teaching composition in graduate school, I had been looking for a flexible approach that helped students apply the literacy and communication skills they were honing to situations outside the four walls of our classroom. Service Learning has also proven to be a pedagogical approach that adapts well to trends and innovations in teaching as well as the changing needs in the community of which the university is a part.
Students learn lessons in civic engagement and social justice beyond the normal academic setting by engaging with community partners to meet the needs of their clients. Because of the intensive planning and partnerships required in the initial startup, service-learning can be a challenge for professors, agencies, and students alike. I’m one of a handful of teachers who use it in English Composition courses at the University of Cincinnati. However, once a teacher determines best practices and establishes partnerships, the advantages and rewards for students, community partners, and educators become more obvious. Students can develop critical thinking, writing and research skills, and an awareness of civic responsibility, which also promotes academic, social, and personal growth. The community partners gain volunteers with fresh perspectives to promote their mission and lay the groundwork for ongoing connections. For me, the approach has kept my teaching vital and reinforced concepts I’ve introduced in the classroom. My students are better able to understand the value of their own scholarship and why engaging with the broader community enriches their academic experiences.
Just as service-learning isn’t the methodology for every teacher, its requirements and commitment to working with new and diverse segments of the broader community often challenge students who have preconceived notions about service, inflexible schedules, demanding majors, and limited amounts of resources such as transportation. I try to compensate by using affordable texts and encouraging students to team up and share rides or use public transportation. Before the start of the term, I always send out a welcome announcement to my students explaining they are enrolled in one of my three Intermediate English Composition sections with a service-learning component and lay out the requirements. Despite the “SL” designation in the course section description when they registered, this email usually surprises about a dozen of the 69 students enrolled, and they sometimes drop the course. A few will contact me with questions or to clarify if existing partnerships they have will meet the requirements for the course—nonprofit volunteer work involving reading, writing, and/or research.
When the Covid-19 Pandemic hit in March of 2020, nearly half my students were working with the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati to find tutoring opportunities in Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS). The Literacy Network has been one of my two long-standing Community Partners. They not only help place my students in CPS schools, but they also provide tutor training and run the required background checks. They have been invaluable over the years and also work with UC’s Bearcat Buddy program in a similar capacity. My other Community Partner since the beginning is Church of Our Saviour (COS) Episcopal Church with its multiple food ministry and outreach programs located near campus. Like the variety of other smaller nonprofit agencies my students partner with each term, COS usually works directly with between two to six of my students. It isn’t uncommon for students to continue working with their agencies beyond the course because direct, face-to-face service often creates a strong bond that may lead to an ongoing relationship.
Unfortunately, when UC, Cincinnati schools, and our other partner agencies shut down last March, only a few of my students had finished their 14- to 16-hour service projects. Although I wasn’t caught unprepared, I knew my service-learning component and established practices were going to need to adapt for me to make the methodology work for my students. I have always preferred using a direct service model because students are able to put a face and a name to the people they are helping. They develop a better understanding of the community and are exposed to experiences they can’t have in the classroom. Out of necessity, I have provided a few indirect service opportunities for students each term who either had “broken” partnerships that did not work out or other circumstances that didn’t permit them to work with a Community Partner. Usually, a few students act as class historians and create a Meta Project, which takes the form of a PowerPoint slideshow documenting their classmates’ service experiences. These projects are always useful and engaging, but not always as rewarding for the student when compared to direct service experiences. However, as I weighed my options, some form of indirect service seemed like the best solution to the looming predicament.
I knew the work must still meet the goals of the course, so it had to involve reading, writing, and/or research with the support of critical thinking, communication, and/or mentoring. I needed to create a project that would be flexible in scope and duration for students who had as few as four hours left or a full 14 hours still to utilize in a meaningful way. Normally, my students would embed themselves with their Community Partners and experience what it was like to work with people from a different background and gain empathy and understanding as they informally conducted primary research. They also wrote a series of reflection journals meant to both document their experiences and lead them to reflect and make connections with their academic and personal experiences. I realized that without those direct experiences due to the pandemic their projects would have to be indirect and conducted from a distance. Then, it occurred to me the global pandemic would be an historic event we were all going to experience, so why couldn’t my students record their experiences or reactions to it? There were also many unknowns, constant updates to information, and confusion about proper ways to avoid transmission, so research topics wouldn’t be in short supply. Thus, I designed what I called the “C-19 Chronicles Project'' for my students.
I explained to them this would be a type of indirect service opportunity dealing specifically with the Covid-19 Pandemic. I had them start by reading the article, “Write It Down.”
In the article, author Anne Bromley interviews Herbert “Tico” Braun, a history professor at the University of Virginia. He recounted that to his students, “I suggest that you keep a record—in one or more different forms of your own choosing, a journal, a blog, an e-portfolio, a film, a series of artworks, a short story, poems, a series of haikus—of your life in these unprecedented days. Each individual perspective is valuable, and [it] adds to the whole. … You can gather these voices, these experiences, all this creativity. They are all a record of our times.” I asked my own students to think about what has changed in the world over the past months. For most of us, the Covid-19 pandemic had already upended plans and caused inconveniences large and small. For some, it caused them to face the stark reality of a life-threatening disease, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen on a global scale since the 1918 flu pandemic. I asked students to pick the form of their own projects that connected to the pandemic and tailor the scope of the work to the amount of time they had left to spend. The projects could be research-oriented, artistic, or reflective in nature, but they needed to involve some aspect of what we were experiencing firsthand as we witnessed and participated in the historic moment of the pandemic. I gave feedback on their project pitches to make sure they were rigorous. There were smaller projects such as blog posts or journals or poetry, and creative visual ones with origami and posters to balance out more sizeable research pieces. The creative projects also included written abstracts that explained their connection to the pandemic. The research projects took the form of traditional papers, multimedia, or PowerPoints. Some students combined their creative and research skills to sew masks for vulnerable people and frontline workers. To disseminate the knowledge students gained to the public, we created The C-19 Chronicles Facebook page.
Considering the very short time we had to adapt to a new service-learning model while also converting to remote instruction, the indirect service projects went remarkably well. At the time, I likened it to rebuilding a plane that was already in the air, rerouting it, and adding significant turbulence. Admittedly, I found serving as supervisor for all the individual projects to be quite time consuming; however, being able to video conference with students about their service work made the extra effort worthwhile and kept most of our spirits up. Students reported that writing about their pandemic experiences, frustrations, and concerns was cathartic. Others dealt with the grief caused by both the virus and the economic hardship of the shutdown. A number expressed a sense of empowerment as they studied the virus’ pathology, its social and economic impacts, and the best practices to avoid infection. We found out class members had talents no one suspected they had when we shared the Service Projects at the end. By and large, both the direct and indirect Service Projects were a success, and we landed our course safely at the end with only a few students dropping at the last opportunity or earning an Unofficial Withdrawal (UW) by not completing a portfolio.
Part of being a writing teacher is looking at your course as a never-ending series of tweaks, edits, and revisions. As long as there’s a new term to plan, I’ll always be updating texts and improving assignments and delivery methods. I’m continually making adjustments, but the challenge of teaching during the pandemic gave me the opportunity to make major changes and (I hope) improvements that will last beyond the pandemic. With courses for the next academic 2020-21 calendar year scheduled as all online from start to finish, I spent the summer training to use new technology, looking for new Community Partners who could socially distance, and rethinking how to balance and improve my direct and indirect service models. I was very lucky to connect with EZ Essay, a UC “student-based non-profit organization aiding younger students in succeeding by evaluating their college entrance essays and other application materials.”
Additionally, one of my students discovered and shared the United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s “Notes of Encouragement” program. These two opportunities provided safely distanced direct service opportunities in about the same proportions as tutoring via The Literacy Network normally would (between 30%-50%). I refined my two service models into three options—Direct Service, Indirect Service, and Advocacy Service—with a fourth Hybrid model for students whose Direct-Service opportunity ended before reaching ten hours, similar to the previous spring term, so students could switch tracks to an Indirect or Advocacy model.
Option 1: Direct Service with a Community Partner
You will work with a nonprofit agency and have a Supervisor who will train and check on you, providing feedback and supervision when needed. You will have to wear a face mask and observe social distancing and follow any other required protocols. You may spend all your hours on site at the agency or meet there with the supervisor a few times and then work off-site remotely on your project or you may be completely online. I recommend you consider using a “Deliverables Form” (found in Canvas Files and the service-learning module) to negotiate and keep track of your work and receive feedback on schedule. If you plan to use a Deliverables Form, you need to use it from the beginning. You will need to do a Project Pitch and keep a set of Reflection Journals and an Hours Log.
Option 2: Indirect Service with Dr. Borah as Your Supervisor
Dr. Borah acts as your supervisor since you will not work directly with a Community Partner. Projects will involve a social or environmental issue, which might include organizing online fundraisers, community clean ups, food collection campaigns, or other activities that serve an at-need population in a meaningful way that meets course goals (reading, writing, research, critical thinking, and/or communicating). For example, you may choose a Service Project such as last spring term’s C-19 Chronicles Project that documents your experience with the Global Pandemic OR a similar project focused on an appropriate social or environmental issue. This type of Service Project can take the form of a traditional research paper, a creative endeavor, a reflective piece, or others. You are required to do a Project Pitch that Dr. Borah will have to approve and keep a set of Reflection Journals. The end product will be shared with an audience, so the knowledge and insights you have gained can be disseminated to the larger community via the Class Projects Facebook page or other means.
Option 3: Advocacy Service on an Environmental and/or Social Issue with No Community Partner
This is a type of Indirect Service Project with a specific audience. Initially, it will take a path similar to a research paper as you explore a social or environmental issue to discover background information and what policies or regulations surround it. You will need to find if there is pending legislation or a need for some change to policies. Then, you would identify what policymaker or audience you could persuade to take action and make the change you feel is necessary. Your advocacy may take the form of a letter to a policymaker or decisionmaker, an opinion piece, essay, or multimedia presentation for publication, and so on. This type of project also starts with a Project Pitch that Dr. Borah will have to approve, and you will need to keep a set of Reflection Journals.
Option 4: Hybrid Model with a Combination of Direct Service Combined with Indirect or Advocacy
This type of project is a possibility if a direct service opportunity lasts less than the required amount of hours (fewer than 10 hours). The in-person experience could then be used as primary research for the agency if they have a need for Indirect Service or an Indirect Service or Advocacy Project you negotiate with Dr. Borah as described above.
(Note: You are certainly encouraged to use primary research such as polls and interviews for Options 2 and 3, but you are less likely to embed and become part of the community than you might if you started with Option 1.)
The fall was a success and so far, so good this term. All students who completed their service hours wrote their Reflection Journal topics in preparation for writing their Capstone Reflective Essay based on their Service Projects. When projects are done, we’ll display the Covid-related ones on The C-19 Chronicles page, and I’ll add a new page for the ones on social and environmental issues.
Despite a few predictable setbacks—some of which were normal and others that were due to the pandemic—students reported a great deal of success with their projects, and so far, so good this spring term. All students who completed their service hours wrote their Reflection Journal topics in preparation for writing their Capstone Reflective Essay about their Service Projects as part of their final portfolio. When projects were done, we displayed the Covid-related ones on The C-19 Chronicles and I added a new page for the indirect Service Projects on non-covid, social and environmental issues.
In the fall, I am looking forward to meeting face-to-face with students once again, and I hope to renew our partnerships with organizations old and new. I still prefer students to have direct contact with our Community Partners and their clients because it gives more opportunities for feedback and builds stronger connections to the community. However, I’m now much more knowledgeable about the strengths and challenges of indirect service and will offer it to students as an option with less hesitancy. I likewise feel better prepared to adjust to hybrid models and guide students through them if Covid-19 and its mutations cause another shift to remote learning. Like many educators, I would have preferred my students to have had a normal three terms, but thanks to new service models and Community Partners, they have managed to design and complete their Service Projects as a part of Intermediate English Composition. All of us have learned we can be more flexible and resourceful than we might have thought possible before Covid forced us to learn from a distance.
Rebecca Sutherland Borah is an associate professor of English at the University of Cincinnati where she teaches Composition with Service Learning and the occasional Monsters in Literature or Tolkien course. Her publications include “‘Accio, Jo!’: Woke Wizards and Generational Potter Fandom” (forthcoming), “‘Bruce Banner Can Be an Asshole’: Using a FanFic to Break Down Privilege and Introduce service-learning Concepts,” “Game Macabre: Fear as Essential Element in The Hunger Games,” “Apprentice Wizards Welcome: Fan Communities and the Culture of Harry Potter,” and “More Than Girlfriends, Geekettes, and Gladiatrixes: Women, Feminism, and Fantasy Role-Playing Games” with Inez Schaechterle. She is also known in the media as a pop culture expert, especially when it comes to fan culture, monsters, comic books, and superheroes.