Learning for the Good of Community

AnnMarie McLaughlin - February 12, 2008

Call it pragmatism. Social responsibility. Call it an excuse to get out of the classroom and meet your neighbors. Enter service learning, an education model that answers to all of the above. Also called social learning or youth development, the model makes use of experiential learning to foster volunteerism and community engagement. What does that mean? It means taking kids out to plant a tree and restore the Santa Fe River. Right there you've connected biology, soil erosion, native species and geometry. Don't forget social skills-teamwork and communication are building blocks here. Why not throw in a little art appreciation? After all, mud always looks better on your own work boots at the end of a long day.

Service learning in the Santa Fe area works through organizations like Youthworks in Santa Fe, the New Mexico Centers for Community Service Learning in Albuquerque and the public schools. Based on collaborative partnerships, the model connects young people to projects that interest them, often through non-profit organizations and initiatives. Programs are often spear-headed by individual teachers with the drive to expand their own classroom's experience. "Experience" itself is a buzz word here, where theory is overshadowed by practical application.

Isn't hands-on learning as old as the hills? You betcha, but education reformer John Dewey, for one, claimed that each generation needs to learn democracy for itself. Fostering an awareness of community and a sense of responsibility for it is an ongoing task. Wendy Wintermute, with the New Mexico Centers for Community Service Learning, says that everyone needs to be reminded of the common good. If democracy needs to be continually reborn, she sees service learning as the midwife.

What of volunteerism? Is this something else that really needs to be taught? Shouldn't it be obvious? Would that it were. While we've developed a cultural expectation for idealistic activity on college campuses and we want retirees to be out there supporting a cause, there's a tendency for younger people to be left out of that loop. We've taught them to focus on themselves, encouraging extracurricular activities for the glowing college application or reminding them to "stay out of trouble." And go where? Putting it all together-gaining skills and class credit works for everyone.

It works so well that schools are tentatively pointing to service learning for increases in everything from test scores to academic skills and students' personal investment in their education. National research over the past 15 years points toward participants seeking out volunteer opportunities for themselves, beyond a specific program's duration. At-risk students-Santa Fe's Youthworks has made them its focus-have even more to gain but programs are fundamentally for everyone. Tracking by groups, such as at-risk or gifted, undermines this egalitarian aim.

With an education model oozing benefits like this, should we make it mandatory in our public schools? For now, it's enough that local programs stay afloat in resource-challenged New Mexico. Tackling a fundamental shift in education requirements is beyond the reach of current programs. States like Arizona include service learning participation on transcripts and encourage involvement but it's not required of graduating students. New Mexico Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish is a supporter and service learning organizations throughout the state will be lobbying the legislature for funds, as will a host of other causes. Meanwhile, Santa Fe kids will be slogging out this spring to check on "their" river. Our river.

How often do we hear that giving benefits the giver as much as the recipient- maybe more? This is one way-one working way-for our young people to find a place in their communities and care for that place. As Wendy Wintermute explains, learning by doing gives the participant something useful. "It clicks."