Friday, August 20, 2010

Reflections on Service Learning in the Freshman Composition Classroom

In the interest of becoming—and to facilitate my students’ becoming—more community centered, I implemented my first ever whole-class service project in the freshman composition course that I taught this summer at Ivy Tech Community College. My idea was to have my students design and put together a book of writing prompts for local high school students. I thought that this project would benefit both my college students and the high school students who would receive the books. Besides gaining a measure of self-satisfaction simply by giving back to the community, my students would have to articulate—and then construct prompts that called for—the types of thinking and writing that they thought that the high school kids should be practicing in order to later do well in college. In this way, this project would provide my students with a meaningful opportunity to reflect on the particular challenges and restraints of “college writing” as well as critical thinking in general. At the same time, I thought that my students would develop skills as visual rhetoricians as they designed the prompt pages and the book as a whole. As for the high school students on the receiving end of the books, I thought that this project might help renew their interest in writing, as the books would be constructed especially for them, not by teachers or textbook writers, but by college students.

The prompt book project was successful in many ways. A friend of mine who teaches English in high school became a sort of community partner for this project, as she enthusiastically agreed to take the books and use them in her classes. She spoke to my students early in the term about her student population, which helped them to understand the particular interests and needs of the students who would receive the books. After this presentation, my students wrote a vision statement for the service project. Then, they marketed and organized two fundraisers—a bake sale and a concert—to raise money for the printing of the books, earning over $250. They each designed at least three prompt pages for the book, and several of them submitted entries in our cover design contest. In the end, we chose the best 30 prompts to include in the book as well as the most visually appealing cover. The students then printed and bound a classroom set of the books. I believe that my students did a lot of “real-world” writing and speaking for this project, as they penned emails to various people to organize the fundraisers, conveyed the mission of the project in advertising materials for the fundraisers, and discussed our needs with possible printers as they arranged to compile the books. I also know that the books will play a role in local student learning at the high school level, as my friend seems genuinely excited to use them in her classroom.

Still, at the end of the summer term, I felt a bit uneasy about the way that I’d incorporated service learning in the Ivy Tech course. Yes, my students had worked hard and, I hoped, learned a bit about writing and design in the process. But, for all of that effort, how impressive was our end product? I mean, after all, aren’t writing prompts available from lots of different sources? Couldn’t my English teacher friend simply look in her writing or literature textbooks or, better yet, just Google “high school writing prompts” to find prompts that are possibly as thought-provoking as the ones that my students wrote in our book? I think what I’m saying here is that $250 might have been a lot to spend on creating a teaching tool that pretty much already exists. So, although I wanted to continue to require a service learning component in my freshman composition classes, I was hesitant to do this particular project again.

Enter Project Leadership!

In a separate—more personal—initiative to increase my community involvement, I recently agreed to become a mentor in a local organization that seeks to pair adult volunteers with at-risk but highly capable students and help them to stay focused on the end goal of attending college, a program called Project Leadership of Delaware County. When I met with an administrator of the organization for what seemed like a kind of in-take interview, she mentioned that she was always looking for presenters to lead the monthly training sessions that Project Leadership holds for the mentors in the program. Later, it dawned on me: Project Leadership had a need that my students could fulfill in the form of a service learning project!

So, I’ve come up with a new service learning idea for the fall semester. This time, I will be teaching freshman composition for Ball State University instead of for Ivy Tech. Therefore, my class will likely be comprised of mostly 18- and 19-year-olds instead of the mix of traditional and non-traditional students who enrolled in my summer class. My service project will therefore attempt to harness my students’ special expertise as a population straight from high school. I am going to have my students organize and host a mini-conference for the Project Leadership mentors. The conference will include several student-led sessions on overcoming impediments to attending college. In groups, my students will design and implement multi-modal presentations on issues that they will identify as related to impeding high school students’ dedication to the pursuit of higher education. The presentations will utilize various types of research, including both primary and secondary, popular and scholarly, and they will focus on how Project Leadership mentors can help high school students successfully negotiate these issues in order to ultimately attend college.

How this idea differs from my first service learning idea, I hope, is that it will end with my students actually filling an existing need in the community. Besides providing my students with a meaningful opportunity to conduct all types of research and to construct and give presentations to a real audience, my students will hopefully really help the folks of Project Leadership to provide their mentors with ideas and encouragement to carry on with the important work of mentoring future college students. Although I certainly don’t have service learning all figured out, I feel like I’ve taken a step in the right direction.

Bibliographic Note: See Tim Scepansky’s article for a basic discussion of community service in higher education.

Works Cited

Scepansky, Tim. “Service Learning and Faculty in the Higher Education Institution.” Organizational Issues and Insights. NewFoundations. 13 Jan. 2005. Web. 20 Aug. 2010.


  1. Just to let you know, we are using the books for the first time on Friday of this week. I will post back about how it goes. :)

    I did see one of your students the other day and she was raving about how much she liked your class and how proud she was about making the books. She even told me which prompts she worked on. Good job!

  2. And, yeah, these things do exist, but they don't exist in the format that you gave them to me. And, yeah, they do exist, but the students you had have never had to try to get inside a high schooler's head to try and find something that would be of interest, challenging, and informative all at the same time. Just don't look back thinking your project meant nothing. These sorts of things always mean way more than we give them credit for. :)