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Taking Note: Learning Lessons from Reflection

By MIKE MACKENNA en espanol

service learningMike is Director of Social Responsibility at The English School in Bogotá, Colombia. He is also an English teacher there. The English School is a private school that covers all grades, from Pre-K to high school. There are about 1,750 students and 160 teachers at the school. The students are almost all Colombian and mostly come from wealthy families, and of the 160 teachers, there are roughly 30 foreigners and 130 Colombians. Mike is an alumnus of CWI's Summer WEST Institute on Service-Learning.

This year, as I prepared to do my service learning units with my 6th-8th grade English classes, I thought I learned from some of the difficulties I had the previous year and that it would go much smoother this year. The units did go better, but I know I still have a lot to learn.

Unit Planning
The first thing I needed to improve from last year was not planning the units carefully enough. Service learning units, like any other kind of units, are tricky because you want to have the flexibility to let students follow their ideas, but you still need to be conscious of the schedule and getting the assessments done on time.

To make that improvement, this year I knew from the beginning what assessments the students were going to do and when they were going to do them. The plan was for the students to choose an important social issue to study (6th grade focused on issues that caused social isolation, 7th grade on environmental issues, and 8th grade on community leaders) and, for their first assessment, to write a newspaper article about the issue. In the article, students would have to include an action that their readers could take (volunteer at, or donate to, a foundation that works with this issue; sign a petition which addresses the issue, etc.) The students would choose the issue to focus on and the action to take.

The second assessment would be for the students to write a poem about the issue, and the third assessment would be to present one of their poems as a group to the whole grade level, and present the action to take.

Having the students suggest an action to take addressed the other aspect I wanted to improve from last year: not knowing when students would carry out the action they’d suggested. My students last year had all these great ideas for an action to take (organize a football match with the school service staff, start a big brother program for young students in school, etc.), but they stayed on paper because there wasn’t enough time to do them. I thought if students simply suggested an action for others to take, that would solve that problem.


 Unit Execution
So how successful was I in making those improvements? Regarding the planning improvements, the students did do all the assessments I’d planned, but I figured out something new this year: the newspaper article, with all the skills I wanted to teach in it, takes a really long time (about two months of class time). I had to teach the students how to evaluate credible sources, how to quote and paraphrase, how to put their article on a blog and use hyperlinks, and how to write a bibliography. I had underestimated how difficult those skills were for students, and I didn’t model the skills enough in class. I found myself backtracking frequently to review skills that I’d already taught. It was a complicated, challenging assessment, which is what you want for your assessments, but it just took too long.

I was happy to see many students make great leaps in their learning during it, but the students themselves were sick of the article by the end, and rated my teaching of it fairly low when they gave me feedback. In the future I’ll do a lot more modeling, and teach blogging skills as part of a different assessment, to avoid packing too many skills into just one assessment.

Something else I learned with the assessments is that students don’t necessarily want to write a poem about the issue they just wrote a newspaper article about. Many did write a poem about it, but many others wanted to write about topics like love or friendship, which I was happy to have them do, as long as there was some action they could suggest related to the poem. The students were smart enough to figure out that a poem about love, for example, could be used as an inspiration to tell students to go out and demonstrate love for others by visiting foundations.

After presenting their poems and actions to the rest of the grade level, students had mixed feelings about what they’d done. As you can see at the following hyperlinks from our school’s YouTube channel for social responsibility, some felt they’d made a real difference, while others thought the audience would simply hear it and forget. In the future, I think I will have feedback forms for the audience to fill out, to give the students a better idea of the impact they’ve made.

Regarding the issues I had last year with actions, I still did have some students who proposed long term projects which will require a fair amount of out of class work. I will follow through with the projects with the students, and see if I can help them carry them out, but I did want to avoid those kinds of projects, since the students are busy enough with the class work they already have.

The successful addition I had to this year’s units was visits to actual foundations during their class time. Since many of the students had suggested volunteering at the same foundation (for 6th and 7th grade, a foundation for orphans called San Mauricio; and for 8th grade, a foundation for orphans called Pisingos) as an action, I arranged for each class to visit those foundations and spend time with the children there. The kids planned activities to do with the children, and this time there were no mixed feelings; the students loved it, as you can see if you watch this reflection

Lessons for the Future
After seeing how much the kids enjoyed visiting the foundation they went to, the first lesson for me is that I need to build in more direct contact with other communities as part of the service learning. The unit described above could work well as an awareness raising unit, but it makes far more of an impact if kids can be directly in touch with other communities.

For example, maybe I could take advantage of the fact that our school covers all grade levels, and have my kids write a story to present to the preschool children, after they’ve spoken to them and found out what kind of stories they like. Or they could do the same for children at a foundation. Of course the story itself would need to be written in very simple language, so there would be very little learning of new vocabulary or grammatical structures, but they would need to show they know how to tailor their writing for an audience. If they presented the writing to the preschool or foundation students, that would also be great for presentation skills.

At the end of this unit then, like many teachers at the end of a unit, I am frustrated knowing I could have done it a lot better, encouraged because I did see improvement from last year, and anxious to take this year’s lessons and do it better next year.

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