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You Get What You Give

by Erin Peterson

There are 200 kindergartners at Longfellow Elementary, a school in central Northfield. Thirty of them are Latino students who speak little or no English. Teachers have a tough time keeping up with a class of native-speaking kids, let alone Spanish-speaking ones, and as the enrollment of Latino students has continued to climb, Northfield teachers have struggled to balance the needs of all the students. So when Carleton Spanish lecturer María Elena Doleman and Spanish professor Silvia López offered to send some of their intermediate-level Spanish students to help at the school during the day, the timing couldn't have been better. Joan Lizaola, the school district's minority liaison, says the Carleton students were an immediate hit. "Carleton volunteers make sure the students understand what's being said and keep them on task," she says. "They're especially helpful at lunchtime, when they can socialize with the students-they even get the kids to eat more of their lunch."

The kindergartners aren't the only ones learning lessons. The Carleton students, who have a firm-but not perfect-understanding of Spanish, often get pointers from the five-year-olds. "The kids feel important by teaching an adult some of their language, and they thrive on this one-on-one attention from older students," says Lizaola.

As part of a pilot service-learning program, Doleman and López sent 40 students from their fall classes to help Spanish-speaking students at local schools, from kindergarten through high school. Students spend an hour a week at the school for eight weeks, then compile a diary and a final project to evaluate and reflect on their experience. The professors hoped that the experience would give meaning to the students' language practice and improve their speaking skills. Though the full impact of the program won't be known until the two have a chance to tally evaluations and meet with organizing teachers and administrators, anecdotal evidence suggests that the project has been remarkably successful. Doleman, who asked about the students' work on a midterm evaluation, says many of them report that it's been an enjoyable experience; López hasn't gotten a single complaint from the students or the school.

The students of Doleman and López are exceptional; they are also typical. More than three-quarters of Carleton students have served in their communities by the time they arrive on campus, and, collectively, students log some 4,000 hours in volunteer work each term. Dozens of students work as ACT (Acting in the Community Together) program directors. According to ACT coordinator Candace Lautt, interest in service has increased, and she sees it as part of a national trend. "This isn't just a passing phase," Lautt says. "Students are looking for ways to connect to the community they're in."

So perhaps it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that students want to incorporate service into the classroom as well. "Students crave opportunities to integrate their intellectual work with community service," says religion professor Michael McNally '85. "The demands on students' time is such that they're not always able to do in their spare time the kind of community service that they really want to do, so it's rewarding for them to be able to incorporate it into their academic learning. It allows them to do more service, but more importantly, it allows them to reflect intellectually on it." It's also a boon for shorthanded community organizations.

Service learning-a combination of community service and academic rigor that enhances understanding of a subject-isn't a new concept. Some professors and departments have used it for years: from education students working in public school classrooms to geology classes collecting information about the local landscape for community groups. For the most part, however, professors have developed these classes in isolation, relying on their own knowledge of organizations and leaders, and taking on the labor-intensive logistical challenges themselves.

That's starting to change. Recently, there's been a more organized push for faculty members to think broadly about how they can incorporate community service in the classroom. In 1999 ACT created several new student positions: Service learning coordinators recruit faculty members to create classes with a service learning component, provide assistance where it is needed, and increase discussion among professors and students about service learning as a pedagogical tool.

Two years later, Carleton established curriculum development grants that provide financial support for professors who want to incorporate service learning into their classrooms. McNally became an informal liaison between the ACT office and the faculty with the hope of encouraging service learning.

The funding, the faculty support, and increased student interest have given service learning new legitimacy and visibility. Since 1999, more than 20 new courses featuring a service learning component have been taught at Carleton. From history and languages to mathematics and environmental studies, professors have offered classes with a service component at every level. Lautt expects the trend to continue. "There's more interest and awareness now than there has been, particularly among students and young faculty members," she says. "In general, colleges and universities are becoming more aware of their relationship with and their responsibility to the community they're in. Service learning benefits both students and the community."

Learning Opportunities

Fitting meaningful service learning into a 10-week term is a difficult task by any measure, but students have often proved particularly resourceful and industrious when they know their work will affect more than just their transcript.

In 2002, Mary Savina '72, McBride Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies, taught an introductory environmental geology class in which half the students created a natural resources inventory for the city of Northfield. They studied the local landscape and used geographic information system technology-the kinds of things they would have done in a more traditional class-but they also produced a 58-page report for Northfield's city council that included detailed maps, photos, and information about local wetlands, parks, animals, and vegetation. The project required them to attend city meetings, interview local experts, and do substantial fieldwork. The council thanked Savina and her class in a unanimous resolution.

"The inventory, which is a map- and photo-based macro approach, will be useful as a starting point for a professional inventory," says Keith Covey, Northfield's mayor and former director of facilities at Carleton. "The section on light pollution introduced a natural resource topic that would not typically be examined."

The students gained valuable knowledge that they wouldn't necessarily have gotten from a typical introductory class. Rebecca Haberkorn '04 (Aitkin, Minn.), one of the editors for the natural resources inventory, says that the class gave her an inside look at urban planning, a career she hopes to pursue. "Meeting with the city and regional planners allowed me to see their top priorities and concerns," she says. "I saw how they interact with local governments and with the public to preserve the aspects of Northfield that the community values."

Savina was impressed not just with the outcome, but also with the process. While students achieved the typical objectives of an introductory class, they also got to see local government at work, getting a glimpse of the obstacles and opportunities they might have once they leave Carleton. "Students didn't think that they would be able to do something important in an introductory class," says Savina. "They found out that wasn't the case."

Despite the fact that most students did more work in Savina's class than they would have in a lecture class, service learning has long been dogged by the accusation that it doesn't have the academic rigor of traditional classes. The professors who practice service learning find that such allegations don't mesh with their experiences. To the contrary, many say, students who participate in service learning end up with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the subject. To maintain high standards, most professors require a paper or poster presentation as the graded component of the service learning. Biology professor Phil Camill, who teaches classes about global change, argues that connecting academic theory with real-world experience increases the sophistication of students' knowledge. "To think that science operates in a vacuum is crazy," he says. "Everything we do and teach has implications for how the world is going to work."

That said, no one argues that service learning should constitute all-or even the bulk-of students' academic experience. "Service learning shouldn't be forced," says Lautt. "But along with traditional lecture classes, it can provide balance in a student's course load. I think there can be a place for it in any department."

History professor Susannah Ottaway agrees that service learning is crucial to students' understanding of the world around them and the subject they're studying, and that the integration between classroom and community must be done thoughtfully. "It's important to make sure the service learning is going to supplement the classroom experience in really clear ways," says Ottaway. She has offered students the option to swap a paper for a service learning experience, such as teaching a history lesson to an elementary school class. Students often think teaching kids will be a breeze, but they learn quickly that they have to know their topic inside and out to make complicated history easy enough for kids to digest.

The lessons Carleton students learn aren't always the ones they anticipate-and that's a good thing, says McNally, who teaches Native American religion and American studies classes. "For one class, I had students who tutored in Ojibwa language classrooms," he says. While students expected to have a language immersion experience, it turned out that not much of the language was being taught. If it was disappointing to the students, it was also eye-opening for them, as they got to see the daily frustrations of teachers and students in the classroom. "It wasn't necessarily a privileged experience of the Ojibwa language, but it was a privileged example of the realities of an Ojibwa kid in the Minneapolis area," he says. "They got to see the poverty and the oppression that mark that experience." Afterward, McNally gave his students assignments that encouraged reflection about the work they'd done while putting it into a larger context. The work and the corresponding assignments, McNally says, help students gain far more than they could by simply reading a book. "The service itself-20 to 30 hours per student-is a gesture," he says. "But I hope that it lights a fire in the belly."

Though service learning isn't a required part of the curriculum, Camill believes that professors should feel some obligation to encourage it among their students. "When students get into the real world, they work with lots of different people and the problems they encounter are inherently very complicated. Service learning gives them some context for how challenging some of these problems are," says Camill. "There is a responsibility to train people to interact with agencies out of an academic realm."

Difficult Terrain

If academic terms don't always lend themselves to long-term projects, they do ensure that students and professors will think creatively about the ways they can help and be helped by community organizations. Though students like to think big, Camill says he encourages them to see small projects all the way through. Savina adds that logistical challenges are useful tools. "It's true that our schedule is idiosyncratic, but people are going to encounter variations on that theme throughout their lives," she says. Students who want to work on a larger project have often tacked on an independent study course after they've completed a course, she notes. Kate Van Gundy '03, a former service learning coordinator, says that she and other students have tried to find ways around this conundrum. "We've looked at service learning classes that could run an entire year, with related courses being taught each term," she says. The ACT office is working with the off-campus studies office to funnel students returning from other countries into service learning courses that can make use of their language expertise.

Funding is another challenge. Right now, transportation is the main cost. It has proved to be reasonably inexpensive, but as programs expand, costs will rise. The dean of students office and the ACT office provide most of the funding now, but that may shift if the academic side of the College takes on service learning.

In addition to these issues, service learning courses require an enormous amount of additional work for professors-and often for the students. But the extra work doesn't necessarily correlate to a more successful experience in the way it might in a traditional class. "You have to let go in a service learning class," says Ottaway. "You have to say to your students, ‘I've set this up, now go for it.' Professors have remarkably little control over the outcome of a project." Brief writing assignments can help professors assess what students have gained from a project. The key, Ottaway says, is finding agencies and organizers who can work with students again and again.

As service learning grows at Carleton, Lautt and others hope that ultimately it will fall under the auspices of the academic, rather than the cocurricular, side of the College-as it does at many other institutions, including some of Carleton's peers. "Service learning is integral to the classroom, and the more support and commitment we see on the academic side, the more successful it will be," Lautt says.

Though the College has done a great deal in the past few years to add service learning classes and encourage professors to consider how they might create their own, there is still work to be done before Carleton becomes a leader in the field, Lautt says. That said, the College has good models to follow: As a member of the Minnesota Campus Compact, a branch of a national organization that promotes partnerships between colleges and their communities, Carleton connects with other institutions that are implementing service learning programs. In the meantime, the College's increasing commitment to the concept bodes well for the future.

Done thoughtfully and intentionally, service learning can be an important part of a liberal arts education-and one of the first steps toward integrating students' college years with the rest of their lives. "The segregation of youth culture from adult culture, work life from personal life, education from ‘real' life is so pervasive that we hardly know how to start fitting the pieces together," Covey says. "Programs like Carleton's are essential."

Beyond The Basics

Nearly every department at Carleton has offered at least one service learning course. We've listed a few that give a sense of the range of possibilities that service learning provides.

Biology-Methods of Teaching Science
The class planned a NASA science day on campus for local Girl Scouts. About 40 girls from first through fifth grade participated in the Planet Dance, made Alka-Seltzer rockets, wrote constellation stories, calculated their age and weight on other planets, and put together simple telescopes.

Education-Schooling and Communities
Students worked at nonprofit agencies in the towns in which they would later be student teachers.

English-Writing Seminar
Students interviewed community veterans about their experiences in World War II and wrote biographies for a commemorative book being compiled by the Northfield Senior Citizens Organization and the Northfield Historical Society.

Geology-Advanced Geomorphology
Focusing on watersheds, students designed a monitoring system for Spring Creek and advised Carleton about streambank erosion and restoration.

History-Junior Colloquium
Students conducted oral history interviews for the Wellstone Symposium, held February 28–March 1, 2003.

Sociology and Anthropology-Research Methods
Students did surveys and focus group research for the Faribault mayor's office, focusing on youth needs.


Kindergartner at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Student with kindergartner at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Student with kindergartners at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Student with kindergartners at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Student with kindergartner at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Student with kindergartners at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Student with kindergartner at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Kindergartner at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Kindergartners at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Kindergartner at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Student with kindergartners at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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Kindergartner at Longfellow Elementary School; Photo by John Noltner
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