Once we've learned to read, reading becomes a tool that helps us learn. Creating a learning experience that incorporates reading deeply, however, can be a challenge for today's teachers. How can we make reading relevant for today's students? How do we convince them that what they're reading matters? At The College School, I think we've found a way.
By pairing readings with real world work in a service-learning course, students can better relate to and understand what they read.
The final course our students at The College School take before they graduate as eighth graders is a service-learning class. We partner with multiple local non-profit organizations, and throughout the trimester, students engage in a variety of service projects designed to reflect on the major pillars they've studied in their years at our school: human community and the environment.
The work varies from year to year but often includes invasive species remediation in local parks, sandwich making at a local homeless shelter, picking up trash in waterways, helping to develop urban farms for refugees, and helping rebuild houses destroyed by natural disasters. Students organize bike drives and bake sales and school supply collections. They learn some hard skills along the way including how to properly use loppers and other trail maintenance tools, how to paint and install quarter round, and how to maneuver a wheelbarrow.
They improve their soft skills, too. They work as a team, persevering when things are tough. Oftentimes, they have to work hard to find the internal motivation to maintain a positive attitude and keep working at a task they may no longer be interested in.
The service itself, and the benefits it provides to our students and to the communities we serve, is only a part of the picture.
Without some deeper understanding of the issues, without understanding why the need for service work exists in the first place, the experiences are not nearly as meaningful. The students engage with the experts in each organization and learn directly from them.
They also read. Instead of assigning just one reading, my co-teacher and I provide students with a list of resources. The students' job is to dig in and be ready to share at our next class meeting. The resources are largely academic in nature—published articles from Time, Newsweek, and Ebony, for example—articles with statistical data and facts that help students see the scope of the issues.
We have students who prepare for the discussion by reading just one article; we have other students who choose to read every resource on the list as well as some they've sought out on their own. I've found through teaching this course and others that when students are curious about a subject, they'll put more time and effort into their learning. When a topic feels real or important—beyond the fact that it was assigned by a teacher—their level of engagement deepens.
The reading and notetaking students do have a purpose beyond just learning about the issues. We ask students to read in order to prepare to discuss what they've learned with their peers. In this way, they are accountable for what they learn.
In our discussions, which are mostly student led, we consider answers to questions like these: What did you learn? What surprised you? How did you feel? Because the students aren't all reading the same resources, they have different ideas to contribute to the conversation and can piggyback off one another's ideas, furthering their own understanding and the knowledge base of their peers.
Often our learning leads to greater understanding, but sometimes it leads to even more questions. For example, when presented with the concept of payday loans in a poverty simulation one year, a group got invested in learning more about them. We worked together to find podcasts and articles exploring the nature of payday loans and their ability to both help and harm the communities their peddlers target.
The academic nature of the reading is helpful in many ways, but after teaching and reflecting on the course a couple of times, I found that there was still something missing. I wanted students to know more than just facts about the issues. I wanted them to be able to imagine what it might be like to, for example, be a refugee or experience poverty or be homeless. I wanted them to wonder what that might look like. What might that feel like?
It happens that I teach the same cohort of students for language arts, so I was able to design a thematically integrated literature circle unit, where students read and discuss books about characters facing some of the same types of issues we study in our theme. These books—mostly novels, but some non-fiction first-person accounts—help students engage on another level: they help students see the issues through the eyes of a person rather than simply through the lens of statistics and data. By reading even fictionalized accounts of what it's like to be in poverty, for example, students develop understanding and empathy that doesn't always come with reading academic articles or even doing service.
As a follow up to the literature circle unit, they take their final essay test of the year. Here's the question: Why is it important to read books with characters whose experiences are different from yours? Their answers are strong and well thought out; their answers highlight well how we help students understand that reading matters.
In response to the essay prompt, Frances, a student in the class of 2017, wrote: "If the books of children, young adult, and adult genres were more diverse and included main characters with all different backgrounds and ways of life, we would have a more understanding community and a more equal world." She argued that "one of the most powerful ways books can get people to think differently is by getting the reader to realize what they and the character have in common."
"Reading books with diverse characters dealing with all different issues in their lives," she wrote, "can also cause conversation... This leads to understanding, education, perspective, and, if we work hard enough at it, equality for all."
"Books," she wrote, "are an extremely powerful tool to move our country and world forward towards equality to all, if we use them right."
But are we, as Frances argues, using them right?
There's a paradigm in experiential education that goes What, So What, Now What. In the What? is the experience itself. So What? asks why that experience mattered. Now What? asks what a participant will do with that experience moving forward. It's from this paradigm, and at a student's suggestion, that the service-learning class came to be called "Now What?" Too often, I think, reading in school lives in the world of the "What?" If we want to help students connect to what they read, we have to dig deeper. We have to ask them—and ourselves—why it matters and what are we going to do with it?
Sarah Gravemann is a middle school teacher and experiential education specialist at The College School in Webster Groves, Missouri.
Published September 2018.