Service-Learning and Social Justice for College and University Students: Replacing Memorization with Meaning

Service-Learning and Social Justice for College and University Students: Replacing Memorization with Meaning

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-5268-1.ch005
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All students deserve access to the types of learning that enable them to experience firsthand the rich diversity of life to understand the challenges that others face in their everyday living and to learn collaborative and impactful problem-solving skills to help combat inequality at the local, national, and international levels. A perusal of service-learning addressed in this chapter includes an examination of the benefits for both the participant and the recipient. The chapter addresses the need for service-learning for people who are marginalized because of their gender identity or sexual preferences, disabilities, class, race, gender, age, or a combination of factors associated with marginalization. Recommended practices for ensuring successful service-learning projects and various types of service-learning are discussed. Six sequential steps in implementing a service-learning project are delineated. The chapter concludes with examples of local, regional, national, and international service-learning projects and testimonials from recent local and international service-learning providers.
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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

-Margaret Mead

Service learning is authentic and meaningful; the life-changing nature of a service-learning experience for both the provider and the recipient is unrivaled by any other type of campus course. Frequently, these course-imbedded service-learning experiences are some of the most memorable and meaningful of all the courses taken by university students. Students glean so much more than book knowledge from service-learning. This service-learning themed chapter focuses on service-learning college projects that address several components of social justice including LGBTQ+, ability, race, and class. For purposes of this chapter, service-learning is defined as educational experiences in which “students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development” (Jacoby, 1996, p. 5). Rather than relying upon textbooks and lectures for students’ social justice learning, the college experiences described in this chapter embrace a pro-active stance toward lifelong learning at the college and university level. Professors, teachers, and instructors alike owe it to their students to scaffold and encourage their service-learning as students learn about life, itself, and all of its diversity, uniqueness, and wonder. As Sonia Nieto (2005b) advises:

Teaching children well means teaching them the basics…But teaching our children well means other things as well: It means teaching them to become moral human beings, to care for others and their environment, to be generous, to think beyond their own limited self-interests, to become involved in civic life. It means teaching them to serve their community, giving of their time and energy and resources. And it means teaching them that living in a democracy is both hard work and a privilege that can easily be squandered. (p. 5)

Service-Learning is not a new concept or idea. However, service-learning in high schools and universities today reflects a unique set of variables, including a linkage with project-based learning and academic subjects. Service-learning today represents a variation of traditional paper and pencil and computer education; it is a type of education based upon experience involving the recognition of a societal issue, goal setting, planning, collaboration among group members, implementation, reflection and revised goal-setting, sharing experiences with others, and celebrating accomplishments. As Heather Wolpert-Gawron (2016) comments regarding the benefits of service-learning for both oneself and for the community served, “Service-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.”

Thus, the present emphasis of service-learning on projects, class themes, self-reflection, and implications for self and others sets today’s service-learning endeavors apart from those undertaken in the past and, in intrinsic as well as extrinsic ways, benefits its participants—both the servers and the population served. Linda Darling-Hammond (2002) adds that schools must change in fundamental ways in order to teach our very diverse student population deep understanding, problem solving, and higher order thinking. In progressive schools of the 21st century, traditional content areas are now supplemented and made more meaningful by including service-learning in the curriculum. Instead of teaching a college class about hunger and reading from a textbook, for example, students visit a homeless shelter and serve food to the residents. Instead of taking a multiple-choice test addressing aging in America, students make cards and crafts, deliver them to a nursing home, and interview the residents. In order to provide new meaning and an appreciative audience to a book they are reading in a language arts methods or children’s literature class, students visit a Head Start Center and perform this story as a play relating to the children’s book. Wolpert-Gawron (2018) states, “It’s about teaching empathy as well as literacy. It’s about teaching compassion as well as composition. It’s about teaching advocacy as well as algebra.” (p. 87)

Key Terms in this Chapter

Ability/Disability: Refers to an individual’s capacity or proficiency in a particular area. In this chapter, service work may focus on individuals with disabilities, meaning those who are disadvantaged by social conditions or laws.

Service-Learning: An educational approach that combines learning goals and objectives with community service in order to provide a pragmatic, progressive learning experience while meeting the needs of marginalized individuals or groups.

Allies: Persons or organizations that help those who face discrimination or marginalization by offering their support, guidance, and advocacy efforts.

Inclusion: The state of being a part of a group in which all members are not the same in terms of ability, race, gender, age, sexual preference, and/or class or social status.

Gender: A range of identities that do not only correspond to male and female. In this chapter, the focus is on discrimination of a group of persons based upon their gender identities.

Age/Ageism: A particular state in a person’s life. In this chapter, service work may focus on persons who face ageism or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age.

Marginalized: The treatment of a person or group as insignificant or peripheral. In this chapter, service-learning groups support and perform services for several marginalized populations.

Transgender: A person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their designated physical sex at birth.

Class: People who belong to a particular social class. In this chapter, service work may focus on classism, addressing individuals who face discrimination because of their income, job, or housing.

Race: Each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics. In this chapter, service-learning groups support and perform services with marginalized groups who often face discrimination and marginalization based upon their race.

Gay-Straight Alliance (or Gender-Sexuality Alliance) (GSA): A group of individuals who are LGBTQ+ and their allies, who meet, usually in a school setting, to support one another, plan events, and make themselves and their rights visible to the cisgender population.

LGBTQ+: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, and other. In this chapter, service-learning groups address discrimination and marginalization related to this group of individuals.

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