Teaching Preservation: What is Service Learning?

Posted on: February 6th, 2009 by Guest Writer
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Notes from the Teacher's Desk

Many people are confused by the concept of service learning, probably because it sounds like a fancy way of saying something else. You know, like “hors d'oeuvre” versus “appetizer,” etc.

Well, as someone who has made a career out of it, I can promise you that it’s not.

First and foremost, service learning is not the same thing as community service. That’s a common misconception. Don’t get me wrong, both are excellent educational strategies (hence the reason why many states now require community service credits before students can graduate), but at the end of the day, they are two entirely different experiences.

After teaching my Research History course for several years, I came to know Ohio’s former First Lady, Mrs. Hope Taft. She was and still is one of the strongest advocates for what I’m doing in the classroom. I remember her telling me one day, “You know, what your students are doing is service learning.” I recall politely nodding my head and thinking to myself, “Sounds great, but what exactly is service learning?”

Before I knew it, Mrs. Taft had me in touch with a representative from Lions Quest, a well-known leader in service learning training that is a part of Lions Clubs International. They generously funded a trip for me to attend one of their training sessions in Knoxville. (So you know, the coincidence of traveling to the Volunteer State to brush up on service learning was certainly not lost on me.)

Here is what I took away from Tennessee: unlike community service projects where you show up, work and then go home, service learning projects have several distinct stages or parts, including preparation, action, reflection, skills demonstration and celebration. It’s a fusion between volunteerism, instruction and reflection. For students, the best possible service learning experience combines a project that fills an important need with the knowledge, skills and value goals from the classroom.

To learn more, I invite you all to visit the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse’s preservation website, where you’ll find helpful how-to information as well as a feature they did on one of my former class projects. And when you’re done poking around there, consider sharing the link (and our blog) with a teacher you know or sending it to school with your child.

As state budgets get smaller and smaller because of the economy, we all as preservationists need to think outside the box to determine how we’re going to do more with less. And to be honest, I can’t think of a better alternative than to get our nation’s teenagers off the couch and into the field as young stewards.

- Paul LaRue

Paul LaRue teaches Research History at Washington High School in Washington Court House, Ohio. The ultimate “hands-on” classroom experience, his course takes students into the field to learn about preservation and community service. Stay tuned this semester as Paul and his students document their project at Good Hope Cemetery here on our blog and on their Flickr photostream. Also, keep an eye out for future "Notes from the Teacher's Desk" columns from Paul himself.

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