Finding education in the real world
For her, the perfect way to do it is through service learning, a teaching strategy that pairs classroom curriculum with meaningful service projects where students of all ages can use their knowledge to address real community needs.
“If students are able to make connections with their community, it can really empower them and show them that they can make a difference,” Rockwell says. “It also really engages them in the curriculum.”
Some of Rockwell’s more recent service learning projects include an erosion study carried out by her fourth graders in conjunction with a nearby state park, and a schoolyard mapping in which students determined what improvements they’d like to see made to their yard and designed a new garden to be planted sometime this year. They even carried out a campaign to raise funds for the project.
“The kids are really psyched about making their school beautiful, especially because they’ve been a huge part of the planning process,” she said. “That’s what’s important about this program D the opportunities for youth voice.”
According to Sasha Neumann, education coordinator for the Tahoe-Truckee Service Learning Partnership (TTSLP), aside from providing students with a voice, the purpose of service learning is to build community, particularly between adults and children.
“The core idea is that everything is better when relationships are established — if you take the time to connect with someone else,” she said. “Students and teachers will stay more engaged if they have friends to share their successes and challenges with.”
Neumann said service learning tries to provide teachers with the networking, support and training they need to make their efforts more successful and meaningful.
Although the district has a history of student-inspired service learning-style projects, the concept has really taken off in the year or two, particularly with the formation of the partnership.
The TTSLP works to connect students and educators with community groups in efforts to facilitate and strengthen service learning projects.
“Right now, the partnership is really trying to grapple with what its role is,” said Sarah Green, TTSLP community coordinator. “We’re not hear to create new things, per say, but rather provide the support, as well as some of the funding to keep existing programs going and to encourage new people to get involved.”
Funding for the partnership over the last couple years has come from grants from the Corporation for National Service groups like CalServe and Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA). “Those grants run out after next year, though, so right now we’re looking for ways to diversify our funding and keep service learning sustainable in our community,” Green said.
“It’s our ultimate goal to get service learning so incorporated into people’s everyday lives that we won’t need to worry about funding or facilitating anymore. It will just happen.”
Judging from the growing buzz about service learning in the district, that goal is within reach, Neumann said.
“We originally projected about 200 kids to participate in service learning this year,” she said. “However, the numbers we’re seeing indicate that as many as 400 students, roughly one-third of all students in the district, are involved in some way. As for teachers, I believe as many as 80 percent have service projects in the works.”
Tahoe-Truckee High School sophomore Tenaya Ideker said service learning has brought a whole new perspective to her life.
“Service learning not only shows you that helping others is fun and rewarding, but it really creates bonds between people, particularly students,” she said. “I’ve made these incredible friendships with people I never would have known before and everyone involved in service learning really seems to care about each other.”
Ideker has been involved in “Challenge Day,” a student-run service learning project that seeks to breakdown stereotypes and create unity among teens through all-day workshops on teen issues. Students who participate in Challenge Day also have the option of being trained to become mentors for younger teens.
“Challenge Day really works to bring people together and make people feel welcome and accepted, which in turn creates a much more positive learning environment at school,” she said.
Service learning rejuvenates teachers as well.
“It reminds me of how I can be a better teacher,” said Karen Hutchinson, a Spanish teacher at TTHS.
Each week Hutchinson’s upper division students visit Spanish-speaking preschoolers to assist with lessons and activities.
“For students to see that they’re not just learning in a vacuum, but rather can use their Spanish to help others, is such a wonderful thing,” she said. “It not only makes them more confident, but makes them want to learn more. It also makes them see the possibilities that exist for them. For example, several of my students have realized they want to become bilingual teachers just from their service learning experiences.”
Without the experiences he’s had through service learning, TTHS sophomore Brody Dwyer said his life would be boring and unfulfilling.
“It’s really opened up a whole new horizon for me,” Dwyer said, who is in his second year of service learning. “It’s helped my interpersonal skills and my public speaking skills, not to mention, allowed me to meet all kinds of people from all over the country at the conferences I’ve gotten to attend.”
Dwyer said student learning gets them involved and out in their communities in ways they never would have otherwise.
“Most kids, if you talk to them, care about what’s going on in their communities,” he said. “However, often when I talk to my friends, they have things they think need to be changed in their community, yet don’t do anything about it. I keep trying to tell people that [service learning] is the place where you can try to change these things.”
For more information on how to get involved in service learning, please contact: Sarah Green at 550-0819, Abby Hutchinson at 587-1509 or Sasha Neumann at 308-5431.