Last week, I discussed how service learning could provide a real context for students to learn writing skills I’m trying to teach them (such as making appeals to an audience effectively). Focusing on an issue that is current and relevant in a local context can activate student understanding of timing and how to choose the right thing to say for the right time and place.
One of the mechanisms making this learning possible is travel. In postmodern urban planning the concept of travel is structured as a dialectic (a back and forth) between abstract ideas about how a space works and lived experiences with spaces (Sura). In my writing class, I offer students techniques for inventing and testing ideas and shaping those ideas in writing formats that may work with various audiences, but it’s difficult for student writers to think concretely about real people reading and responding to their ideas. The movement and forms of visiting included in service learning projects allow them practice with this dialectic between abstract ideas about what might constitute effective communication and how people communicate in daily interaction.
Our National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week service-learning projects entail both literal and metaphorical travel into real spaces where ideas about how to end homelessness or alleviate poverty in our communities are currently in contention. Community leaders come to our classes or come out on our awareness walk and talk with students allowing them to ask questions. They also echo some of the themes or statistics we may have read about in our research for formal essay projects. Students go out and perform outward facing service (such as conducting food and hygiene product drives or serving at a pantry or shelter). They also learn what local people are saying about such projects by reading local news reports (e.g., articles covering debates in city commission meetings about whether to allow the creation of a permanent winter homeless shelter in town).
This movement or travel, literally and metaphorically, out of the contained classroom with its articulated learning outcomes and formal assignments, activates a dialectic between abstract planning and lived experience. Scripting or creating opportunities for these types of travel, I think, must increase the student’s odds of transferring the skills I’m teaching them to other writing contexts.
Sura, Thomas. “Making Space for Service-Learning in First Year Composition.” Writing Program Administration, vol. 38, no. 2, Spring 2015, pp.113-28.