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Service learning from the source: An AmeriCorps VISTA's journey

Grand Rapids Montessori student writing answers to personal questions asked by The Diatribe, during a spoken word workshop.

Grand Rapids Montessori students listening to Bruce Cashbaugh, Vietnam Veteran, on Veteran's day 2015.

Bruce Cashbaugh talking to Kate Krueger's class about his life and what it means to be a veteran.

On December 2, 2015, two Grand Rapids community members and founders of a spoken word troupe called The Diatribe began a workshop with 9th and 10th graders at Grand Rapids Montessori. “I believe in pipe dreams,” said Rachel Gleason as she began speaking one of her poems to students detailing some of the hardest struggles in her life.

Gleason spoke of her issues with identity, family, and religion and communicated to the students what she discovered and how it has affected her. Fable, a full-time artist in Grand Rapids, then spoke of his passions, discoveries and struggles. Then the two artists asked the kids to write answers to personal questions anonymously, which were then shared out loud. "How many of you can relate to something that someone else wrote?” asked Fable. Everyone in the room raised their hands and looked right into the eyes and hearts of their peers around them. This exercise was the beginning of a six-week workshop that will culminate in a performance with the students and The Diatribe side-by-side speaking truths to their peers and hopefully to the public.

Service learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility and strengthen communities. It brings the classroom to the community and the community to the classroom. The Diatribe's spoken word workshop for Kate Krueger's creative writing class is just one of the many connections that I have been able to make between Grand Rapids schools and the Grand Rapids community.

My name is Megan Lendman and I am an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Michigan Nonprofit Association. I serve with The LEAGUE Michigan program and I am based out of Grand Rapids Montessori. I started my year of service three months ago, and I am finally starting to settle into my role as the service learning coordinator. With over 30 schools in the Grand Rapids Public Schools district, there is plenty to do. My main focus is working with teachers directly to educate and support them in service learning -- in and out of the classroom. I work directly with nonprofits around Grand Rapids to identify the needs within this community and to figure out how students and classrooms can fill those needs. Once a connection is made, the students are able to strengthen the community with their own contributions.

Why do service learning at all? Teachers are already swamped with content and criteria. After only three months and first-hand experience facilitating and witnessing service learning, I am convinced that every student should be exposed. Every young person becomes a member of society; therefore, they must play an active part in it. A friend of mine recently reminded me, "One must learn to love their community before they love to help it." Service learning is all about community and civic engagement. Projects can take many forms, in which students are directly involved with the people they are helping, indirectly providing funds or services; or advocating for a cause, organization, or event that will instigate change in the community. Reflection and curriculum are core values that differentiate service learning from volunteering. Facilitated reflection allows students to look inside themselves to understand and process greater societal issues. The curriculum we use, which meets the Common Core standards and teaches tangible life lessons to students, is crucial for empowering community engagement.

We can teach students about war on Veteran's Day, but it is more powerful to invite a local veteran to speak of their experiences and allow students to ask their own questions. We can talk about poverty, but kids will have a better understanding of its effects if they learn about the work of organizations like Kids Food Basket. This kind of first-hand learning can make all the difference creating the next generation of civic leaders.
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