Service Learning During the Pandemic: One Teacher’s Perspective

By Isaiah Moore

Service Learning During the Pandemic: One Teacher’s Perspective

When I was younger, my friends and I had a favorite spot to play. Behind our local grocery store, there was a steep hill that provided a ton of fun. We would pick a few discarded boxes left over from the store’s inventory, run to the top of the hill, get in the box, and slide down. My first time participating provided more of a thrill than I had anticipated. I remember my heart thumping at twice the normal rate as I slid down the hill. My emotions seemed to be in conflict with each other as my wind-blistered lips arched to the corners of my face and my eyes cried. The makeshift sled slowed down but did not stop. I thought my heart rate would normalize, but before I knew it, I went shooting down an even steeper hill than the first!

The feeling of this memory has resurfaced recently with the changes in school. Though not as much fun, the pandemic’s forced changes to education are thrilling. And I thought I was coming to a halt with the flat land of Thanksgiving and winter break approaching. But, on November 23, our state canceled our standardized tests. That’s when I had the idea to use our newfound free time to get my kids out in the community, during a PANDEMIC! That’s when the second hill started. But little did I know, service learning is just what a teacher needs during this pandemic. Here’s why!

Service Learning Context

The initial outline of the project was twofold: I thought of helping and inspiring our local community of healthcare workers, people in homeless shelters, the elderly in nursing homes, small businesses, and teachers during the pandemic. Once students picked the group they wanted to help and inspire, they researched the issues facing the group, evaluating each source with the CRAAP method. I put together a list of professionals in each sector that students could contact to use as a primary source. They used their writing skills to construct professional emails to engage with these people. In doing so, we touched on author’s purpose and style. Once students had compiled their research, they created informational pamphlets as a group that allowed us to go over text features and structures (cause and effect and problem and solution) while employing their creative juices.

The second part of the project allowed students to “sponsor” a person in the group they picked and write a letter of thanks or inspiration. At the end of each week, the kids used Flipgrid, an online platform meant to facilitate video discussion, to record their new learning and emotions during the process. To finish up, every group presented its project to the rest of class on the last day before winter break.

That’s how we touched our community despite the pandemic, and judging from the passion students displayed during the project and their reactions afterward, I can tell that they were affected as well. In fact, my coworker Stephanie Filio covers the benefits children receive from service learning in her own writing; however, not much is said about what teachers get from it. Here are the advantages from a teacher’s perspective.

It Breaks Lesson Monotony

I consider myself to be a creative teacher, but no matter how creative an educator is or how acquainted they are with the curriculum, they ultimately fall prey to the skill-and-drill approach. This is a product of high-stakes testing. Service learning is a break from that, allowing us to really use our creativity and problem-solving skills to help various groups we normally wouldn’t reach. We also help our students see the importance of using education to ameliorate the lives of others and we help our community. Lastly, we help ourselves, because it is this context of learning that attracted us to the profession of teaching. It provides the inspiration we need to continue despite unforeseen challenges such as this pandemic.

It Breaks Cause Monotony!

Because the work of teaching is so demanding, we often spend a majority of our time doing only that. And why not? It is amazing work, not to mention important. But every once in a while, we yearn to help society in other ways. This is even truer now as the pandemic ravages our country. Service learning affords teachers the opportunity to engage the community in a different way and evoke change. For example, the director of admissions at the assisted living community my classes sponsored sent a note letting us know that their tenants felt loved and were inspired by our project since most have been separated from their families throughout this pandemic. It was a pleasure to bring smiles to the faces of the elderly when my usual audience is on the other end of the age spectrum. It’s reassuring to know that I can bring some goodness to those outside the classroom as well.

It Helps Us Understand Students Better

Ironically, the students were reassured by the changes they made too. I say ironically because I can sometimes see students as a monolith, doing only what’s needed to get the grade. However, when forced to think about their community and the ways they could use their faculties to bring about change, they began to open up. I learned that some of them want to be small business owners, and the thought of speaking with someone in that sector excited them. I discovered that one of my students lost an older relative to COVID-19 and that writing to the individuals in the same age range helped him cope with the loss. Though some students opened up in class discussions, others decided to give information through our weekly VLog assignments on Flipgrid. (To help students reflect and express themselves verbally, I gave them weekly questions to answer.) In the more intimate setting of her home, one student’s video revealed that at first she wasn’t excited about my class or the assignment, but after “being forced to work,” her mood lightened and she now sees value in what she learns. As a result of these VLogs, I know my students in a way that was previously unavailable, and I’m better able to educate them. That makes me happy.

It’s a Gift That Keeps Giving

I’m not only happy about better understanding my students but also about giving them something more. Dean William Inge, an English author, once said, “The aim of education is the knowledge not of facts but of values.” I take this quote to heart. In fact, it is the reason I decided to teach. The allure of building a legacy where students operate knowing that the knowledge they gain is meant to help others is what drives my work. I imagine that the service learning opportunities I afford students will help build their socioemotional awareness and create an active and informed citizenry from now well into the future. Leading the charge to establish such a legacy makes me see my job in a different light. With every service learning project I lead, I think of how educators can better education to improve student outcomes in the future.

And because of this inspiration, I propelled down the second proverbial hill once again, except this time it was a conscious decision and with a new aim. When I was young, sliding down the hill was fun and exhilarating. Now, I still get the same feeling, but with hopes to inspire others to do the same. I know it seems paradoxical to be excited during a pandemic, but the pandemic has granted educators an opportunity: to make society better by creating a love for education and service. It is an opportunity to cultivate the idea that service to others isn’t an action, it’s a passion.

Isaiah MooreIsaiah Moore is an eighth-grade English teacher in Virginia Beach who’s had the pleasure of speaking to crowds of over 1,000 but still becomes nervous when conducting a 45 minute session for 30 students. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t show it.) An Albert Einstein quote guides his life: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Through word and action, this quote was taught to him by four Black male teachers in high school. Because of their impact, he decided to pursue education in hopes of impacting others the same way. To do so, he attended Morehouse College and became an Oprah Scholar while receiving his undergraduate degree in English. Afterward, he obtained his Master’s of Arts in Education from the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Isaiah believes that education should be relevant, so he prides himself on developing lessons that incorporate real-world topics. This shows students their education extends beyond the four walls of his classroom. When Isaiah’s students apply these concepts to their daily lives, it is at this point that he sees his value. Here is where he becomes a man of success. Isaiah writes about his daily life in the classroom at his blog, Running Thoughts . . . Can’t Let Them Get Away.

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