Broadening Our Understanding of the World With Service Learning

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Service learning is a key part of the Woodward experience, and we recently sat down with David Roth, Upper School English teacher and Service Learning Coordinator, to talk more about his experiences with service learning, the importance of empathy, and how he sees service learning growing at Woodward. Enjoy!

Beyond the Gate: What has drawn you personally to service learning?

David Roth: I spent much of my childhood and young adult life living in my own world. The life of an actor, one that I started at the age of nine, was a lot about "me, myself, and I". My parents by no means encouraged this type of selfishness, nor did my teachers, but when you don't know anything different and choose not to know anything different, it becomes your entire life. I'm not saying that all actors are selfish, but much of my experience as an actor was about what I could do to create a career filled with accolades and achievements. When I returned to Woodward on the other side of the desk, it was, in many respects, a fresh start. I was no longer only responsible for my life, but also the lives, education, and well-being of my students. I felt this responsibility for another individual that I hadn't necessarily experienced before in such a consequential way. It was with that new responsibility that I began my work in service learning. My mentor, Ronda Zents, is the epitome of servant leadership and generosity; anyone who has ever worked with her will say the same thing, because she is simply the best. She was catalytic in the creation of our current service learning program. She spent the late nights, weekends, and lunches over the last 15 years instilling a sense of duty and responsibility in our students and faculty to be a community of givers. I was fortunate to work with her in English during my first year at Woodward, and she taught me how impactful this work can be for students during their time at Woodward, in their post-secondary school careers, and beyond. I'm drawn to this type of work because it teaches our students how to be civically engaged in the world. It asks them to tackle real-world problems that face them in our local and global communities. They are challenged to be critical thinkers about the work we are doing, the organizations we are supporting, and the experiences we are providing. They might not fully understand why it is necessary during the project itself, or what the scope of impact is long term for the community in need, but they are seeing that their work is doing something for someone, and that someone isn't them. I get to see a different side of our students during these experiences that isn't always prevalent in the classroom, and I'd like to believe they get to see that from me as well. After spending eight hours building a roof in the blistering heat during a Habitat for Humanity build, or spending two weeks in Zambia, Africa watching our students engage with students their own age from a different culture and background at the Terranova school, everything gets put into perspective. I’m drawn to the moment when our students say, “I get it. I get why we do what we do.”

BTG: How would you describe your philosophy and approach to service learning in an educational setting?

DR: There is a wonderful poem by Walt Whitman that I always enjoy reading with my students because it really emphasizes the action oriented work of service learning. In his poem, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer", Whitman tells the story of an individual listening to an astronomer during a lecture. It's fascinating to many of the people in the hall, as the applause roars, but the subject of the poem seems despondent and removed. They then choose to leave the lecture hall and go outside to look at the stars and see them personally instead. That poem symbolizes a lot of the work happening in service learning. We see the importance of teaching students about poverty, homelessness, food deserts, sustainability, education disparity, systemic racism, and equity v. equality, but we also recognize that students must engage in their surroundings through hands-on experiences to truly understand their station in the world and these topics. It isn't about making our students "feel bad" about who they are or what socioeconomic background they come from, but it is about teaching our students how to use the tools they have been given to better the world.

BTG: Do you think service learning helps to build empathy, and, if so, how important is that in your opinion?

DR: Empathy and vulnerability are everything in our work. Many times, people mistake service learning with volunteerism and community service. Community service represents a chore that requires time and energy, but no thought is truly needed to participate. It's a mandate. Volunteerism, while necessary and vital to our program, is more about giving of that time and energy by choice, but still requires little-to-no original thought. Service learning, at its core, is about giving of that time freely, choosing to actively participate without any expectation for something in return, and investigating why this particular inequity or injustice is a concern. The only way to move beyond that investigation phase of service learning is to empathize with the impacted individuals. If one isn't willing to "walk in their shoes" for lack of a better phrase, how will he or she ever recognize the immediate needs? The first rule in service learning? Shut up. The second rule? Listen.

BTG: Beyond empathy, what other key things do you want students to take away from the various service learning projects?

DR: I know this might sound overly optimistic, but I want our students to feel empowered to make great impact without our help as adults. I love it when a student comes to my room asking if we can add additional projects, create new opportunities with our current organizations, and incite new ways to increase participation. I want our students to recognize that we go to a school in a culturally and socioeconomically diverse community; they only need to walk three blocks down Main St. to hear a new story, and one that they might be able to empathize with and impact greatly. I hope they will leave each of our experiences interested in engaging more thoughtfully and more purposefully. I want them to see the power they hold, the knowledge they possess, and the ability they have to be lifelong game changers.

BTG: How do you see service learning growing at Woodward?

DR: As previously mentioned, I've had the honor of riding on the coattails of many fantastic individuals at our school who have been involved in service learning from the very beginning, before it was even called "service learning"! They have created the conduit through which all of us, whether coordinator, sponsor, or even occasional faculty volunteer, work. This past year, we created our first two service learning courses in the Upper School. To see this type of work being brought into the classroom shows great strides in the recognition and validity of its intention and message in education. At Woodward, we value the student life experience, both inside and outside of the classroom, and service learning bridges the gap between that perceived dichotomy. We are currently in the process of aligning our curriculum for service learning across the entire school. Through some amazing minds in each of our five schools, we are finding innovative and exciting ways to engage students at all levels of education in many of the projects we support yearly. There is no reason why a kindergartner cannot learn about poverty or food deserts, and the task at hand is to create these new experiences to be engaging and informative. Service learning at Woodward is not to be seen as an one-day event, but as a lifestyle choice. We choose how to spend our time outside of the classroom, and I hope that our students continue to see how vital this work is to their education at Woodward and beyond.

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