It was September, the start of a new school year. Lunchtime was almost over and I remember leaning over the shiny wooden dining hall tables of Ackerman Hall to pitch an idea to my colleague, Suparna. I wanted to provide a creative writing opportunity for my Grades 9 and 10 students to think outside of themselves and build meaningful relationships with those beyond their own Senior School community. As we brainstormed, wisps of ideas coalesced. The service-learning opportunity that emerged was a cross-divisional project where my students would each interview a Junior School (JS) student from Grades 4, 5, or 6 and then craft a story, making the latter the hero of the story. We even leapt ahead and imagined the grand finale: Senior School students reading their masterpieces to the littler ones, with the latter listening with rapt attention and nibbling on chocolate chip cookies.
As an Academic English teacher, I consistently endeavour to stretch my pedagogy to benefit the personal learning journeys of my students. However, the intention to stretch beyond my pedagogical comfort zone brought trepidations. Despite my excitement for facilitating an innovative learning task, I felt nervous about possible challenges. For example, what if my students considered that writing a 1,000 to 1,500-word short story for JS students was too elementary and superficial? A lack of engagement on their part could result in insensitivities, hurting the JS students who looked up to them. I thought of the school community. Would they see this service-learning creative writing project as I did and accept it as an opportunity to go beyond normal coursework and explore not-yet-visible possibilities? I worried that the quality of the final pieces would be less than those produced through more traditional approaches. I moved beyond my concerns, however, with the support of Suparna and my administration. I deeply felt that the benefits and value of this project would far outweigh the drawbacks.
Unmasking hidden heroes
I pitched the idea to my students, and what a relief it was to see that there was no apathy, only excitement. My students decided to first conduct their own research to find out more about Grades 4, 5, and 6 students. What did they do in their spare time? What kinds of books did they like to read? What words were linguistically “cool” in their world? After a class discussion of their findings, each of my classes appointed subgroups to interview the JS teachers to gain further insight.
What happened next was sweet. Many of my students had already been taught four to five years ago by the teachers they were to interview. Stepping into their classrooms was, to my students, like stepping into their childhood. The teachers marvelled at their poise and maturity. They exchanged shy smiles. The students’ eyes shone with respect while the teachers’ glowed with care and joy. Patiently, the teachers answered their questions.
Next, my students conducted two sets of 30-minute interviews at the Junior School. Many of the Senior-Junior school pairings were done at random, whereas some were more deliberate to respect learner needs. For the first interview, the Junior students were asked to bring in three objects of personal significance from home to conduct a show-and-tell. Thrilled to be the centre of attention, they spoke openly about themselves. My students followed up with a second interview as they began formulating the type of story in which they would cast their young partners as heroes.
Once my students had their plots in order, they asked the Junior students to create three illustrations. My students provided just enough guidance for the drawings, but not enough detail to reveal the plot. It was a visual arts opportunity. The younger students, tickled pink that their new friends were thinking so deeply about them, zealously drew with an insatiable curiosity about the plot.
The revising and editing process took time. I had 40 students and wanted to provide meaningful feedback. Meanwhile, they continued with other language arts tasks. It was December by the time the Junior students received their personalized gift. My students carefully inserted their young friends’ drawings amongst the printed pages and bound their books neatly with ribbon. This time the Junior students visited the Senior School classroom, which was decorated for the holiday season. Clumps of Senior and Junior students sat all over the classroom, spilling into the hallway… and yes, the younger ones listened with rapt attention while drinking hot chocolate and nibbling on chocolate chip cookies. When the readings were over, the groups just carried on chatting. The sessions ended with hugs and the question, “When will I see you again?”
Building meaningful relationships
From a curricular perspective, my Grades 9 and 10 students developed their creative writing skills. However, what my students gained from this project went far beyond creative writing accomplishments. In particular, they began to learn that meaningful relationships lie at the heart of service, and that such relationships can benefit the school community in unpredictable ways.
The resulting stories were of higher quality than I have ever received. My students were not creating for a mark. They were focused on their new little friends.
It was serendipitous that two students who both loved music and had a penchant for breaking out into dance move sessions were paired together as partners. It was both fascinating and amusing to watch how they collaborated with each other during the interview sessions. They developed a common understanding of how to work together and an appreciation for their similar interests and qualities.
I watched an artistic Grade 10 student, who initially knew very little about video games, step outside of her comfort zone to learn all that she could about her Grade 6 student’s favourite game. As a result, she was able to celebrate her partner’s interest by writing about a protagonist who overcame the trials of a video game world.
One of my fairly serious students was paired with a couple of Grade 5 students who loved romances. With dreamy countenances and a twinkle in their eyes, they begged their senior partner to write a romance story. Also, the story had to include a pig. Although my student was challenged by the requests, she committed herself to the task because she was invested in bringing the story to life for her young partners.
My students were moved to see the JS students demonstrate an equal investment in the process when asked to provide illustrations for their stories. While distributing the completed illustrations to my students, I heard many of them excitedly cry out, “This is exactly what I had envisioned!”
Suparna and I noted that all of the students involved were able to experience positive emotions, felt fully engaged in the process, and built relationships that brought meaning into their lives. In the end, together they created a product that made their accomplishments visible. In fact, these experiences represent the five key elements that psychologist Martin Seligman believes promotes psychological well-being and happiness.1 We did not intentionally manufacture a project to “cover” these elements. A post-project reflection session revealed that we did.
The sum is greater than the parts
The positive outcomes of this service-learning project were numerous and reached beyond relationship building.
Our school’s strategic plan includes:
- creating more cross-divisional opportunities, as our campus is housed in three separate buildings
- fostering our core values, which include compassion, inclusivity, and celebrating individuality
- encouraging teachers to share innovative teaching practices.
My students had many opportunities to shift perspectives and see the world through the eyes of a JS student, cultivating a sense of care, empathy, and compassion. I frequently highlighted how chuffed the Junior students were to have new, older Senior friends. Their trust in my students helped the Grade 9s and 10s build confidence in their oral communication skills and experience growth in their interview techniques. All of the students transcended the barriers of traditional classroom walls and experienced an innovative form of meaning making. Cumulatively, all of these aspects increased my students’ investment in their finished products, and the resulting short stories were of higher quality than I have ever received. My students were not creating for a mark. Rather, my students were focused on making visible to their new little friends the heroes that they already were.
The JS teachers were impressed to see the quality of work that their past students were creating and were eager to adjust their current expectations to further nurture the skills they saw developed at the senior level. One JS teacher had her class create lovely thank-you cards. Another teacher planned to have his students dramatically recreate their story using a green screen in the future.
Unmasking future heroes
Unfortunately, the green screen dream did not materialize, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit and students were tucked away in isolation. The pandemic made Suparna and I wonder what such a project would look like if completely carried out online. Interviews and sharing sessions could all happen in virtual breakout rooms that could be monitored by teachers and recorded and submitted by the Senior School students to ensure ethical behaviour. Expectations and ground rules would need to be set in advance. Delicious cookies, I suppose, would also need to be mailed out to students.
No matter what the scenario, oftentimes as teachers, we postpone innovative ideas for more traditional approaches due to lack of time or confounding logistics. However, both Suparna and I feel that if it is at all possible (even on a smaller scale), service-learning initiatives are well worth the effort. The school community benefits, and students realize that perhaps the greatest secret in receiving an education is that they have the power to express that learning in an act of giving.
Photo: courtesy the authors
First published in Education Canada, January 2021
1 According to Dr. Martin Seligman, the five pillars of well-being are: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. See: Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Free Press.