As an educator, I understand that commitment to community is twofold. Not only should teachers connect curriculum with community, they should also be enthusiastic to serve others. I have come to understand that “community” is no longer a zip code, so I challenge my students to explore and engage in areas that push the comfort limits of their own learning. As the wise professor says in Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, “You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.” It is in this spirit that I provide community-related opportunities for my students.
First, I aggressively seek out guest speakers. While I may have the education credentials, I am acutely aware that I am an expert in one specific field alone. I teach a high school course called “Literature of Social Change,” and we study an array of contemporary nonfiction; many of the issues we discuss are topics beyond my knowledge and experiences. David Pelzer’s A Child Called “It” is one example. After hearing from a county Court Appointed Special Advocate (C.A.S.A.) attorney about her experiences with child abuse and neglect, my class collected $200 in donations and brought in toys and candy for a county-sponsored Easter Egg Hunt for the wards of the court. Another group volunteered at Operation Breakthrough, a local organization that cares for children of poverty. Prosecuting attorneys, death-row attorneys, and priests have all been guests in my classroom during our unit over Damien Echols’ Life After Death or Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking. Talking with a priest prior to his visit, he hesitated because of his concern about the separation of church and state and asked if it was even allowed.
“Father, you’re fine. You’re simply going to discuss the Church’s position on life, the nature of atonement, and capital punishment. As long as you don’t baptize anyone or offer communion, it’s completely appropriate.”
He offered a conservative chuckle, and I reciprocated. Later, when the day of his talk arrived, he rocked it. All of these guests, I’ve discovered, are delighted to be a part of my students’ learning—and they’re eager to return. Additionally, these same individuals discuss their respective positive experiences among the community, which provides a byproduct of positive public relations to local voters.
As an alternative to the traditional final examination in this course, students may choose to explore important and credible organizations that have cultural and thematic connections to the literature. Students can volunteer, shadow, interview, or serve in various capacities for several hours. In addition to presenting their experiences during a roundtable discussion, students are asked to compose a reflection which provides an overview of the student’s motive for selecting this organization, makes specific and thematic and/or cultural connections between the literary work and the experience, shares any benefits or insights the student noted as a result of learning about this organization and its mission, and predicts what may be future obstacles for this organization. These students move from awareness to action, and in doing so see their personal and collective responsibilities within a community.
The most vital component of our nation’s infrastructure is our schools. Not only does engaging community within our classrooms prove to be enriching, memorable, and relevant for all stakeholders, students gain a sense of empathy, pride, and fulfillment.
And it doesn’t get any better than that.