Jean-Patrick Grillet is the NCLC member in the Duke Program in Education. He is tasked with helping coordinate the Partners for Success service learning program, wherein over 150 Duke Undergraduates tutor in one of fifteen partner sites for two hours each week. Throughout the semester Jean-Patrick assesses reflections written by the students and leads seminars on becoming better tutors.
Serving as the AmeriCorps member at the Duke Program in Education has afforded me unique access to several of the institution’s departments and initiatives, especially as they relate to service learning. From my first day at Duke, we have tried to think critically and intentionally about the work we are asking our undergraduates to do. In fact, I was surprised at how critical my colleagues were of their own program, but I soon realized that tough criticism is necessary for meaningful improvement. Is tutoring for two hours a week over the course of a semester actually doing the community any good? Are we modeling the “First, do no harm” adage to our learners (as adapted from the Hippocratic Oath and commonly spoken around the Program in Education office)?
On the surface, service learning looks like a charitable situation in which all parties win. Duke students enter a school or community center, share their wealth of skills and knowledge with an apparently struggling young student, and then that student does better in school. The Duke students might learn a bit more about Durham and its people, but the important thing here is that they took time out of their busy schedules to help a student who would otherwise fall behind, and they feel really good about it. Right?
Not quite. Civic engagement (service learning typically falls under this umbrella) programs have become a popular attraction in American universities, usually taking the form of exotic 2-8 week trips to remote parts of the world. Students build houses, wells, and trails or teach English and basic computer skills to locals who we assume had less access and mobility before the arrival of the university program. No doubt, millions of people around the world could benefit from the significant capital and human resources at Duke’s disposition, but what is the long term goal here? If Duke brings students to Ghana, and in one summer can build enough houses for a whole community, build a well and supply enough technology to jump start a local economy, then they would not really have to go back the following year. Or, fewer students would need to go since so many of the root issues had actually been addressed.
In the Program in Education, we do not send our students to other countries to tutor children. Instead, we send them into one of our local partner sites, ranging from elementary schools to GED preparation programs. This started when the education faculty here at Duke realized an unsettling truth: this elite university stood in the middle of a city with declining high school graduation rates, and did little to nothing to help improve the academic achievement of Durham children. Obviously, there was a need for extra support, so we started sending Duke Undergraduates as tutors. Smart kids take care of struggling ones. Eventually graduation rates would go up and there would be less of a need for our tutors. The goal should be to close the loop, if we really want Durham graduation rates to reach 100%.
This is problematic because our solutions are very short term. Our students will form a relationship with their learners over the course of a semester, then will likely never see that student again—they will likely never see that student graduate high school or go to college. So how do we know the job is done? This is where we start to run into some inconsistencies. Is it more important for our Duke students to learn, or for them to serve? In other words, should we stick to this short term model and ensure that we have plenty of tutoring for our Duke students every semester, or should we put our students to work on more long term solutions that might cause the service learning program to self-destruct in the most positive way possible? In tackling these questions, we are starting to think of new service learning programs that would help students address bigger, broader issues in the field of education.
One solution is establishing a relationship with the local school board, so that students could work as interns or be an official advocate for one of our partner sites at school board meetings. Another would be to work with charters or Durham Public Schools to develop service learning curricula for local students themselves, thereby establishing a system to combat other harmful systems. Right now, we have a task force of undergraduates working to develop a food waste-focused service learning curriculum at a local charter school. They hope to reduce waste and increase food literacy through the creation of a composting program and community garden.
It has been easy to identify the “service” component of these programs, but our undergraduates are supposed to be learning too—and more than just about the fact that there are children in need. Similar to our AmeriCorps program, we know that our service learning programs will not immediately fix society’s gravest ills. However, we can use the short-term tendency of our system to spread knowledge and awareness so that our students choose to pursue more ethical professions. As we recruit and manage volunteers for tutoring and other service opportunities, we can simultaneously develop long term strategies and tactics for a more sustained, systemic impact. We can expose our students, volunteers and learners to the underlying forces causing those problems, so that they might make a career out of fixing them. It is up to us as programmers and facilitators to create opportunities that will change the way our students see the world, rather than just allowing them to observe it passively from a secure, comfortable position.
In an effort to help our students think more intentionally about their service, we require four written reflections per semester as well as two group reflections. We use these spaces to bring up the uncomfortable questions students might have about their service. And unlike in a quick summer trip, we are in constant contact with our partner sites to make sure that we meet their needs in the same areas over the course of several years. We also maintain a database of past tutors to invite them back in following semesters. At the Program in Education we are seeking to create new, innovative service learning programs to address the city’s most pressing education issues. In the meantime, we will be making sure that our students are aware of the problems in service learning, so that they can be more conscious tutors and more engaged citizens.