English 121 is a quarter-long composition course that requires 20 to 40 hours of public service. Instructors work in conjunction with The Carlson Leadership & Public Service Center to develop service opportunities for students centering on social themes—such as the environment, homelessness, public education, and language, as well as community service itself.
While English 121 is attractive to students for many reasons, as instructors of writing, our goal is to use these real-life environments to facilitate authentic writing situations. In doing so, we strive to help students develop their critical writing and analytical skills while also demonstrating how writing creates real effects. With studentsí diverse beliefs, practices, and experiences with respect to ďserviceĒ often a primary focus for class discussion, instructors balance the needs of both the students and the community partners to construct a successful course.
In Meganís class, students worked with community partners involved in local food production and distribution, including the University District Food Bank and the Seattle Tilth Childrenís Garden. Because the community partners themselves assigned the group projects, students engaged in writing and research not as exercises isolated in the classroom but as tools for serving the organizationís needs. These projects connect studentsí service experiences and work in the classroom. For example, students at the food bank created materials to streamline the orientation process of new volunteers, which also built a sense of community among them. Students at the garden used their experiences giving tours to children to make a picture book illustrating the programís curriculum.
Allisonís class focused on access to and expectations for public education by volunteering as tutors at local, under-funded schools. Critical readings on how race and class affect education informed studentsí participation in the schools and helped them develop an institutional, as opposed to personal, critique of the problems education faces. They used this awareness to propose material changes in the schoolís available resources. When Allison sent off her studentsí proposals, she didnít expect any responses; these were well-crafted, well-researched arguments, but various constraints on the audience would likely curtail the school districtís ability to respond. Much to her delight, then, did she receive an email from a Seattle Public Schools official who, impressed with the studentsí ability to express the complexity of the situation, wanted to meet. As they all gathered to discuss the studentsí proposal, Allison witnessed what service learning has to offer composition. These students, who argued for an increase in access to technology at a local middle school, demonstrated the kind of effect student writing can have in the community.
Given the constraints of the quarter system, it is difficult to identify what lasting contribution these projects had on the students. Although many express a desire to continue volunteering once the classís commitment has been fulfilled, sustaining such long-term relationships when other commitments arise with a new school term is challenging for individual students. Through discussions and reflective writing, students discover how deeply their service-learning experience affected themóboth in terms of what they gained and what they were unable to give. At the least, then, the class cultivates an awareness of the rewards and challenges of service-learning courses, which is no small accomplishment.
English 121 is not a perfect solution to the divide separating universities from their surrounding communities, but it is an important first step. With continued collaboration and attention to the possibilities and pitfalls of ďservice,Ē English 121 builds relationships that can significantly impact all involved.