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Fostering Literacy and Empathy Through Service Learning

Teacher, Author, International Speaker, and Project-Based Learning Expert
Updated on April 25, 2023
  • Literacy
  • Service Learning

I once invited a refugee from Rwanda to be a guest speaker for my ELA/social studies class. She shared how she lost her entire family during the Rwandan genocide and was forced to live in a refugee camp for 17 years with no running water or electricity. One day, she was put on an airplane, without the slightest clue where it would land, and ended up in Grand Rapids, MI, in January.

And this woman had never heard of snow before. She thought there was a volcano nearby and the white stuff falling from the sky must’ve been a strange, cold ash.

This woman didn’t know how to dress for cold weather; she didn’t know how to use simple household appliances. She was told by a social worker to get on a thing called a bus to go to a thing called a library to use a thing called a computer to get a thing called a job. She said the first time she got on a city bus, she didn’t know how to signal she needed to get off, and was stuck on the bus for eight hours until the driver made her get off at the end of the route.

In January. During a snowstorm.

Much of her assimilation was an intense struggle, and my students were learning about this struggle for the first time. Naturally, they wanted to do something about it.

Beginning a Content-Rich Service Learning Project

For the next month, while my students learned the content of our class, specifically events like the Industrial Revolution and concepts like modernity, they created tools to help refugees better assimilate into our city—all of which required them to practice and use their literacy skills. They made flashcards for how to use household appliances and had them translated into Swahili. One group created a cookbook for simple dinner ideas, which allowed them to work together as they read, researched, and wrote the instructions. Another group made a how-to video for the city bus, which required them to practice their oral language skills. At the end of the project, the students presented these tools to an actual group of social workers and refugees, who are now using them in their agency to this day.

Simple and Tasty | A cookbook for simple dinner ideas

The students were successfully collaborating to achieve a common goal while working on becoming better readers and writers. Students were learning how to present and publicly speak so the professional panel would accept the products they created. They were solving problems and being forced to think outside of the box.

Students were also putting the same amount of energy into the expository essays I assigned for this project. They engaged in meaningful research to discover actual solutions to problems. They read books like Refugee by Alan Gratz and We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez to gain context and empathy for who they were serving. Those who might not have been interested in reading were now engaged in learning more about their fellow community members, which gave them reason to read and practice those essential literacy skills.

This was still school, and there was still academic work to complete.

But now the engagement created by the authentic work they were doing was carrying over into the more traditional schoolwork. Students could identify the connection between the service work and the academic tasks. This integration wasn't seamless, but it was enough to inspire deeper engagement.

Service Learning Creates Deeper Learning

This is an example of a project-based learning unit rooted in service learning. At its core, service learning is about making learning for your students authentic and connected to a cause bigger than themselves. Students who may have not been interested in grades or struggled to read were now interested in solving an authentic problem in their community. There was an extrinsic motivator pushing them toward strong work, as well as intrinsic motivation that came from their own empathy.

Research shows that when students are engaged in purposeful, authentic work, they experience measurable growth in social, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive development. Essentially, when their work has an authentic purpose behind it, they learn to collaborate better, are more behaved and emotionally mature, and they learn content at a deeper level. If one of our primary goals is to grow students’ literacy skills, intentionally incorporating it into purposeful learning units is one of the most powerful ways to achieve this objective.

Incorporating Literacy into Service Work

Incorporating literacy into a service project requires answering two questions:

  1. What is an authentic problem my students can have a role in solving?
  2. What are the myriad ways to incorporate literacy learning into solving that problem?

From there, much of the work is the same, except now it is being driven by an authentic purpose. For instance, while teaching third-grade students about invasive species, a class could organize a community event to remove a certain invasive species from a local park. In a non-service unit, the teacher could have students research and read non-fiction materials about invasive species, and write about the solutions. The small-group work allows a teacher to help those who are struggling. So, students will still engage in the same academic work, only now there is a purposeful motivator.

Or during a short story ELA unit, instead of just writing for the gradebook, students could write stories to send to residents at a retirement home.

It’s all about giving students the opportunity to serve while they are learning specific content and skills. Students are discovering there is a connection between what they read and write and the world they live in. Of course, we should read for pleasure and joy, but through learning units like this, students learn you can also read and write to solve problems. Having a service component creates more inspired work, and the result of that work is deeper learning, but also students who know how to serve others.

Next week, I’ll be presenting a webinar as part of the EDVIEW360 thought leadership series called, “Planning Authentic Literacy: Become a Pro at Classroom Engagement,” during which I’ll share examples of service-learning projects and ways to incorporate literacy learning into everything you do. I hope you’ll join me. You can register here.

Register here.

About the Author
Trevor Muir
Trevor Muir
Teacher, Author, International Speaker, and Project-Based Learning Expert

Trevor Muir is a teacher, author, international speaker, and project- based learning expert. He is the author of The Epic Classroom: How to Boost Engagement, Make Learning Memorable, and Transform Lives, a book about using the power of story to make learning engaging and unforgettable. Trevor is a professor at Grand Valley State University, a former faculty member for the Buck Institute for Education and is one of the Andrew Gomez Dream Foundation educators. His writing has been featured in the Huffington Post, EdWeek, and regularly on WeAreTeachers. He gave a TEDx Talk titled, "School Should Take Place in the Real World," at TEDxSanAntonio. Trevor's Facebook page, The Epic Classroom, has inspiring videos that have been viewed over 25 million times. At the heart of Trevor's work is the conviction that every student has the potential for greatness, and every teacher can be equipped to unlock that potential.

Learn more about Trevor Muir