Of Gourds, Volunteers, and Lifelong Learning

Last autumn, my well-ordered garden kept producing, even after most of the crop was declared “finished.” Despite my springtime efforts to create an orderly and predictable garden, by October, my neat and tidy rows of vegetables were made unkempt by the throngs of “volunteers” that decided, without informing me, to populate the patch: gourds wending their way among the basil, squash, zucchini, lettuce, and tomatoes weaseling themselves amongst otherwise organized plots. These volunteers seed themselves, are inherently resilient, and can combat weeds independently. And although they disturb my plans and ignore my gardener’s vision for that year’s patch, these naturally-occurring volunteers (with the exception of the gourds, of course) are definitely tasty! The gardener and the educator must both deal with the topic of volunteerism. In some ways, the conversation looks the same: for the educator, volunteering (or service learning, as it is often called) is usually understood as an entirely positive endeavor, but as with gardening, the actual process is never predictable, often messy, and sometimes, wrought with frustration and disappointment. We hoped for a delicious squash, but instead received a decorative gourd.

With service learning, we want our students to serve others in their childhood and youth as a way to pre-emptively combat the siren call of self-centredness in our society. But how do we instill a sincere love for service at a young age? How does service learning tie into the curriculum? We all know that it is important to have our students involved in the “community”; however, it takes effort to organize, to find a bus and driver, and in the end, we decide that it is too much of a disruption to the schedule. Although we know that service learning is important, we are not very good at the “doing.” Despite our best efforts, there remains a tension between completing all the curricular expectations, keeping all the sports, drama, and arts programs, and then also squeezing in a service-learning experience. We struggle and fight to fit so many things into the day that we often end up frustrated and disheartened by what at first seemed a viable and exciting way to flesh out classroom learning. From this frustration, two important questions must be asked: Do we need to rethink schooling? And, do we need to rethink service learning?

I have mixed feelings about the service-learning experiences we have become accustomed to, wherein our students are sent overseas for a week to work with populations in (usually economic) need. It seems that when we pilot briefly into a community preparing to do “good deeds,” we can be insensitive to the needs of the community and its culture. Durham High School principal Fred Spoelstra agrees that trying to fit service learning into our current model can be difficult. Spoelstra, who has participated in service learning for many years, has had to work through the disconnect between what it means to provide a volunteer experience and what it means to teach students to become servant-like. Along with organizing and fine-tuning Durham’s Toronto service learning trip, the school has also changed the name of the trip. Spoelstra notes: “We now call this the ‘Toronto Exposure Experience’ instead of ‘Service Learning Week.’ What this experience does is give a slight exposure to poverty and how people live in the inner city of Toronto. To call it service learning, as it has been named for many years, is inaccurate. Where is the service? What can one really learn in one week?”

I echo this sentiment (gardening metaphors aside) and realize that we have to call a spade a spade. While the students may not make a major change in the lives of the population they have come to serve, the students themselves are (hopefully) undergoing a change inside themselves. One of Spoelstra’s students remarked of the experience that, “This experience is what made me feel a passion for justice and made me realize I want to find a career where I can really serve.” From volunteer experience to a heart for volunteering. A colleague who has been involved in these projects suggested to me that such experiences often serve to enforce the idea that “they” (the population being served, the homeless, those in developing nations, etc.) need us more than we need them, a notion that only further propagates a power imbalance between the two groups, paradoxically cementing the very “us” and “them” mentality the service-learning opportunity was supposed to erase. From a kingdom perspective, likely most would agree that we live and work in a primarily self-centered culture that does not understand the meaning of true service. Because of this, we (both teachers and parents) need to teach our children to be servant-like, a lesson that begins locally: in our homes, schools, and neighborhoods.

In a presentation last spring, Society of Christian Schools in BC (SCSBC) director of learning Bill de Jager challenged attendees with some radical ideas for rethinking education. His premise was that we need to develop new thinking amidst the “tsunami of schooling change,” a “tsunami” caused by the rapidly changing scene of technology. One idea that inspired me was de Jager’s suggestion that the classroom should be a “bus on wheels,” one that is moving and dynamic and integrated with the community. He suggested that the industrial era is over, and yet we still have our schools modelled after that era. Technology has made huge changes in education, and as Christian schools, we need to be in the forefront of change and creative thinking, not in the bleachers, observing the action. If we were to change our ideas of both classroom and curriculum, it seems we might also, almost by default, create the elusive time (and space) needed for effective and engaging service learning.

We have great intentions of empowering our students to serve. We have limited resources and time. Can we rethink how we structure our day? Can we free up one afternoon a week for “community connectedness” or “experiential learning”? Our school has an excellent “grandfriends reading program” for our young students; could we set up an “enrichment hands-on program” for older students who have difficulty learning, but love to work with their hands? Maybe they can fix up cars for others? Or decorate the local nursing home for Christmas? Or maybe, a piece of our school property can become a community garden, managed by parents and students and community members, to feed the hungry in our towns.

The volunteer gourds disrupted my tidy, organized part of the garden by throwing themselves all over the place—and you can’t even eat them! Because they are inedible, instead of tossing them into the stew pot, I brought them to school to share with my students. My class has marvelled over the beauty and uniqueness of each one. One of my students found out they are used for drinking vessels and musical instruments in other cultures. Students were thrilled to bring some gourds home for Thanksgiving to share with their family. Life is full of unexpected twists, unusual happenings, opportunities for growth and we need to continually be challenged as educators to “grasp every moment.”