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?
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