Service Learning: Something to Think About
Contributed by Dennis Lloyd, Lawrence North High School
Secondary curriculum for students with disabilities, including those with autism spectrum disorders, continues to evolve and change. Consideration for functional living skills and skills for work emerge in much of the coursework design. At Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, we have added a new curricular piece: service learning (commonly referred to as community service). This missing piece has been a vital link in bridging the classroom to the community in a different, yet positive way.
Service learning, or community service, is not a new concept. Many high schools and colleges are integrating it into student coursework. Our special education department began deliberation on service learning a year ago, and it has produced some remarkable results this school year. I believe that "opportunities create opportunities". By opening the classroom door to the outside world, the curriculum takes on an entirely new look. Service learning offers students a different way of looking at their community. It provides all the enrichment that any trip away from the classroom would present, but engages the student in a more positive way. Students with autism spectrum disorders benefit greatly from this experience. Each contribute his/ her talents in a unique way. Since learning is a life-long process, we need to continue to broaden the curriculum to allow students with various disabilities the opportunity to connect with their world in a unique way. Learning involves more than just recall, recitation and response. Students with autism spectrum disorders should become engaged in the world in which they live, not merely in a survival sense, but also with appreciation and giving. Mark Twain was quoted as saying, "kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see." Service learning projects provide opportunities for students to show kindness and caring. This is not something we merely have them read about, but go out and do!
To give one example, an elective class I teach called Futures Planning went to Fort Harrison State Park to plant tree seedlings as a service learning project in April. The trees were purchased through Senate Bill 690 from Vallonia Nursery in Southern Indiana. The flowering dogwood trees provided the means by which the students could go into their community and 'appreciate' a community resource as well as show kindness by using their talents to beautify the park. The students with autism spectrum disorders did all of the jobs associated with planting, as well as retrieving water from the creek to water the trees. It was incredible to watch how well they participated, used language, followed directions, and worked cooperatively. It encouraged me greatly that community service had a positive impact on these students, as well as on all of the students.
Another group of students, in a different class, volunteered every 2 weeks at Community North Hospital in Indianapolis. They filled out all necessary applications, took skin tests and blood draws, and watched all hospital safety and procedural videos that are required of any hospital volunteer. Although no students with autism were included in this project, it is important to provide the opportunity in the future for students with autism to participate in hospital volunteering. They, like other students, can be matched with appropriate areas in a hospital setting that can allow their successful participation.
In conclusion, let me encourage educators at the secondary level to examine closely the coursework your students are involved in, and the potential for learning through community service projects in your neighborhood. I can attest that it is hard work to find the community connections for these projects. It takes a lot of perseverance and effort. But the rewards are great when a connection is made and the bridge between the classroom and the community is linked. Service learning may be the missing piece to your curriculum. At Lawrence North we have recognized that it has been missing too long. Service learning is here to stay.
Lloyd, D. (2000). Service learning something to think about. The Reporter, 6(1), 11-12.