Service-Learning: Awakening Ideals of Social Justice in Emerging Teachers
From their very first class, Loyola elementary education majors begin to experience what it’s like to work in today’s school systems, through a service-learning partnership the University has maintained with nearby Guilford Elementary School for nearly 15 years.
“It’s one of the main draws to our program, we offer service-learning or a field experience every semester,” says Cathy Castellan, Ph.D., assistant professor of education. Castellan teaches ED 100, Introduction to Elementary Education, and wrote her dissertation on the impact of service-learning on teacher education. “Back in the 1970s, when I was in college, you didn’t get into a classroom until your senior year. Loyola’s current approach serves our urban focus and lets students begin to sort out early whether education is really for them.”
That exposure to the realities of the classroom often results in a surprising awakening for new education students—an introduction to the issues of social justice in education, the beginning of an understanding that deepens over time as their education continues.
“Many of our students come in knowing the words when it comes to social justice and diversity, but not the reality of the words,” she says. “It’s a developmental process. They begin to question why the students in their school don’t have resources. It’s an opening of the door, they begin talking. They begin to think of the role of an educator, and begin crossing to the other side of the desk and can see all the roles a teacher can have. They will never look at things the same way again.”
Service-learning education courses, are, in one fundamental way, very different from field experiences. While field experiences are designed to ensure that the education student is gaining specific skills to prepare them to lead their own classrooms, the students in the service-learning course are in the school setting to help meet the expressed needs of the school and its teachers. Most often, that’s as classroom teaching assistants, providing support in a variety of ways depending on the day’s lesson plan.
When Castellan teaches ED 100, she has her students keep a weekly reflection journal where they connect their course content to what they are seeing in the classroom. Often, their journals demonstrated the connections they were making and helped make their course work more meaningful. In some cases, however, the reflections made it clear when students weren’t grasping the course material correctly, and alerted Castellan to the need to approach the content from a new perspective.
For several years, Loyola’s service-learning work at Guilford Elementary followed a cascading model. Instead of simply providing assistance wherever needed, the education students worked with with the elementary students to plan and execute a service-learning project together. One year, the elementary education majors taught an exercise program to the school’s fifth graders, who in turn made a video they used to introduce the program to second graders. The school’s physical education teachers continued to use the video for several years.
Castellan’s dissertation included qualitative research indicating this model may be a more effective means of preparing teachers than the traditional approach followed at many universities. She hopes to reintroduce the cascading approach in the future, and build a sufficient amount of quantitative data to explore whether its more highly collaborative approach may offer significant benefits for both education students and the schools they support.