Teach students how to use skills to serve their community

Those so-called 3 R's (reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic) are not enough for pupils in United States public and independent schools. Our schools should be turning out small "d" democrats as well as readers and thinkers. And there's a step toward this goal that has been missing in teacher preparation for a couple centuries.

Those studying to be teachers in the vast majority of US colleges and universities don't do any community service integrated with their course work. They don't learn the strong connection between helping to meet community needs and the study of civics. Nor do they learn how to integrate community service with the teaching of civics, and other academic subjects.

A teacher in a service-oriented large city public high school was the coordinator of the student community-service club, and because of the work connected with that activity, she taught only two classes a day: beginning and intermediate typing.

She had never done any community service when she was in college preparing for her teaching career, and she had never had an instructor in civics ask her to study how some voluntary civic service should be integrated with the study of civics.

Twenty-three years after she began teaching, she signed up for a course I taught in the combining of course work and community volunteer service to meet license requirements. At the first meeting of this in-service course, she was asked by the instructor to tell about the types of civic service her typing students were doing.

"None." Then she explained, "My course is rigorous, and every single student passes the typing test at the close of each course."

The instructor asked whether the teaching included how to make mailing labels, and learned, of course, that yes, it did. And before the instructor could say anything more, the typing teacher literally opened her mouth wide, flung both arms out to each side, and whispered, "Oh, my goodness, we could learn how to do this for a nonprofit that needs labels. Oh, my, we could have been doing this for the past 23 years!"

Those studying to be foreign language teachers are seldom asked to provide community service for those whose language they are learning, yet the opportunity to practice the language and to provide a needed civic service would go a long way to prepare them to guide their future students in that type of service-learning.

The student-teacher majoring in Spanish in California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas could, for example, spend time in a day-care facility at a courthouse, providing needed translation work. Or perhaps offer to help with translation - written or oral - at a community center. Or begin a pen-pal relationship with a native Spanish speaker in a local nursing home.

And why? These are activities their pupils will want to take advantage of to learn how the civil society in their local community works as a democracy, and to provide them with practice in their foreign-language course work.

The teacher who has never done any civic service, who has never integrated some form of community service with academic course work, and who commutes to the school site from a community with a radically different socioeconomic base, may be able to guide students to success with the three R's, but is not able to provide the US with learned citizens skilled in being democrats.

Why is it true, nationwide, that the 18-25 age group votes the least and does the least civic service? Aren't these our most recent high school graduates? They should be the first to serve and to vote. Integrating community service work into classroom lessons will help our schools turn out vibrant, participating members of civil society.

Cynthia Parsons is a 1995 recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Medal for Public Service.

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