Our All-School Service Learning Day

One of my favorite days of the school year is our all-school service learning day. For the past four years, our school has gone back to the same section of a park in Seattle (Seward Park) as stewards and spent the day pulling weeds, planting trees, learning about nature, and having fun.

Let me begin by saying: being in the cold unrelenting rain for four hours is not my idea of fun (some kids, though, had a blast!). Our service learning day is one of my favorite days because all the students work together with faculty, staff, and parents to make a small positive impact in our community. It requires hard work and team work. You only have to watch a second grade student trying to dig a hole with an adult-sized shovel to know whether or not effort was involved. Service learning is about connecting the learning that occurs in the classroom with real-world issues in the community.

My students define a community as a place where people live, work, play, and solve problems. In my class, we’ve explored a neighborhood community, colonial communities, scientific communities, and currently we’re looking at ancient Egyptian communities. Regardless of the structure or time period, that simple definition of a community holds true and what a great way to participate both as a school community and as members of our wonderful city.

There are a works of children’s fiction that are great for this day. The Lorax by Dr. Suess is an obvious one. Miss. Rumphius by Barbara Cooney is another. My favorite, though, and the one I chose today is called The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Inspired by those who advocated for the High Line in Manhattan to be reused as a park instead of demolition, the story tells of a little boy whose curiosity leads him to a little patch of garden on an elevated railroad track. He carefully tends to his garden realizing that his efforts inspire others to join him.

It’s always hard to know what kinds of learning spark passions in certain kids. If this school-wide project helps to ignite only one student to become a leader and make a positive impact on their community later in life, what’s a little cold rain? We live in Seattle after all.

Graphic Novels: Sophisticated Enough for Adults

At the advice of a colleague, I took some time to read some fiction, only to find out that the first book I picked turned out to be a biography. Nonetheless, I was engrossed in the graphic novel called Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. For all those who look down at writing that isn’t in the traditional western canon of literature, they are certainly missing out on some complex, innovative, and satisfying story telling. It turns out to be about math, logic, and insanity told from the perspective of famous mathematician/logician Bertrand Russell. Unbeknownst to me, there is even a bit of educational philosophy along with traditional Greek math and philosophy as well. So much for non-educational reading. It’s been on my list for a year and I finally got to it. Who knew?

I’m guessing that those who dismiss graphic novels as literature have yet to read a good one cover to cover. Earlier this year, from a recommendation of a middle school English teacher, I read a graphic novel called American Born Chinese. Not only is it engaging, it deals with serious topics such as cultural biases, racism, self-loathing. It has a very literary quality to its structure, but overall, is an excellent work, was glad it was recommended to me, and am also glad to see him engaging his students with that book. It also happens to be the 2007 Printz Award Winner (The Caldecott/Newberry for Young Adults).

I did finally manage to relax and read some fiction though, yet it’s amazing how reading fiction can spur one to want to learn more about the factual events about the time and place where the story is set.

I’ve found the graphic novels for younger students (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, for example) have a high engagement quality, are great for reluctant readers, but are still lacking in the sophisticated story telling. I have two new goals. 1) To find a graphic novel of literary quality for second graders, and 2) To ensure that the literature I give my students to read engages them in a way beyond the text. There is definitely a place for graphic novels in schools.

Happy 2011!