As an educator, I often find myself focusing inward. First towards myself, reflecting on my teaching and the strategies I can implement to improve my practice. Then towards my students, observing their day-to-day interactions and analyzing their academic and social growth. And finally towards my school community as a whole, determining what actions I must add or build upon to make certain I am serving as a positive role model.
Although these internal reflections undoubtedly benefit me as an educator, I must not forget to channel some of my attention outwards, towards the greater community. Even though most of my day-to-day routine is spent improving my classroom, I cannot forget that my students are the product of the neighborhoods and kampungs that surround my school. In my experience both as an educator and as a student myself, schools with a strong and established community are often embraced and supported by their local communities.
“Community service has taught me all kinds of skills and increased my confidence. You go out there and think on your feet, work with others and create something from nothing. That’s what life’s all about.” ―Andrew Shue
I think there is a lot of truth in this quote, especially in an educational sense. The vast majority of today’s prominent pedagogical theorists (Cummins, 2000) and strategies (Communicative Approach Method) encourage real-world applications of student learning. It is not enough to simply present information to students in an isolated classroom setting. There must be opportunities for students to apply their newly attained knowledge to the world around them. In my opinion, community service (aka Civic Engagement, aka Service Learning) serves as the ideal vehicle for this real-world application. I believe that a school can forge a special bond with their community when they work together to positively impact the everyday lives of citizens. Ideally, the school and greater communities collaborate with one another to determine both a problem and appropriate solutions.
Service learning also calls upon students to work with one another in collaborative settings. Again, this pedagogically aligns with the today’s leading literature (Language Output Hypothesis). As Shue states in his quote and as the Language Output Hypothehis mentions, students must be given the chance to speak, collaborate, and work with one another to produce a final product.
For all of these reasons and more, community service appears to be an essential component of every educators teaching arsenal. But how successful would it be in a language learning environment?
As my students like to say, it worked out “fine, fine.”
This past Saturday, thirty of my students volunteered their entire Saturday to help clean Bachok’s local beach. In the weeks leading up to the cleanup, I set aside some time in class to discuss current problems in our community. Despite the fact that I have been a member of my school community for over three months, I am still more of an outsider than a local. Therefore, I was careful not to appear critical of our community, but rather uniquely equipped to observe things that others may have overlooked.
Over the course of our discussions, we determined that our local community really struggles with littering and appropriate rubbish collection. In fact, all of my classes were in agreement that most of Malaysia struggles with these issues. Utilizing my outsider perspective, I mentioned to my students that if I were to see Bachok as a tourist, I would most likely visit the city’s beach. I talked about how, prior to my arrival in January, I researched Bachok’s tourist attractions. Nearly all of the various travel websites I explored highlighted Pantai Irama, the city of Bachok’s main beach. Thus, our Pantai Irama beach cleanup idea was born.
Service learning has the potential to serve as the catalyst that sparks community-wide change. It also tends to draw attention to issues that may have gone previously unnoticed. In the case of my beach cleanup, I do not think my students had every really stopped and thought about how enormous of a problem littering is in their community. While they may have possessed a surface-level understanding of the problem: the simple recognition that it was there, they had never before had to address it head on.
As we stepped off the school bus Saturday morning, one of my students turned to me and said, “Wow sir, there is so much rubbish!” (This comment came from a student who frequented the beach with her friends and family.)
Clearly, perspectives had shifted.
After a brief opening ceremony acknowledging all of the day’s participants and facilitators, the cleaning effort began. The beach was, in a word, filthy. It looked more like a landfill or post apocalyptic movie scene than a public beach. Entangled plastic bags flapped in the steady sea breeze, glass bottles poked their bottlenecks out from beneath the sand, patches of solid ground were scorched black from a recent controlled burn, and broken florescent lightbulbs nestled up against half buried downed palm trees.
Even though the task at hand may have seemed disheartening given the circumstances, my students approached it with the same ruthlessness that I take whilst inhaling my morning nasi (rice in Bahasa Malayu). To use some sports terminology: my kids straight up got after it.
Bag after bag.
Filled with rubbish.
For close to an hour in the broiling equatorial sun.
In order to ensure that my students got the most out of their experience, I recruited sixteen of my fellow Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) to help facilitate our cleanup efforts. I was incredibly proud of how my students approached the beach cleanup. Not only did they physically work hard, they also stepped outside of their linguistic comfort zones and challenged their English abilities. This highlights yet another added benefit of service learning: it promotes authentic conversational and academic English use.
As Cummins (2000) mentions, it takes significantly shorter for English language learners to develop the vocabulary and confidence levels to communicate using conversational (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills or BICS) English. In fact, it takes nearly twice as long, five to seven years, for language learners to develop their academic (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency or CALP). Therefore, the vast majority of the interactions between ETAs and my students utilized conversational English. However, there were also opportunities for students to utilize their CALP while discussing environmentalism and the implications of a polluted world.
While the sheer volume of rubbish we collected was an impressive feat in-and-of itself, I was more impressed with what I saw going on in addition to the rubbish collection: genuine conversation. No matter how gifted of an educator you may be, nothing brings out the talkative side of students like outside activities. In my experience, once my students are removed from their classroom setting, they seem to suddenly find their voices. Outside the classroom experiences have a way of drawing students out of their reserved shells.
Our beach cleanup was certainly no exception to this rule.
I had a chance to observe all thirty of my students interact with my ETA colleagues and each other. It was beautiful to watch a lot of them become the people they are outside of my class. For some of my students, this was the first time I saw them joke with one another. Stoic faces erupted with laughter. Form 1 students chatted with From 2 and Form 4 students and vice versa. Some of my incredibly shy and reserved Form 1 students ended up buying ice cream for all of the ETAs using their own money. When it was time for lunch, the ETAs and I served students food from one of my favorite food stalls in Bachok. This was clearly a new dynamic for them as teachers and students rarely (if ever) eat with one another during the school week. It was a truly special experience. One I will fondly remember for the rest of my time in Malaysia and certainly beyond.
When it was time to hop back on the bus and return to SMK Badak, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment. The students boarded the bus with a visible sense of pride. Pride in their physical accomplishments: removing piles upon piles of rubbish from our local beach. However, they also boarded the bus with a sense of pride in their abilities as English language learners. I told them over and over again how thrilled I was that they seized their opportunities to bolster their conversational skills and further develop their academic language abilities.
Their faces, although heavy from a hard days work, reflected my pride and their own.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ― Mahatma Gandhi