Writers with a Purpose
by Benette Whitmore, Director, SUNY-ESF Writing Program
Imagine a college writing class. Four walls. Maybe a window. A professor standing at a podium at the front of the room, lecturing on sentence structure. Students sitting at small desks in straight rows, taking notes.
Now picture this. On a secluded trail at Baltimore Woods, Andrew sits on a rock making sketchy notes he'll use to design a nature trail guide for children. Over the sounds of giggling tweens, Caroline and Katie brainstorm ideas for developing urban environmental education activities for neighborhood kids enrolled in an after-school program at the Westcott Community Center. At Beaver Lake Nature Center, Travis drizzles thick maple syrup over a stack of steaming pancakes for a hungry hiker while imagining possibilities for a volunteer training manual. Kerry stocks shelves at a local food pantry as she cooks up ideas for creating a nutritional guide and recipe book to help patrons prepare nutritious meals. Lisa leads a jazz dance class with bouncy 6-year-olds at the Salvation Army's School-Age Program, while a video camera captures images she'll edit into an instructional video so the kids can practice their flashy moves over the summer.
Each example is a snapshot of service-learning experiences connected to a professional writing course I've taught to environmental studies students at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry for the past nine years. Just like students in a more typical professional writing course, my students create proposals, workplace correspondence, progress reports, training manuals, technical reports, brochures, newsletters, and websites, but, inherently, projects in the service-learning writing class are more about "doing." These projects will be invaluable to non-profit agencies that desperately need these kinds of materials, but don't have the resources to produce them on their own. In this way, it's a win-win situation for both environmental studies students and the sites where they volunteer.
Like many environmental issues, service projects are often rooted in social justice. An example comes from Mary, who last spring volunteered for the grassroots organization, Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON), which supports the sovereignty and rights of native peoples. Mary says she learned problem-solving skills while organizing and moderating a community forum on Native American concerns. In her final course reflection, she wrote, "Many students who come to college in Syracuse remain within the borders of their institutions. My experience with NOON helped me realize that Central New York is my neighborhood while at college. It felt wonderful to give back to the Syracuse community in a way that included my passions and interests." Other students have expressed similar sentiments about their service-learning experiences.
Anyone familiar with environmental studies students knows that they like to get involved, and they learn best when helping others. These students are remarkably passionate about making a difference in the world, but that's difficult to accomplish in a traditional classroom setting. When writing activities are embedded in a community service project that students truly care about, their learning experience becomes much more meaningful and far-reaching. With service-learning, instead of writing for unknown audiences within fictitious contexts, students are writing about subjects that matter to them. And when writing has intention, it becomes significant to the student writer, and to the people and agencies that ultimately benefit from the experience.
Service-learning is not without its challenges. Yes, in some respects it's easier for students and teachers to work in a conventional writing class, where assignments are neat and tidy. It's not so easy when writing takes place in the "real world," where deadlines, staffing, funding, and political pressures make everything subject to change. But that's where students get really excited, and that's when they really learn.
So don't look for my environmental studies students sitting in a classroom inside an ivy-covered building on an idyllic college campus. Instead, you might see us shooting hoops on an urban playground, or boogying at a dance class for inner-city youth, or staging an event for environmental activism.
That's where you'll find us. Out in the community, "doing." Because that's where the real learning happens.