Academic Service Learning Opportunity

Yesterday I logged my twelfth hour volunteering at Ann Arbor’s 826michigan. To work with this non-profit organization has been such a pleasure that I plan on returning for several weeks to come, though my mandatory time for this class is completed.

When I first heard that 826michigan was one of the opportunities for our ASL for this capstone class, I immediately saw the tutoring side of it and was turned off. Not that tutoring isn’t fantastic, because it is. It’s just something I’ve done in high school and I longed to do something new and interesting, now given the chance to. Everything changed when spokespersons from 826 came to our classroom and laid out the vast amount that their organization does for kids in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area.

I knew I was going to be involved in the Field Trips before they left the class. It all sounded so creative and engaging. So imagination-oriented!!

Many of the Field Trips involved poking fun at boring adults things, thus turning the tables to celebrate childhood. We often began by pretending to facilitate a grownup seminar (i.e. how to do your taxes 101) before the infamous Dr. Blotch calls via Skype and everyone’s jobs are instantly on the line (not to mention the students being fired from childhood. Quite shocking, I know.) if we (aka the students) are unable to write the story Dr. Blotch requires by noon.

It is impossible to detail all of the creative twists and turns these two-hour activities take without rambling on for pages upon pages. But of the literary merit of our trips, I certainly should touch on.

No matter the age and grade level of the students (we had grades 1st through 4th on differing occasions) there was always a story to be told, both through group effort and individual creativity. The youngest students “wrote” a story all together and each came up with their own title and cover illustration. The oldest solved mysteries and wrote letters explaining evidence and clues for an individual hunch. And through each activity, students defined literary terms they knew and learned new ones as well.

So where was my place in all of this? I played minor roles as Dr. Blotch’s relative or neighbor–lots of creative improvising upon being interrogated by students–but also worked assembling the books, typing up the story as the students created it, and, most often, facilitating a table of writing students. While learning some new tasks, the majority of what I ended up contributing to the Field Trips was during these table work sessions. Here, the students had reached the point in the activity where they were refining the group work into something all their own. There may have been a lot of reminding them of character’s names and spelling out words for students, but asking them questions to get them thinking was one of the most important thing I believe I did.

In the training for 826michigan volunteers, there was a lot of stress put on “the Socratic Method,” which generally means asking someone a question to get them thinking for themselves instead of just giving them the answer. While the stories the students were writing didn’t necessarily have “answers” that could be solved, I naturally found myself asking them all sorts of questions. Though having heard of the technique in training, I truly found that the most effective way to get a student to verbalize their train of thought and creative spark was to ask them questions about their story.

Volunteering for the Field Trips specifically reinforced in me the value of children’s imagination and its cultivation through activities like these, which reinforce creative writing and reading. I may not be moving into a career where I’ll be teaching children, but with hypothetical children, nieces, and nephews some five, ten years down the road, these six weeks have meant a lot to me. For my own learning, I think I’ve been reminded why I began writing at an early age, which led me to where I am today. Even though today I’m writing things I never could have conceived of in elementary school, those formative years were essential to building a foundation for the person, the writer, that I am today. And to be able to nourish that in others has been a rewarding experience.