An Interview with Vickie Lake and Ithel Jones: Service Learning in the Pre-K-3 Classroom

Mar 2, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. First of all, for our readers, could you define what you mean by “ Service Learning “?

Service learning combines service to the community with student learning in a way that improves both the student and the community.

  1. Now, why Pre-K to third grade? Why did you focus on this specific time frame?

When we started integrating early childhood education and service-learning, we didn’t find any resources specifically dealing with young children. Most resources, even if they say they are K-6, focus on children who are fluent readers and writers. In early childhood education we work with emergent readers & writers who are preoperational or concrete thinkers; strategies for emergent children are very different from those used with fluent children, our book reflects these differences.

  1. In terms of early childhood education, and the first three grades, why SHOULD teachers use service learning with young children?

First of all, early childhood education is birth to age 8 or grade 3. It’s further divided into infant/toddlers, preschool, & primary, but all three are still considered early childhood.

A specific appeal of service learning in early childhood education is that it is an approach that reflects principles outlined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in its publication, Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs (DAP). Drawing on the work of Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Erik Erikson, and others, this publication has had a major impact on the field of early childhood education. The DAP principles represent the consensus of opinion on current knowledge and thinking in the field.

DAP is a child centered cognitive developmental approach to early childhood education. Such a perspective is based on the notion that children learn by actively constructing their own knowledge through interacting with materials, peers, and adults. A major goal of DAP is to make learning meaningful for the individual child, using practices that reflect both the child’s age and individual needs. Strong emphasis is placed on learning to think critically, work cooperatively, and solve problems. Thus, in a developmentally appropriate classroom, the development of concepts and skills stressed through service learning is encouraged using investigations and hands-on activities. Teachers integrate the curriculum to reflect the interrelatedness of developmental domains by using strategies that include learning and activity centers, conceptual organizers, and thematic units. These strategies link together content from various subject areas and illustrate the connections that exist across disciplines.

  1. A follow up question- why not focus on art, music, P.E. and similar realms?

As an integrated approach to learning, service-learning is inclusive of all academic content and developmental domains because it utilizes multiple intelligences. Art, music, gross & fine motor movement, technology, health, etc… may be part of any service-learning experience.

  1. How do you integrate if you will, service learning with early childhood academic standards?

Service-learning enables students to successfully connect academic standards to their community. Typically, academic standards specify what students should know or be able to do and include content, performance, and proficiency descriptors. Curriculum standards require evidence that students have achieved or mastered the standards and to what degree. SL is a vehicle for teaching the standards in a more meaningful and contextual way. Almost any academic standards can be address through a service-learning experience.

  1. How does CHILD FIND fit into this picture, and early identification, if you will?

If teachers are following the DAP guidelines then they should be matching their instruction and content to each child’s developmental level and the social and cultural context of the family. Teachers know that treating children fairly means treating each of them differently, because teachers have to meet each child’s individual needs in the classroom. The service-learning approach allows teachers to individualize instruction because it is project based and utilizes learning modalities that build on children’s strengths. Most children want to intrinsically help others and service-learning is a method that helps all learners build confidence and expand on their own abilities.

Service-learning experiences for young children correlate with early intervention outcomes outlined by Wolery and Bailey (2002). Both service-learning and early interventions 1) promote child engagement, independence, and mastery; 2) promote development of key domains; 3) build children’s social skills; promote the use of social skills across several contexts, 5) help prepare children for life in the community and school; and 6) help prevent the emergence of problematic behaviors.

Service-learning allows teachers to see children in a variety of learning experiences, not just the traditional “school” experiences. In some cases it may confirm in a teacher’s mind that there are developmental issues that need further investigation. However, some teachers have also found that integrated learning or non-traditional learning has opened their eyes to children’s strengths.

7.      Your book published by Free Spirit includes a number of different forms- why they included and why do you think they are important?

Because we struggled so much finding resources appropriate for young children and early childhood teachers, we felt it was very important to share what we created, found, or modified for other teachers. We want teachers to use service-learning in their classrooms and the forms might help them achieve that goal because everything they need to begin a service-learning experience is included in the book or on the CD. We have worked collaboratively with our preservice teachers and cooperating teachers to create, revise, create, and revise until we found workable forms and ideas. It was always our intention to share these ideas and lessons with others. In fact, we’ve been doing so for many years by taking our students to conferences and having them present on service learning.

8.      You also have a C.D.- What does the C.D. contain?

The CD contains PowerPoint presentations for the book that can be used by teacher educators to introduce, maintain, or further service-learning with districts, teachers, parents, or community partners. The forms found in the book are also on the CD so teachers can readily use them.

9.      What are you ultimately trying to assess and evaluate?

SL assesses and evaluates the academic standards that are included in the SL experiences. However, it also assesses children’s understanding and application of social/emotional concepts and skills. SL isn’t something extra to do when there’s time, it’s a viable teaching strategy so a teacher would use many of the same assessment tools.

10.   I would agree that letter writing is an important event as it teaches writing, language, grammar, spelling, syntax, organization and a host of other academic skills – but gardening is a different realm- other than learning about nature and plants, what is involved there?

It all goes back to integrated learning. There can be just as many reading/language arts concepts and skills included in a gardening project, and they are more contextually based than if they were just taught in isolation. SL is also more of a match to the common core state standards that will be implemented in most starts by the year 2014. Through gardening children must apply math, science, social studies, and reading/language arts knowledge. This content integration allows children to focus on higher levels of thinking.

11.   I have to really compliment you on your selection of theorists which you tried to integrate into the book- Why did you choose Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Kohlberg, Gilligan, Lickona, Noddings—have they influenced or impacted you?

The early childhood theorists – Dewey, Piaget, & Vygotsky are all focused on experiential learning and are considered constructivist theorists, which is a direct match to service-learning. Both Ithel and I are constructivist teachers so they were a natural fit for us. While we both love Dewey, Ithel is definitely more of a Piagetian scholar and I’m more Vygotskian, so you’ll find equal emphasis on all of them.

Kohlgerg, Gilligan, Lickona, & Noddings are theorists that undergird the character/moral side of service learning. The beauty of SL is that it teaches and reinforces both academic and social standards. So the whole group of theorists allows us to demonstrate connections to early childhood education and moral/character education.

12.   Could you tell us about some of your reproducible forms?

We have tried to include forms for every aspect of service-learning. They are divided into sections for planning, community partners, reflection & documentation, and assessment & evaluation. As stated in a previous question, finding early childhood recourses was difficult so as we accumulated and/or modified forms, our goal was to share them with as many teachers as we could. Ithel and I were both primary teachers for many years, and it always irked us when we would hear about a great idea but weren’t provided any guidance or scaffolding for how to implement those ideas in our classroom. We think that we’ve provided enough support so any teacher could use the book and begin service-learning experiences in her classroom in a week or two. It’s not easy to do service-learning, but we hope this book will make it easier.

13.   What have I neglected to ask?

Can’t really think of anything you forgot to ask, but I do want to stress the moral/character aspects of service-learning. Through SL, children are practicing social skills that are related to the project and are receiving feedback from the community. The social/emotional focus of service-learning is equally as important as the academic standards.

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