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Berea College: Best Practices in Service Learning

Berea College places a special emphasis on student service learning and has a special Center for Excellence and Learning Through Service (CELTS) that provides expert advice and training for teachers who are encouraged to incorporate a service learning component into their regular class curriculum. It creates an environment that sends a strong message about responsibility to serve. Just a few examples of the service learning projects at Berea College:

Senior Theater and Hope’s Wings: “From Her Eyes”


Hope’s Wings, Madison County’s only domestic violence shelter, was the inspiration for the Senior Theater Seminar class’s original one-hour drama, “From Her Eyes,” aimed at raising community awareness of domestic violence.

Adanma Onyedike Barton, assistant professor of theatre at Berea, organized her capstone course for theatre majors around the issue and the shelter. A new faculty member at Berea, embarking on her first service learning project, she was determined to do it well. She met personally with the shelter’s director, Robyn Moreland to design a project that would totally engage her students in the project, connect them with the emotional stories of the clients and the staff, and inspire a multi-faceted public production that would use monologues, scenes, movement and dance pieces, as well as original songs.

To prepare for the project, students read “Local Acts: Community Based Performance in the United States” by Jan Cohen-Cruz. They followed with discussions about theatre’s history with community involvement, with discussions about domestic violence, and with class visits by Hope’s Wings clients and staff. Part of this was sensitivity training on how to respond to the victims they would meet. Only then were they ready to do their personal interviews.

The class made several visits to the shelter so students could interview their subjects, collecting materials for their production. Then began the writing and planning for the production, which would be open to the public.

“The project helped my students grow as artists and as members of the community” said Prof. Barton. “My students had the opportunity to interview some amazing women, and I believe the women were appreciative that the students cared so much about their stories and wanted to make sure we ‘got it right.’”

A special value-added component of the performance was an original song, written by student Marcus Leslie, a musician. “Chain Breaker” deals with how it is every individual’s responsibility to break the chain of violence and not pass it on to his children.

The evening of the performance, the students held a rally on the steps of Union Church, handed out purple ribbons and used a bullhorn to get their messages out to passing motorists. They charged no admission to the production but did ask for voluntary contributions to the shelter. They raised $500 – more than they expected – and got front-page newspaper coverage, thereby raising more awareness about domestic violence. The performance was recorded and each student received a DVD copy.

Prof. Barton said that during the performance she saw both tears and smiles from the women who had been interviewed, and one of the women told her afterward: “You did our stories justice.”

To wrap up the experience, students wrote a reflective essay to describe their individual contributions to the project and to express how they would improve/enhance it.

“I believe my students learned how to use their art to help others,” Prof. Barton says.

Even in General Education course Service Learning can be successful

Meta Mendel-Reyes showed that a well-planned and executed service learning project can be a successful – and useful – approach to teaching a General Education course focused on writing.

The project was the production of an Earth Day newsletter for an Appalachian community. It aimed at giving the students experience in writing for an audience – while helping an economically depressed coal mining valley get the word out about its Earth Day celebration.

In preparation for an on-site visit, the class studied about Appalachia, did assigned readings, and engaged in interactive exercises. Working with a community partner in Clearfork Valley, the class focused on a water theme for the newsletter. They made a trip to Clearfork Valley, worked in teams to interview community members about different topics related to water (river baptism, flooding, fishing holes), and took photographs.

The results were engaging stories about Goldie, an elderly woman who recalled a great flood (“The Tragic Side of Water”), Earl, an elderly man, about baptism (“Spiritual Powers of the Water”), Clydia and her favorite fishing hole (“Catching the Big One”) and Alex and Frances about living beyond the water line (“Water is Like Breathing”).

The newsletter was published on Earth Day, was distributed to the community and mailed to 600 ex-patriots of the valley.

“The best thing about the project was that it met a genuine community need while also helping students become better, more confident writers,” says Prof. Mendel-Reyes. “The students were excited when they saw their articles in print.”

Benefits: Students wrote for a real-life audience, improved their writing skills, got cross-cultural experiences, deepened the college’s relationship with Appalachia, became college-going role models for youth in Clearfork Valley, and preserved some valuable history for the community.

Students kept a reflection journal and shared reflections in class.

Database Systems class connects students with real world

Mario Nakazawa, professor in the Mathematics and Computer Science department, wants his Database Systems students to learn not just the programming skills necessary to implement a database system but also to understand how to design a system for a particular user’s needs.

To that end, his students – in teams of 2-3 members – work directly with a client to design and implement a database system to address the client’s needs.

Prof. Nakazawa connects each team to a client (community partner). The teams work independently with the client throughout the semester to complete a project that serves the client’s needs on the back end (underlying databases) as well as the front end ( web-based interface).

Benefits: Students solve real problems, learn the critical nature of communicating and interacting and developing rapport with a client, are challenged to be critical thinkers, and are better prepared for the workforce.

Community Resources for Families engages students in meaningful work

A four-hour course in the Department of Child and Family Studies taught by Dr. Janice Burdette Blythe connects students with three key community partners: the Berea Food Bank, the Berea Health Ministry Rural Health Clinic and the Eastern Kentucky Child Care Coalition. The aim is to engage students in meaningful work with community food and nutrition agencies, health-care groups and other social entities that serve families.

The class meets in two-hour time blocks twice weekly and participants arrange for additional field work. The first phase involves assigned readings and engaged conversations about community, including data analysis and resource availability. Community partners meet with the class to help identify projects. The students begin external interviews of various stakeholders, leading to field work with the community partners. Examples of projects include an assessment of real dollar equivalents of the food given to families by the Berea Food Bank, collecting and distributing food items donated on campus, working with volunteers to inventory perishable and non-perishable items; for the Berea Health Ministry Clinic, students acquired personal care items for patient packs; entered patient data into electronic records, planting flowers at the clinic’s entrance, collecting magazines for the waiting room; for the Eastern Kentucky Child Care coalition, students conducted a needs assessment survey and designed 12 newsletters for distribution in 30 eastern Kentucky counties. Finally, the students prepared presentations for the SL EXPO.

Students log and maintain journals.

Biggest challenge: Scheduling of field work outside of class.

Look for the next Service Learning feature, coming soon.

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