Family History Writing: A Prototype for Local Service-Learning Projects


Suzanne is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Linguistics at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), where she teaches technical writing, multimedia, and family history writing.

In a spring 2009 course on family history writing and service learning, students wrote portions of their own family history and then worked to help write an historical book for the Cottage Lake History Project. Data collected from student-participants and members of the organization revealed themes of collaboration, reflection, and reciprocity. These themes articulate the correlation between service learning and family history writing as well as shed light on what family history is and how service learning can be used in other historical, family based, and localized research projects. This article argues that a prototype course with small, seemingly insignificant, local efforts, such as working with our own families or working with two members of a little-known historical project, have immense value for long-term sustainability.


During the spring semester, I taught a senior/graduate level writing course on writing family history that incorporated a service learning component. During the first half of the 16-week semester, students researched and wrote on their own family histories, using various qualitative research methods and fieldwork guidelines for archival research at the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center (ACPL)[1]. In the second half of the semester, the course shifted to helping a local organization called the Cottage Lake[2] History Project (CLHP). Cottage Lake is about an hour from our campus. The previous fall, two members contacted me for consulting advice on how to proceed with their large collection of interviews, images, and folklore from the lake’s inhabitants. They wanted to create a text of the lake’s history from the late 19th century through the 1960s. Students constructed research binders and narratives based on the data that CLHP members gave them. They organized and expanded the existing archive in order for future writers to more easily write the text. Continue reading

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The Art of Making Cider: Sometimes the Learning Stays Home


Ode to Autumn

David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch’s new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education.

Five apple trees create a protected bower in our back yard. Six if you count the scraggly one that’s never borne any fruit but I can’t quite cut down. My son Eli has always referred to it as the front yard, and I’ve often corrected him. “The front yard is the side that faces the road. The back yard is where the apple trees and the garden are.”

But as he persisted, I came to see the underlying truth. Nothing much ever happened on the road side of the house. No games, no craft, no family time, just walking out to get the mail and the newspaper. Conversely, life happened under the apple trees. We played kickball and soccer, we napped in the hammock, we jumped in piles of leaves, Eli learned to use a chainsaw cutting down ash and maple just on the other side of the western stone wall. Wendy revived the perennial flower beds here. Jeff our rambunctious neighbor, launched his clandestine nighttime firework attacks out there. And it’s where we always made cider. If front connotes significance, like in “front and center” and back connotes neglected, like in “put it out back,” then indeed the yard with the apple trees was more front than back. Continue reading

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A Shared Mission for Every Student and Every Teacher


Jonny is the Director of Service-Learning at Campbell Hall School in Los Angeles and is an alumnus of CWI’s Summer Institute on Service-Learning and Sustainability.

Wow. What a week! I’m not sure how to fully reflect on such a rich experience in summary form, but maybe a loose, informal reflection will still be helpful. I came into my week at CWI’s Summer Institute knowing very little about service-learning or education for sustainability. The only real experience I had was in place-based learning through outdoor education, so I was very familiar with learning about nature while in natural settings.

Before the Summer Institute I would have categorized “outdoor education” experience as essentially and intrinsically different from service-learning. Now I can’t help but think that the complete learning experience almost has to include service-learning, education for sustainability, and be place-based. I look back on my experience in so many different schools growing up and realize now that all the most impactful and memorable learning experiences I had included those three elements. I now realize that to treat community, place, and the greater goal of a sustainable relationship with our planet and all its inhabitants as separate from academic pursuits is to do one’s students, and one’s community, a great disservice. I also see that all complete education integrates the story of the individual learner, the story of their community, the environment, the greater story of the Earth, humanity at large, and the universe itself. This allows for a deeper understanding on the part of the learner as to where they fit in the big picture, and perhaps even what their purpose in the greater story might be. Continue reading

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Mapping the Neighborhood: Experiential Learning as a Survival Skill


I’ve been teaching in the MacArthur Park/Westlake district of Los Angeles for ten years and have worked with a host of immigrant families. Most of them are from Mexico, and some of them have migrated from other cities and states in the U.S. 90% of the population at MacArthur Park Elementary School is Latino and the rest are a mix of White, African American, and Filipino. All of the families who attend the school are living below the poverty line.

MacArthur Park/Westlake district of Los Angeles considered by some to be a rough neighborhood. But I don’t see it that way. I can’t afford to. I began my career in LAUSD ten years ago when the school was MacArthur Park Primary Center. I was desperate for a job after leaving a charter school that was about to lose their charter So I taught English to a class of Spanish speakers whose parents opted for English immersion, not dual language.

The next year with the teacher layoff cycle, I was bumped across the street to Charles White Elementary School, previously home to Otis Art and Design. I taught 4th and 5th grade for five years and was handed the most challenging students because of low seniority. During those years I became the teacher I am today because experiential learning was my survival skill. I couldn’t teach without building on the interests of my students. One boy had a fascination with snakes, so we got a terrarium with two corn snakes. The classroom became a mini-zoo where students would bring their pets to class for a week, and we conducted research and generated investigations based on their inquiry. Charles White is also an arts-based school. One of the most interesting projects we did came out of a LACMA partnership. Marissa Dowling, a visiting photographer from London sent the students around MacArthur Park with cameras to take photos of things they found interesting. The photographs were a blend of artifacts and human interest stories. We had a gala with the Mayor in the LACMA annex museum on our campus. Continue reading

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Using Art and Service-Learning for Social Change in Los Angeles


Aida is a teaching artist in Los Angeles, and an alumnus of CWI’s Summer WEST Institute, and a member of CommonLore’s teacher cohort. Aida’s goals include encouraging her students to get directly involved, beginning with establishing communication with law makers and people in charge of the LA River revitalization effort. She is working with her students to make positive change by going through the process required to propose and ultimately design and install public art.

I feel super excited to call myself an alum of an Institute with such important work. The ideas that were expanded on in this week of exploration will have to be constantly refined and understood in my practice as a teaching artist. I will have to continuously expand on them experientially throughout my artistic community practice now. Being a part of CWI’s Institute made me proud of the work I do and has inspired me to continue my work in community engagement through the arts. Service-learning, sustainability and place-based learning are all in the utopic vision for arts education. Taking CWI’s Institute was a reminder of the importance these factors have on deep learning experiences beyond what the classroom has to offer.

CWI’s Institute connected me with many tools, resources and models to strengthen these roles in my planning and in building in more moments for student lead, service based opportunities in lessons and projects and modeling and teaching sustainable habits for healthy communities. Continue reading

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Finding the Whole Child in Education Reform


Big challenges lie ahead — fixing the economy so that it more equitably serves everyone, not just those with the wealth and power; rebuilding democracy so that it is no longer hijacked by lobbyists and corporations; and redirecting cultural life away from decadent diversions and violence but toward higher purpose. Addressing these and other challenges like global warming will demand more than competent workers and participating citizens. It will demand people with a broader vision and a higher and evolving humanity.

An excellent article not long ago in Community Works Journal by Hector Vila addresses this demand from the point of view of teachers and their responsibilities within the broader culture. In what follows I use a different perspective that I believe complements what Dr. Vila had to say.

Think about those, now children, who will be called upon one day to supply solutions in these three spheres. The problems are daunting and will take decades to resolve, but don’t we owe it to those who are now young and in our charge to equip them to handle the world we leave in their care? We can begin immediately to instill the qualities needed to create a new vision and a vibrant society.

How can this be accomplished? Continue reading

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Teaching to the Personal through Community Focused Learning


Sifting through themes that revolve around creating and supporting educational experiences that build community and foster meaningful learning, it’s connecting school work to a larger purpose, to the self, to experience that resonates. As it was “then” is how it is now and many of us remember our own school experiences as not so different, regardless of decade. But there ARE schools and teachers working to change the paradigm.

Most teachers, parents, and communities DO support students experiencing school as an early act of civic participation—especially if that participation is directly connected to academic learning. And, they DO value the local in learning, especially when they understand the effect. Service-Learning as a teaching strategy is a most direct way to achieve this.

(Interviewing community elders is one of the most obvious examples, among many. Pictured above “The Great Migration Documentation Project”) Continue reading

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Why We Should Embrace Personal Stories


It seems that maturing the human heart depends on developing our insight into other people’s situations; their challenges, sensitivities and talents.

A reasonable hypothesis is that our most fundamental values are motivated by our drive to serve all living systems. This perspective and the healing actions flowing from it are a core instinct for the healthy development of humanity. The quality of our lives, and even our survival, calls upon us to live in intimate appreciation, humility and empathy — empathy for others and for ourselves.

From TED Talks to This American Life and Story Corps, telling our personal stories creates a deep understanding of the person who has lived through the details of their story — from difficult circumstances, temptations and dangers, to redemption by living with struggle, courage, patience, friendship, grace, and transcendence — to name some strategies for traveling the path to personal growth through authentic problem solving.

Oprah, when speaking about her work as a storyteller, begins by saying that she views all of her work as being in-service. Perhaps this realization of living a life in-service is the guiding principle when our hearts speak. Continue reading

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Moving Beyond the Classroom Walls in Los Angeles


Paula Cohen is a 6th grade Social Studies and Language Arts teacher at Orville Wright School in Los Angeles Unified School District. She uses service-learning to create meaningful and relevant experiences for young people and is passionate about connecting our schools and communities. Paula is an alumnus of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer WEST Institute on Service-Learning.

Participating in CWI’s Summer WEST Institute was a ground breaking experience for me. For years now, I have felt the isolation of being in a traditional classroom. I have cajoled, often begged fellow teachers to collaborate on projects. I don’t understand why it should be unique for a teacher to enjoy the company of young people and get excited by the process of group learning. I don’t want to be unique; I would rather be the norm in this case! I suppose the inevitability of NCLB is that it has caused many teachers to lose sight of the big picture and the meaning of education. The media has demonized us and our districts demoralize us. Still at some point, we have to rise to the occasion that these young people are here right now, ready to receive an educational experience from us and it is up to us how we are going to construct that. At CWI’s Summer WEST, I met like minded educators who could see beyond the limitations, who thought outside the box, who were willing to ask big questions and delve deep into the answers. It felt like coming home. Continue reading

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Latino Teens Draw National Praise for Community Journalism in LA’s Boyle Heights


This article was originally published by NBC Latino

Boyle Heights Beat reporters Samantha Olmos and Jennifer Lopez speak to a participant at a neighborhood walk informing residents of effects of contamination by Exide Technologies. Ernesto Orozco — photo by Raul Reyes

East Los Angeles, CA — In a neighborhood that is almost entirely Latino, a bilingual community newspaper has drawn national attention for its coverage of local issues such as gentrification, affordable housing, immigration and police brutality. But the reporters being recognized for their work are not experienced journalists, but young Latinos from area high schools.

Boyle Heights Beat, also known in Spanish as Pulso de Boyle Heights, has carved out an important place in an area with one of the highest population densities in the city of Los Angeles.

East L.A., where Boyle Heights is situated, is approximately 97 percent Latino.

A few years ago, two prominent journalists decided to do something about the lack of coverage when it came to issues in this neighborhood. Continue reading

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