May 18, 2015

Room for Debate: Making Space for Service Learning in Education

by Samantha Reback ‘16

Samantha Reback ‘16 is a Community Fellow for the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, and a student in “Learning About Learning,” a Swearer-sponsored Education class in which students volunteer in local schools and reflect on their experiences.

For the Blackstone Academy Debate Team, the Rhode Island Urban Debate League State Championship Tournament did not exactly get off to a smooth start. Only an hour before the tournament was set to begin, I received the following text from Christina Lee, the team’s teacher coach: “Any chance of getting Stefany a hybrid partner do you think? Jesebead can’t make it.” The two had debated together all season; Jesebead’s sudden drop meant that Stefany would have to be thrown into a pair with an unknown debater from another school to avoid “going mav,” or debating alone. Luckily, I was able to find Stefany a partner in the form of Carolina, a student from Alvarez who was trying out the Varsity division for her final policy debate tournament.

A junior and second-year debater, Stefany is also Blackstone’s captain. She is present at every practice, dutifully switching between laptop documents and hand-written notes on printed out files as she prepares. I should not have been surprised to find that they had already started to pour through the case that Stefany had developed, a critical affirmative that tore apart the resolution - “The United States federal government should substantially increase its non-military exploration and/or development of the Earth's oceans” - due to the connotations of the language of “exploration” and “development,” which Stefany argued reeked of colonization.

At times, learning and doing service work at Brown seem diametrically opposed. I struggle to both finish all of my homework and make sure that my students, like Stefany and Carolina, are prepared for the next tournament. But moments like these - watching students intertwine academic research and their lived experiences - strengthen my own commitment to weaving my academics and my work with the RIUDL together.

By taking the Swearer Center’s Learning About Learning class this semester, I have been able to bridge my interests in service work, my commitment to education, and my own studies. At our biweekly class meetings, led by an English teacher at Hope High School and a researcher at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the other students and I shared our service experiences while grounding our work in educational theory. We participated in theater-based community building activities, took elementary school-level standardized math tests (which were surprisingly difficult!), and, most importantly, shared the goals, progress, and challenges of the different service organizations with which we volunteered.

Having worked with the RIUDL for three years, Learning About Learning provided a welcome opportunity to reconsider my service in a more critical, academic light, while contextualizing my work in the larger issues affecting public education. For me, both the curricular and extracurricular components of my experience at Brown are crucial to my learning and development. Not only do the two inform each other, but my service work provides real-world context for the things I learn in class, and vice versa.

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