Educators have long regarded service learning as a unique teaching tool. It connects students to the outside world, challenges them to apply concepts learned in the classroom to real-world situations, and engages them in active citizenship. Plus, it breaks up the classroom routine, which can be a welcome and invigorating change.
Special education teachers have found that service learning is equally, if not more so, valuable as a pedagogical technique. They commonly report that service learning energizes students, whose academic struggles vary widely, involving them in hands-on activities that reveal to them their unique abilities to effect change.
Still, engaging special education students in service learning can be challenging for instructors, as they must accommodate a wide array of learning abilities. Implementing service learning requires consistent dedication and a lengthy period of preparation, but a few key factors can help get teachers started:
In general, service learning is a complex unit. It requires ample time to prepare for classroom instruction, coordinate with beneficiaries, and plan for reflection. Preparing for service learning in a special education classroom will require extra time to fine-tune lessons, in accordance with the nuances of the classroom. Planning at least six to twelve months in advance should allow enough time to prepare.
In her article “Service Learning in Special Education,” special education instructor Lori Armstrong Lynass advises teachers to partner with each other or with a mainstream classroom in service learning projects. She writes, “All special education teachers will testify that special education is a tough job that can be very lonely. Service learning is a great tool to partner teachers with each other in the school and with people in the community.” Partnering your students with others could also be a great way to break up the usual routines, possibly revealing to students new social skills when they work alongside someone new.
Consider establishing inclusive projects.
If your classroom is not already inclusive, consider joining forces with a mainstream classroom to form an inclusive service learning project. As Corey Watt reflects in his article, “Special Education: Service Learning Inclusion,” service learning is an environment where people of all abilities can contribute. By integrating mainstream students and students with disabilities, you will promote tolerance and mutual respect, which can lead to greater confidence, improved outlooks, and a more positive approach to school.
Start with smaller projects.
If this is your students’ first experience with service learning, consider initiating them with a “micro-project.” This project would introduce them to the idea of civic responsibility, allow them to practice working in groups, and give them small tasks to complete. TeachHub offers some excellent ideas for small, manageable projects, which present needs to which students can easily relate and plan strategies to address. They will exercise skills in leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving on a smaller scale, preparing them for a bigger project later.
Allow freedom of choice.
Ultimately, when it comes time to implement your service learning project, allow room for students to make choices. Part of the power of service learning as a teaching tool is its ability to show students their effectiveness. They realize their own power as agents of change, which is a highly motivating realization. Examples of choice might be: what type of service project they perform (which would require them to be involved in the planning process), what role they have in their groups, what tasks they wish to provide in action, and more. Think carefully about how to match students’ roles according to their skills, and empower them to engage in self-reflection and then make the choice.
In his article, “Service Learning: Something to Thing About,” Dennis Lloyd writes that his classroom service learning project, in which his autistic students planted trees, allowed “students with various disabilities the opportunity to connect with their world in a unique way.” He writes that service learning enabled his students to go beyond survival mode and truly participate in society by providing a useful service.
When implemented thoughtfully, service learning can build a bridge from the special education classroom to the larger world; it can demonstrate to special education students that each of them has the power to participate in a meaningful way.
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