Bringing the Classroom to the Community Through Service Learning

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.


The Office of Service Learning (OSL) at Fairfield University offers a course development grant through which faculty receive support to integrate service learning into existing service-learning (SL) courses or to develop new courses. As stated in the OSL’s “Course Development Grants” (2016), grants may be awarded for:

  • Developing a new course using service-learning pedagogy;
  • Transforming an existing course by integrating service-learning pedagogy;
  • Significantly enhancing the community-based dimensions of an existing service-learning course in collaboration with particular community partners.

The ultimate goal of the program is to support faculty in their efforts to develop service-learning courses and departmental plans that are grounded in best practices and aligned with the goals of the university strategic plan and mission, and with the values of liberal education in the Jesuit tradition. While applications from full-time faculty have priority in the selection process, applications from adjunct faculty are considered based on evidence of long-term commitment to the institution.

This grant is available to five faculty members each year, and is applicable to any discipline in addition to interdisciplinary courses and programs. Faculty form a co-mentor group through which they learn from one another and work together throughout the year on their service-learning initiative. Having faculty members with different approaches and backgrounds in the co-mentor group enriches the discussion and meetings. This grant not only fosters academic development, it also promotes collegiality. There are six mandatory group meetings divided as follows throughout the academic year: two during the summer, two during the fall, and two during the spring. The grants are awarded at the service-learning celebration event in April.

The director of the OSL and the faculty chair of service learning provide faculty with literature on SL pedagogy, including Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning Across the Disciplines (Cress, Collier, & Reitenauer, 2005); “Reflection in Service Learning: Making Meaning of Experience” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999), from the Introduction to Service-Learning Toolkit; “Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning” (Mitchell, 2008) and other articles from the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning; selections from The Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement; Democratic Dilemmas of Teaching Service-Learning (Cress, Donahue, et al., 2011); and Service-Learning Essentials (Jacoby, 2015). In addition to reflecting upon the readings, faculty participate in interactive group activities pertaining to social justice and civil engagement and meet with faculty experienced with SL.

The OSL assists with finding and building relationships with community partners. During the summer, a day is devoted to site visits with two goals in mind: to get to know possible SL collaboration partners and their offerings, and to learn the history of Fairfield University’s neighboring town of Bridgeport (or any other town in which community collaboration may take place). In Service-Learning Essentials (2015), Barbara Jacoby provides steps for developing a service-learning partnership:

Step 1. Learn all you can about potential partners through online, media, and personal sources.

Step 2. Carefully consider the nature of the commitment you are willing to make.

Step 3. Start early.

Step 4. Take the time to get to know one another as people, always remembering that communication is key.

Step 5. Determine whether there is compatibility.

Step 6. Ask the right questions.<

Step 7. Stay in touch.

Step 8. Ascertain how you will know the degree of the success of your partnership

Step 9. Celebrate success.

The summer site visits offer time to work on the learning outcomes we would like from our courses and to choose what organization best suits a mutually beneficial collaboration.

The OSL invites faculty that are well versed in the practices of SL to advise on curriculum development. Some of the workshops have a particular emphasis on reflection, which is an essential component to complete the project/course cycle. Others focus on how to integrate social justice and diversity, or on developing classroom activities and discussions that help direct students with their off-campus work and collaborations.

Resources made available by the OSL include but are not limited to transportation for students and SL Associates who need to travel to their SL site. If a student prefers to drive his or her own car, there is a reimbursement for gas. SL Associates are “student leaders” who “assist faculty with everything from logistics, to community partnership development and reflection facilitation” (Fairfield University, “Faculty Resources”).

SP 111 Service-Learning Elementary Spanish II

SP 111 is a collaboration with Neighbors Link, International Institute of CT, and Cesar Batalla School, in which Fairfield University (FU) students of Spanish in conjunction with English as a Second Language (ESL) learners meet weekly to improve their language skills. Forms of community engagement in this course include:

  • FU students tutoring Hispanics who are learning English as a Second Language (ESL), providing them with pronunciation tricks and grammar review and explanation;
  • FU students helping immigrants who take the citizenship class, and facilitating pronunciation of the questionnaire in preparation for the citizenship exam;
  • FU students practicing Spanish with native Spanish speakers, and in the process learning firsthand about life, immigration, and education in Spanish-speaking countries;
  • Cultural adjustment orientation for foreigners and students going overseas;
  • And, in our collaboration with Cesar Batalla School: 1) Students of Spanish tutoring bilingual children in reading Spanish; 2) FU students reviewing basic Spanish in order to help bilingual children.

These activities help the community come together through native English speakers (FU students) welcoming ESL students (immigrants). Conversely, native English speakers also gain opportunities to practice Spanish with native Spanish speakers. In these situations both parties improve their language skills, through conversation and cultural exchange. It also helps students to feel more comfortable and confident when speaking in the target language.

Student Learning and Development

The service-learning experience provides a real life setting for students to practice Spanish, especially the speaking skills that always benefit from extra practice. Moreover, we have to keep in mind that when learning a language it is not only the language that is taught. History, art, and culture are important parts of any foreign language class, as are topics like immigration, education, and styles of writing.
Some of the learning objectives in the syllabus pertaining specifically to service learning are:

  • To develop skills in expressing yourself orally and in writing.
  • To gain a broader understanding and appreciation of intellectual and cultural activity in the Spanish-speaking world.
  • To acquire skills in working with others as a member of a team.

Language learning is an active process; therefore, the largest portion of class time is devoted to activities that provide opportunities to listen to and use Spanish in interactions with the instructor and classmates.


Journal/Reflection: Students maintain a journal documenting each visit to local sites. They write down new words and interesting language usage that they encounter. They pay attention to some of the cultural impressions that are new to them, such as traditions, nationalities, or regional expressions. There is a special emphasis on the reasons why immigrants come to the agencies, what they discuss among themselves or with FU students, what brought immigrants to Connecticut, what experiences positive or negative they have had in the USA. Students also use the journal to document their activities at the sites, how they feel, and to make suggestions. Journals are due a week after their visit. These entries will provide the basis for reflections.

Three times during the semester there will be reflections in class (at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester).

Group exercises: Students share and discuss their experiences and their outlook on the cultures of other countries, on immigration, and on education, among other topics.

Compositions: Learners write three compositions in the semester on topics relating class activities and SL collaborations.

Developing an International Service-Learning Course

The international service-learning class (or ServL) could be an alternative to study abroad. It will target students of Intermediate Spanish and it will be taught during the spring semester, and involves travel. It has yet to be approved, but the kinds of community engagement that it is anticipated to involve include:

  • Working with the Fairfield University Nursing program, which brings students to Nicaragua to serve as interpreters between native Spanish speakers and native English speakers.
  • Partnering with English as a Second Language (ESL) learners from the Central American University or UCA (in Spanish) in Nicaragua. Both parties will benefit when practicing their second language with native speakers and exchanging ideas on how to learn languages. ESL students currently help the nursing program with translation.
  • Writing a bilingual children’s book as ESL and Spanish apprentices work with children to teach or help them with the English Language.

The nursing program students travelling to Nicaragua and students of Spanish would collaborate as interpreters. Students of Spanish could also partner with ESL learners from UCA, Nicaragua, so both could practice their second language with native speakers.

How to Develop an International Service Learning Class

  • Find a sister university overseas with the help of the office of international affairs or service learning. Or explore different universities with study abroad options.
  • Define your goals.
  • Contact the office of international affairs at the partner university. Explore their offerings and see if they have a service-learning office. Share your thoughts in terms of overseas programs and expected outcomes. Both offices have to oversee the viability of the program in terms of travel, insurance, and mutual benefit, among other details.
  • Get approval from the department of the discipline involved. Approximate time frame: one year.


One faculty member of the 2014 co-mentoring group commented, “The OSL provides a grant that support us (faculty) to work on our passion, Service-Learning, while continuing with other responsibilities.” In Spanish SL courses students have expressed their enthusiasm when they realized they can understand and speak the language they are learning. It gives them confidence. That is one of the main reasons to expand and develop partnerships to make this and courses like it permanent.


Bringle, R. & Hatcher, J. (1999). Reflection in service learning: Making meaning of experience. In Introduction to Service-Learning Toolkit (179-185). Educational Horizons.

Cress, C., Collier, P., and Reitenauer, V. (2005). Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning Across the Disciplines. VA: Stylus Publishing.

Cress, C., Donahue, D., & Associates (2011). Democratic dilemmas of teaching service-learning. VA: Stylus Publishing.

Fairfield University (2016). Faculty Resources. Retrieved from

Barbara Jacoby, B. (2015). Service-learning essentials. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mitchell, T. (2008, Spring). Traditional vs. critical service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 50-65.

Office of Service Learning, Fairfield University (2016). 2016 Course Development Grants.Retrieved from

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Spring 2016: Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community