A Virtuous Circle: English Class and Service Learning

Nov 24th, 2016 | By | Category: Campus News, Fall 2016
Dr. Jim Sabinby Dr. Jim Sabin
Dr. Sabin is a Clinical Professor of both Population Medicine and Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Ethics Program

On a sunny Saturday morning in July, 18 students at the Vermont campus, plus faculty members Dixie Goswami, Beverly Moss, and Margery Sabin, participated in the fourth annual workshop on “Making Ethics part of High School and Middle School English Class.”

We began by defining “ethics” as the effort to determine what we believe should be done and to articulate the reasons why. Including ethics in the curriculum can help students understand their beliefs about (a) right and wrong/good and bad, (b) how to treat others, (c) what kinds of communities they want to encourage, (d) what kind of persons they want to be, and (e) the ability to increase one’s moral sensitivity and ability to recognize and deal with ethical issues in a constructive manner.

We distinguished two components of ethics: ethical analysis (deliberating about the right thing to do or the right way to be) and ethical activism (putting values into action). Classroom discussion provides excellent opportunities for the analytic component. Service learning does the same for ethical activism.

As the final step in teeing up our discussion, we reviewed a longitudinal framework for understanding the link between English class, character development, and ethical activism that emerged from the work of the previous three workshops and was used at our 2013 NCTE presentation. I’ve now come to conceptualize the relationship among these elements as a cycle.


The core idea is that close reading strengthens empathy and humanism as readers enter into the worlds that literature creates, and improved writing does the same by asking students to think about the audience they are speaking to and how they can best reach that audience. Understanding our values and biases and empathizing with perspectives of others even if we disagree with them increases “ethical sensitivity.” And when students identify values important to themselves and for their communities, they are primed for ethical activism on behalf of these commitments. Activism can create a virtuous circle by stimulating further learning opportunities that strengthen engagement with literature and writing.

As we’ve done in the previous workshops, I asked the participants what aspect of the area they wanted to focus on. The first suggestion came from a 10th grade teacher, whose class does a service learning module that combines class discussion, a service project chosen by the student, and a research paper. She felt that the unit was well-intentioned, but many students experienced it as a burden, and it didn’t feel integrated with the rest of the semester’s work. She asked the group – do others have ideas about how to make service learning more engaging for students?

The entire workshop keyed off of that question. I’ve distilled five points from the wonderfully rich discussion:

  1. English class is often asked to be the vehicle for humanistic goals in the curriculum. Ideally, moral development and heightened humanism would be a goal for every component of the school – inside and outside of class. But this kind of full court press rarely happens, and English teachers are asked to take the lead. Being looked to for leadership in moral development is a challenge and an opportunity! I mentioned that my medical specialty – psychiatry – is in a similar situation. We’re often asked to be responsible for the “understanding the patient’s point of view” component of the medical school curriculum.
  2. Several participants suggested that preparatory exercises can help students become more open to and engaged with reflection about values. A participant reported that hypothetical questions like “A lifeboat has 10 people but will sink from too much weight. Everyone will drown unless someone is thrown off. What should be done?” triggers lively discussion. Another participant described how she gives the class statements dealing with issues that come up in a book they are reading. Then she has them do “speed dating” – i.e., talking for 30 seconds with another student about their reactions to the statement. Another participant described how she did a similar exercise before reading Hamlet. She poses questions like “Do you believe in ghosts?” or “If someone kills your father, should you kill that person for revenge?” and asks students to stand up if they agree. These teachers reported that like warming up before physical exercise, activities of this kind can help students “warm up” into a more reflective state of mind in which they are prepared to see ethics as something important to their lives.
  3. When schools require service learning, unless students are prepared well, they can cause harm when they enter into the space of those they are “serving.” And the very idea of doing “service” can create a noblesse oblige attitude (“the poor can’t help themselves – they need me to do this service for them…”) or cynicism (“this is just resumé padding…”). Some argued that requiring service learning and giving academic credit for it is corrupting. But others who agreed that these risks are real nevertheless felt that some students who would never get involved on their own might be turned on and transformed by the service learning experience.
  4. Independent schools and public schools in wealthy communities are increasingly sponsoring “voluntourism” – programs in which students go for a short time to a poorer country to do “service.” With rigorous preparation, a strong relationship with local community partners, and opportunity to reflect on the experience, these programs can be excellent learning opportunities for the students and even if not helpful at the “service” site, at least not harmful. A participant contrasted “asset based community development” (ABCD) to “voluntourism charity work” (http://www.abcdinstitute.org/).” ABCD involves identifying the strengths in a community and helping the strengths to be extended. Another participant questioned why “voluntourism” programs travel to other countries when there are valuable opportunities to contribute in their own or nearby communities. With regard to the stance of noblesse oblige,” I mentioned a favorite quote from Thoreau: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life!”
  5. A participant who teaches in a public school system that emphasizes test scores and career readiness introduced a painful note of reality. In that environment a teacher “couldn’t dream of openly introducing the idea of community activism.” He uses literature as a form of engagement with new communities, and mentioned Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger as works that served that purpose well. Unfortunately, we did not have time to pursue the very important issue of the similarities and differences in using literature compared to service learning to “expand students’ horizons.”

As of August 2016 we tentatively plan for two workshops in 2017, both on “Making Ethics part of High School and Middle School English Class,” with one focusing on service learning and the other on literature and writing. I invite Bread Loafers to share thoughts on these topics and recommendations for next summer’s workshop(s) with me here, or at jimsabin@gmail.com.

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