This blog post is one of a six-part series on how to develop high-impact service-learning curricula. Each post discusses one best practice for writing effective service-learning curricula and provides an example of implementation. These best practices are informed by the development of Live the Questions, American Jewish World Service’s service-learning curriculum for the World Partners Fellowship in India. To engender greater collaboration and support the development of a robust service-learning field, we have made the complete curriculum available here.
Best practice: Ground the curriculum in the experience
I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you will not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answers.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
An effective service-learning curriculum meets participants where they’re at. It flows organically out of their experience and responds to the questions and issues they are grappling with over the course of their volunteer placement. As a curriculum writer, your first task should be to go into the trenches with your participants—get a feel for their ups and downs, figure out what they will be thinking about and questioning at each stage of their placement.
To prepare to write Live the Questions, we surveyed past and present World Partners Fellowship participants (the fellowship had already been running for several years) and asked, “What were the big questions you grappled with a different points of the year? How did your questions, concerns and thoughts about your experience develop over time? What were some key ‘aha’ or learning moments for you and when in the fellowship did they occur?” We travelled to India to spend time with participants in their placements and at their retreats. We read through participants’ monthly reports, which captured their thoughts and reflections in real time throughout the fellowship, and spoke extensively with the program staff who had worked closely with the volunteers.
We collected this data in a chart that tracked participants’ key questions over the course of the fellowship. Not surprisingly, patterns emerged.
For example, when participants first arrive in India, they tend to ask questions about their context and role in a new setting:
How do I understand my surroundings? How do I behave in a culturally appropriate way? What can I do to prepare myself to be an effective volunteer? How do I understand the political and social context of the work I will be doing?
During their first months in the placements, ethical questions about their power, privilege and impact surface as they encounter challenges around integrating into their volunteer placements:
What role can I have here as a foreigner? Who is this experience supposed to impact—me or the community? Why am I being treated differently—how do I navigate my power and privilege? How much of myself do I sacrifice in order to fit into the culture here?
Halfway into their placements, these early questions still exist, but the participants are grappling with them in a far more nuanced and complex way.
In their last months in the field, participants wonder about their long-term impact, asking questions such as:
How do I make my work sustainable? What have I gained through this experience and how do I want to integrate it into my life back home?
Mapping these questions enabled us to anticipate what future participants would need from the curriculum, and be responsive to those needs. In the end, we chose to structure each unit of the curriculum around a key question. The materials in these units prepare participants to address the challenges that we know they will face throughout the fellowship. Each month in their placement, participants (who are spread across villages and cities in two states in India) write a monthly reflection that asks them to consider some of the key questions we know are surfacing for them that month. They also meet monthly (via phone or Skype) with another volunteer to discuss a text study focusing on one of these questions.
Participants appreciate being asked to reflect more deeply on questions they are already grappling with in their placements. As one participant wrote in her evaluation:
Having questions to guide me in the monthly reflection pushed me to look at more over-arching issues I was encountering, changes in my personal and professional adjustments and larger trends in my placement. For example, a question as simple as “what is something you have learned in your placement” made me recognize not only some important lessons I have already learned, but also reminded me to practice what I had learned. Beyond the actual written portion of my reflection, the exercise would often raise questions I would continue to explore by myself, but which without additional prodding, I might have left underdeveloped.
This comment highlights the importance of integrating education into service-learning programs. Providing designated space for participants to process their thoughts and experiences supports them to develop their perspective and understand the context in which they work. In the end, the curriculum only contains about five key questions, but the questions evolve over time as the participants’ thinking deepens and matures. We are able to support our participants to reflect and grow in this way because we made their experiences the focal point of the curriculum.
This methodology is so central to our pedagogy that it found its way into the title of the curriculum. Live the Questions, whose title is based on the quote above from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, is designed to encourage participants to ask big questions about their experience, deepen and enrich their thinking over time and recognize that challenging questions do not have easy answers. These skills support our volunteers to be thoughtful, reflective and effective in their placements.