Thursday, March 13, 2008

Service Learning: Finishing and Reflecting

IV. Published Authors

The joke-writing and illustrating continues for several weeks. We collect a couple of dozen that we all like - both originals and recycled ones - and I create a page template that has a border around it, the joke written in bold print, and a space at the bottom for the illustrator(s) to write their name.

We spend one week doing drafts. Before starting, we have a conversation about illustrating. We talk about the books that we like the most and what they look like. The point I'm hoping to make with them is that the illustrations should be colorful and take up the full page. "What are some of your favorite books?" I ask. We take some out of the classroom library to look at. "What do you see? What do the pages look like?" The answers are just what I was hoping for: lots of colors, pretty colors, big drawings, pictures that describe the words. We take out some sample jokes and think about what the illustrations could be. It's another spirited discussion.

As children work on their drafts, alone or with friends, I walk around and point out the things that I see them doing. "You're using a lot of colors here." "That grape really does look old and wrinkled." "The king in your picture has such an expressive face." It's exciting. I tell them that everyone should do at least one draft, but they can do more than one if they want to. When they are ready for a final draft, they'll tell me.

After a few weeks, the drawings are finished. I tell the class that I am going to take them to a copier to create our book and that next week I'll bring it back to share. The teacher and I have agreed that we will make two copies: one for the hospital and one for the class library.

When I get back to the office, I make a cover out of clip art and and write a short introduction:

Why We Wrote This Book

This spring, we began working on our Peacemaker Project, a chance for us to use what we learned about being good friends to make our community a better place. We talked about who helps our community and about who in our community might be sad.

Some of us have friends or family who have been in the hospital, and we know that sometimes when they are sick that they feel sad. We talked about how to make them feel better, and we agreed that one of the best ways is to laugh.

And that is why we wrote this book. We found some of our favorite jokes, and we wrote some of our own. Then, we illustrated them with lots of colors, just like the picture books we like the best.

We hope that you enjoy reading it and that you laugh and share your favorite jokes with some of your friends and family.

When it's finished, it's a big hit - and it looks even better than I thought it would. The book is going to be given to the
Center for Families at Children's Hospital, one of whose many programs is their mobile lending libraries. We invite the Peace Games Coordinator to the class so that we can hand the book over to her (and so that she can deliver it).We finish the year with a lot of satisfaction and gratitude - and lots of laughs.

That would have been enough but for an unexpected email that found me at the end of the summer. It was from the doctor who came to visit the class the previous spring:

I wanted to let you know that the Children's Hospital Library loved the Joke Book produced by those great 2nd (and now 3rd) graders. In fact, they would like to know if you could make more copies to supple some of their 'mobile' library carts at their expense? Please let me know how much it will cost to reproduce and I will forward the information. Please say hello to the class for me and talk to you soon.

We gave them one book, but then they bought two more - an instant classic and bestseller.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Service Learning: Creating Community Change (and A Lot of Laughs)

III. Getting Things Done

With the seed of an idea planted, the next week we review what we have learned: Children's Hospital has a lot of toys - including Playstation! - but they could use some laughter. We spend some time talking about what we know about jokes.

I start by asking if anyone has ever heard a joke that they thought was funny. A lot of hands go up. I ask if anyone has ever told a joke. More hands. I ask if anyone has a joke that they remember that they'd like to tell the group. The hands stay up, even straining to get raised higher.

So, we start telling jokes. I start.

"What did the zero say to the eight?" I ask to a circle full of smiling children and anticipatory stares.

"Nice belt." The teacher laughs out loud. So do I. A few children do, but others are less sure, laughing more because the rest of us are and besides which this is a pretty fun way to spend a morning. I explain the joke (zero + belt = eight), and then we're all laughing together, although some more tentatively than others.

I try the Interrupting Cow Joke, which I'd originally learned from an eight year-old. I ask them if anyone knows the Interrupting Cow Joke. They all shake their heads. I tell them that it's a knock-knock joke, and ask if they're ready. They say they are.

"Knock, knock," I say.

"Who's there?" they respond.

"The interrupting cow," I tell them.

"The interru---"


I love this joke. We're all laughing. Clearly, this is my kind of an audience. Much more receptive than the late 20's, early 30's crowd who are usually subjected to my joke-telling. I ask the teacher if she's got any jokes that she likes, and she says she's not very good at remembering jokes, so I turn to the class. A few of the children offer jokes. We all laugh, whether or not they make sense, mostly because it's such a joyful conversation to have. I observe that this class has clearly found its niche. We get consensus that our project should be a joke book, made up of our some of our favorites.

I give the class homework. For next week, everyone should bring in a joke. They could find it in a book or they could get it from someone in their family or a friend. They could even write it themselves. But wherever they find it, they should write it down and bring it in, and next week we'll sit and tell each other some of our favorite jokes. The teacher agrees to put it in the homework log and we call it a week.

We end with a game.

* * *

The next class arrives, and most everyone has a joke. Some have written them down. Some just remember them. Some are holding the class library's joke books in their hands.

We go around the circle. I tell them that if they don't have one or don't want to share, I'd skip them or come back to them, but everyone should get a chance to share.

They are hilarious, even the ones that don't make sense:
  • "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Ann." "Ann who?" "An old wrinkled grape."
  • What do you call cheese that is not your own? Nacho cheese.
  • "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Fry." "Fry who?" "Fry me some chicken."
  • Why do you cross the street? To see the monkeys.
We're all smiles. And what's more remarkable is that we're able to carry on the conversation for more than 30 minutes, an impressive stretch for eight year-olds. When I think about it later, I think that it must be in part because of the novelty of the conversation topic, but also because everyone's involved. We've bought into not only the outcomes of our project (a way to help children in the hospital), but we've also bought into the process.

In the weeks ahead, we'd tell more jokes, look at what makes a good picture book, and get to work... be continued

See other posts in this series:

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Service Learning: Building Authentic Community Connections

II. How To Help

With a list of ideas in hand, the next logical step is to figure out not what we want to do but what would add the most value to the community we are trying to help.

Some years ago, I worked in a community organization that served homeless children. We would regularly receive phone calls from school groups that would call to say something like, "Our Community Service Club is looking to do a 'Day of Service,' and we'd like to come in and help the children." These invitations were often complemented by a suggestion of how they could help, given the restrictions on their time and what they hoped to get out of it. Maybe they could come in and play with the children or do arts and crafts, they suggested, so that they could see the impact of their work.

I understood the impulse. I truly did. Making a personal connection is always going to be more meaningful than collecting bags of donated toys or organizing a bake sale. But their view of how to help us was vastly different from our view of how they could help us.

One-day service trips, especially to spend time with the children I worked with, wound up doing more harm than good. They cheated the children in our program out of their very real need to form lasting and supportive relationships, in a climate in which so much remained unstable. What would add more value (and do far less harm), as cliched as it seemed, was in fact a donation of toys or money - or better yet, a six-month long commitment to volunteer every week and form those relationships. And when we explained this to the would-be do-gooders, we generally were met with understanding and agreement, if a bit of a let-down. Sometimes, we got the donation. Sometimes, they went in search of another, more authentic experience. So it goes.

* * *

And so, in my work with these second graders, the challenge was to take their impulse and to find ways that they could help, in a way that they had chosen and in a way that would not run counter to the stated needs of those we wanted to serve.

With this goal in mind and buoyed by a clear direction and a long list of possibilities, we mention what we've done so far to the Peace Games Coordinator at the school, who tells us that by a seemingly providential coincidence her partner is a researcher at Children's Hospital. After talking about it for a little while, it seems likely that we could get her partner and the pediatrician at the hospital to come and speak to the class. The goal of the visit, we agree, would be to help us narrow our options by giving us a better picture of what it's like to be a child in the hospital and how we, as a class of second graders, could make the most positive contribution.

The day of the visit arrives, and the children are excited. Dr. Euler is wearing his white doctor's coat and has brought some toy doctor's tools, such as a stethaschope and blood pressure pump, and he tells us what he does and what it's like at the hospital. The children are enthralled - and especially excited by the toys.

We share the list we've created with him, and he looks it over. He agrees that it would be better for the doctors and nurses to give the medicine. And that inviting the patients over to their house is probably not a great idea. To our mild surprise, he also nixes the idea of collecting toys. "This may sound a little weird," he says, "but Children's Hospital is actually a pretty happy place for a hospital. We've got lots of toys." By way of illustrating this, he explains that every room has a Playstation console, which gets a lot of wild-eyed stares of disbelief and some hoots of approval. Clearly, they are not wanting for toys.

He is, however, impressed with the idea of sharing jokes. Like us, he agrees that laughter can make someone feel less sad, but he adds that sometimes laughter can help make someone get better when they are sick. If we collected jokes, he speculates, they could add it to their library cart at the hospital. Having jokes that other children laugh at - or even wrote themselves - would be more meaningful than other books. "It's a thought, anyway," he says.

He leaves the toys with the teacher and thanks the class for their good ideas. The teacher takes pictures. And we end the class, of course, with a game.