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Pedagogy Column: Service Learning: An Avenue for Deep Learning

Katherine Figueroa, Developmental Skills, and Douglas Anderson, Music and Art

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We taught a paired course in the Fall of 2012 as part of the new Freshman Learning Academies program. Because the two courses were Academic and Critical Reading (ACR 095) and Introduction to Music (MUS 110), we decided a service learning project involving reading and music would be the most appropriate activity. The purpose of this project was to provide students an opportunity to develop the following academic and critical reading skills: summarizing expository texts and a story, reading aloud fluently, and planning and engaging in pre-, during- , and post-reading activities. 


Reading Aloud with Music


We taught and were charged with implementing a high impact activity in our courses. The project entailed teaching our students about the importance of reading aloud to children and then actually reading a story, accompanied by music, to children in BMCC’s Early Childhood Center (ECC). For this project, we chose “Peter and the Wolf,” by Sergei Prokofeiv, as it is a story in which the characters and events are indicated by unique and descriptive instrumentation and musical ideas. Following the “performance,” students then wrote a reflection on what they had learned from the experience.


Additionally, because the lines of “Peter and the Wolf” are tied to specific musical moments in the piece, the project allowed students to practice applying the concepts they learned in MUS 110 through matching the text of the story to the elements in the music, and by teaching the musical instruments in an orchestra to children.

The Project’s Stages  


To begin the project, the students were assigned various scholarly and expository articles on the importance and benefits of reading aloud to children. They also read material on how to effectively engage children and teach early literacy and thinking skills while reading aloud.  After learning how to annotate, outline, and summarize, students practiced these skills with the assigned articles and the “Peter and the Wolf” story. 


Students were then assigned to groups of two or three and tasked with developing a lesson or “performance” plan. They had to write specifically what they would do before reading to introduce the story, what they would do during the story to keep children engaged and to help them develop literacy skills, and what to do after reading so the children could process the story.  In the meantime, they learned about the various elements of music, and of concepts such as “tone painting” in MUS 110. All students had to participate equally in the preparation and performance, and attend two “dress rehearsals,” the first of which involved the two professors modeling how to ‘perform’ the story with the music.


A Tremendous Opportunity for Student Learning


The service learning project was a tremendous opportunity for student learning. After the performances, the students wrote a reflective essay detailing what they had learned about reading aloud to children, as well as about the reading process in general. Students were given the option to write about the music, describing it technically, to get extra credit for MUS 110.


Student essays demonstrated that they had learned a great deal about the reading process, not only as it pertains to early readers, but to their own reading experience as well. Students were able to adequately summarize scholarly articles and other expository texts and to successfully document their own learning. Many reported that they gained confidence from this experience of public speaking, learned the importance of adequate preparation before a presentation, and were able to identify the various reasons why reading aloud to children is important as well as the various elements that foster development of literacy skills, such as asking predicting or critical questions.


We were truly impressed with how much our students learned from and appreciated participating in this project.


After working on the project together, students began working together to prepare for other assignments and to study for the MUS 110 final exam. The class went from being a reserved, quiet group, to a cheerful, participatory one. At the end of that semester, the ACR instructor observed that many of the ACR/MUS students, fulfilling the MUS 110 requirement of attending a live concert and writing a report about it, arrived and sat together for the Downtown Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah, indicating that the social bonds established in class as a result of the project extended beyond the classroom walls.


Our Learning Experience


It was not only the students who learned a great deal from the service learning project. Initially we had wanted to pursue a project in which our students would read to children because we wanted to teach the importance of reading aloud and of fostering a love of reading in children from an early age, so that the next generation of students might not end up taking developmental reading courses. From doing this project, and especially from integrating it with music, we were gratified to see that the students also learned a greater deal about reading in their own lives than we expected. 


A common fear is that students will not learn as much if we do not spend a great deal of time on the material in class. Even though we lacked the desired amount of time to discuss and review some of the assigned articles in class (because of the Hurricane Sandy interruptions), upon reading the reflective essays, we realized that the students understood and mastered the main points of these articles, more so than when they were assigned non-project related articles.


We found that the students acquired a better perspective on the process of musical performance by having to participate in creating the combined spoken and musical performance live. We have recognized that greater learning occurs when there is a real, applied need for the information or skills that students are to learn. We learned how effective experiential learning can be in this type of context.