Service learning

A number of terms are currently used to refer to educational programs whose objective is to work with community members in order to address a particular social issue. In this chapter, I use the term service learning (SL), defined as “a teaching method that combines community service with academic instruction as it focuses on critical reflective thinking and civic responsibility” (Pearce, 2009, p. 46). One of the primary differentiating factors of SL is that it places special emphasis on student learning as opposed to “engagement” or mere “service”. Thus, the SL experience must align with course learning goals and outcomes, and it must include reflection as a vital component in the meaning-making process. The research experience described in this chapter was designed with these elements in mind.

Service learning in language programs

The incorporation of SL in language programs gained popularity after the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) published its National Standards for Foreign Language Teaching in 1996, which are grouped into five categories, known as the five Cs: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. The “communities” category called for students’ participation “in communities at home and around the world”. Since then, language instructors have been integrating SL into the curriculum with positive outcomes. Tocaima-Hatch and Walls (2016) have summarized the many benefits of including SL in language instruction, which include improvement of language proficiency in active, real-life contexts (Askildson, Kelly, & Mick, 2013; Barreneche, 2011; Caldwell, 2007; Gascoigne Lally, 2001); gains in pragmatic and cultural knowledge through firsthand experience (Heuser, 1999; Lear & Abbott, 2009; Weldon & Trautmann, 2003; Zapata, 2011; Zapata & Tokarz, 2008): maintaining motivation (Barreneche, 2011; Faszer-McMahon, 2013; Overfield, 2007); promoting investment in one’s community (Barreneche, 2011; Faszer-McMahon, 2013; Overfield, 2007); and honing learners’ professional and interpersonal skills, such as teamwork, leadership, and critical thinking (Gascoigne Lally, 2001; Lear & Abbott, 2009). Moreover, SL can help students feel more confident in their language skills (Pellettieri, 2011), and it provides them with knowledge of professions and careers they may not have considered previously (Thompson, 2012).

Service learning for heritage speakers of Spanish

The benefits of SL also apply to SHSs in the United States. In this context, SL has been shown to contribute to the development of SHSs’ awareness of so-ciolinguistic and sociopolitical issues affecting local Latino communities and the construction of positive identities (Jorge, 2006: Lowther Pereira, 2015, 2016; Pascual y Cabo, Prada, & Lowther Pereira, 2017; Petrov, 2013; Tocaima-Hatch & Walls, 2016). This makes students feel more connected with the community (Lowther Pereira, 2016; Pak, 2018; Petrov, 2013), and it can motivate them to increase their level of engagement (Pak, 2018; Petrov, 2013). SL can also aid in the development of dialectal awareness and flexibility if the community employs a different language variety than that of the student (Lowther Pereira, 2015, 2016). Through SL, students gain an appreciation of their own linguistic skills and validation of their home knowledge and experiences (Leeman, Rabin, & Román-Mendoza, 2011; Lowther Pereira, 2016; Pascual y Cabo et al., 2017; Tocaima-Hatch & Walls, 2016). According to Lowther Pereira (2015), the inclusion of SL in the heritage learner experience “is a step forward toward the development of effective pedagogies that generate critical language awareness, promote student agency and foster positive language attitudes and identities in the Spanish heritage learner classroom” (p. 179).

International service learning

Considering all the reported benefits of both SL and SA, the combination of the two has the potential to become one of the most productive activities that students can engage in during their academic careers. SA administrators and researchers are increasingly understanding the important role that SL plays in enhancing the educational value of an international experience, which is supported by substantial growth in published research on the topic (see Alonso Garcia & Longo, 2017; Annette, 2002; Cotten & Thompson, 2017; Dixon, 2015; Martinsen, Baker, Dewey, Bown, & Johnson, 2010; Montrose, 2002; Parker & Dautoff, 2007; Sherk, 2013; Tonkin & Quiroga, 2014).

However, there is a scarcity of studies that focus on the impact that international service learning (1SL) has on SHSs. Teranishi (2007) explored the effect of experiential learning on Latino/Latina college students’ identity, relationships, and connectedness to the community and found that experiential-learning pedagogy in Guanajuato, Mexico, “contributed to students’ sense of self and identity, relational development, and awareness of how structural inequalities and issues of diversity affect their future families, careers, and community service goals” (p. 67). It must be noted that this research focused on Latino/Latina students rather than SHSs. To the best of my knowledge, the effects that service learning may have in a group of SHSs during an SA program has been underexplored.

Purpose of the study

The objective of this chapter is to explore students’ reflections regarding the impact that an ISL experience had on a group of SHSs. As indicated before, SL must align with course learning goals. For this particular SA program, these goals were to increase students' language awareness, to expand their sociocultural and historical knowledge of Spain, and to provide opportunities for personal growth. Based on these goals, three research categories were created - linguistic awareness, cultural understanding, and personal growth - with the objective of providing guidance to students during their self-reflections. These categories are wide and comprehensive, so that they can capture students’ perceptions about their ISL experience without leading them to any preconceived results. These categories were the basis for the development of the questionnaire that students used for their reflection videos, and they inform the following research questions for this chapter:

  • 1. What are SHSs’ perceptions regarding the impact of their ISL experience on their linguistic awareness?
  • 2. What are SHSs’ perceptions regarding the impact of their ISL experience on their cultural understanding?
  • 3. What are SHSs’ perceptions regarding the impact of their ISL experience on their personal growth?

In addition, this research explores the impact that this ISL experience had on the local community, following one of the main tenets of SL: that it should be mutually beneficial and reciprocal (Lutterman-Aguilar & Gingerich, 2002). The goal of this chapter is not to objectively quantify students’ progress in the three areas mentioned; instead, it focuses on students’ subjective perceptions of their ISL experience and its relationship to their linguistic, cultural, and personal growth.

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