Collegiate Upper School English Teacher Presents at VAIS Conference

Collegiate Upper School English teacher Dr. Leah Angell Sievers recently presented Service Learning? Service Writing! at the Virginia Association of Independent Schools 2018 Leading Learning Conference: Better Together.
Dr. Angell Sievers’ presentation centered on questions including, How can service learning projects complement the academic goals of an Upper School English course? and How can a writing-intensive curriculum and service learning be better together? Teachers and administrators interested in how service learning can be tied to an English curriculum learned how to foster writing skills while engaging students in meaningful service and brainstormed about future projects with colleagues committed to community.

The presentation idea stemmed from Dr. Angell Sievers’ junior-senior English elective course, Literature of Elegy & Redemption, in which she pairs a writing-based curriculum with service learning. The blend of elements are referred to as “service writing,” or the use of writing to provide meaningful community service while meeting a community’s needs and teachers’ learning goals.  

In the course, students examine the ways in which writers in different genres of elegiac writing such as fiction, nonfiction, memoir, autobiography and poetry express memories. Central questions for the course include: How does memory inform the present? What purpose does elegiac writing serve the writer and the reader? What does it means to be the one who survives and remembers? Is remembering a moral activity?

In pursuit of answers to these questions, students not only read and write but also design a “service writing” project connected to the course material that contributes both to Collegiate and to a community outside of school.

One past example in 2016 involved Holocaust survivor Dr. Roger Loria. Dr. Loria spoke to Dr. Angell Sievers’ students, who then created a written version of his testimony that now resides in the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Dr. Loria’s written testimony is more easily accessible to students and teachers during their study of the Holocaust than hours of oral testimony. Collegiate’s online journal, The Match, featured an article about the project, thereby drawing attention to the Holocaust Museum’s survivor testimony collection within our school and alumni community.

In another example in 2017, students met with Grace Gallagher, the director of the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, which offers support to teens struggling with mental illness. Moved by Mrs. Gallagher’s story of how she developed the personal mantra, “fight, finish, faith,” that later became a mantra for the foundation, students wrote their own mantra stories and short essays of encouragement for teens, by teens. Their excerpted work now appears in the foundation’s monthly online newsletter, SpeakUp News.

The VAIS presentation explained how Dr. Angell Sievers creates links between a text, writing skills, service learning, our school and local nonprofit organizations including:
  1. Finding a group or organization whose needs students can meet
  2. Discerning which texts lend themselves naturally to a service writing project
  3. Creating a service writing project that serves an organization’s needs while functioning as a reliable assessment
  4. Incorporating students’ interests, input and skills when developing the project
Takeaways included project ideas, assessment tools, strategies for including in the project the five principles of service learning, materials and resources on service learning and curricular connections.