In 1996, while working as a language and culture teacher at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, a colleague approached me to gauge my interest in serving as his proxy to lead a small group of committed students for a 3 month community service trek to San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic. While in country, I was charged with teaching Caribbean culture classes for my students and assisting them in attaining internships in various social service agencies. Their work posts included elementary schools, orphanages, clinics, and hospitals. Each of my students was radically transformed by their time in the Dominican Republic, but it was my own experience that forever altered my pedagogical philosophies and the ways in which I approached character development in my students.
Now, some 18 years later, I understand the enduring lessons of that initial trip with crystal clear clarity and have drawn upon those lessons to design numerous character education and leadership programs that are grounded in international service-learning experiences. In two decades of doing this work, I have led over 300 students and adults to live and work in orphanages throughout the Dominican Republic. I have witnessed their personal growth through the stories they tell, the reflections they offer, the obstacles they overcome, and the post-trip lives they choose to lead.
Rationale – Character Education and Service-Learning
Character education initiatives are most successful and most enduring when purposefully intertwined with service-learning curriculum. Billig (2002) estimated, that approximately one-third of all public schools included service-learning in their curriculum. There are numerous reasons for this. First, we see an increased number of secondary schools and universities that are looking beyond standardized test scores as one of the most important criterion in admitting students. A recent analysis of the admissions application at several secondary schools in New England indicated that while 50% of ratings for an applicant were related to academics, the other 50% of statements were focused on character. Second, as social problems like poverty, crime, etc. continue to be prevalently featured in the news headlines; more and more teachers see the value in trying to develop skills in students that empower them to be future leaders and problem solvers. Third, many teachers believe that a positive experience with service-learning can, in the words of Halstad (2002) “add to a student’s self-knowledge and accomplishments precisely at the tender age when they are trying to find out who they are…and what they can offer the world.”
Planting the Seeds of Character Education – The Pre-Trip Experience
Prior to our annual trip at Bement, we work extensively with our ninth grade students to prepare for the experience of living in an orphanage. Our students learn about the unique aspects of Caribbean Spanish through mini-lessons. In addition, students propose and organize several fundraisers to support the trip and the projects we do at the orphanage. They also coordinate and oversee drives to collect clothing, childrens’ shoes, toys, and medical supplies. Finally, we work with students to build a modest knowledge base about the colorful culture, diverse geography, and rich history of the Dominican Republic.
Character and Curriculum – The In-Country Experience
The Bement School program is now six years old. What are the tenets of this program? What are the ways in which we focus on character development through the trip? I suppose everything begins by setting the following multi-faceted educational goals. First, we expect our ninth grade students live and work in an actual orphanage. During their time in country, they will not have any access to comforts other than what the orphans have. This includes leaving all technology at home. We all commit to being unplugged from our gadgets in order to plug into life’s circuitry. Second, we expect students to reflect openly, honestly, and publicly about their daily experiences and observations. As trip leaders we understand that our students learn to be their best when they are facing hardship. To illustrate, our students have identified the following challenges that the trip poses:
1) Language/Culture – Most of our students do not speak Spanish nor have they spent time in a culture different from their own. Once they arrive in country, they are immersed in a world that feels very different from their home.
2) Physical Comfort – While at the orphanage, our students experience life without the physical comforts of home. They are without constant access to electricity and running water. There are no air conditioners to cool the humid temperatures produced by incessantly bright, beautiful sunlight. Instead of a private room, they live in dorm style rooms with 10 – 12 of their classmates. The cramped conditions force compromise and sacrifice.
3) Poverty – Students inevitably grapple with poverty on many levels. They observe it at a visceral and experiential level that ideally helps them develop empathy and curiosity about the human condition.
4) Self-Discovery – Considerable emphasis is placed on serving children at the orphanage. We teach literacy skills, work on projects that the orphanage has asked us to take on, and spend time simply playing with kids. The work we do is balanced by the intellectual and emotional demands we place on our students to engage in self-reflection and introspection.
Character, Curriculum, and Enduring Lessons – The Post-trip Experience
In order to continue to build upon the lessons and experiences of our time in the orphanage, we continue to challenge our students to find ways to stay connected to the children they befriended. This can be achieved in many ways. There are wonderful stories of Bement alumni who have returned to the orphanage for four or five consecutive years. Bement families have helped to staff and sustain a small library on the orphanage grounds. Finally, we find ways for the voices of our returning students to be heard. They prepare presentations for peers and students in grades K-8. They produce short films, videos, and blogs to reach out and share their experiences with the wider community. Ultimately, the hope is that our students, by virtue of this experience, have started to learn how empathy, service, compassion, and resilience all form the mosaic of one’s character.
Berkowitz, M.W. and Bier, M.C. (2005). What works in character education: A report for policy makers and opinion leaders. Character Education Partnership. University of Missouri, St.Louis.
Billig, S.H., (2002). Service-learning. National Association of Elementary School Principals, Research Roundup 19(1).
Halsted, A. L., (1997). A bridge to adulthood: Service-learning at the middle level. Midpoints, 7(1) 3-13.