Projects with Purpose

Bringing the Ethos of Service Learning into the Language Classroom

Chela Crinnion, Convent of the Sacred Heart (New York, NY)


As language teachers, we strive to introduce our students to a bigger world, beyond their linguistic and cultural comfort zone.  Far too few of our students have the opportunity to travel abroad, yet we do not simply relegate the benefits of cross-cultural ventures to a select few.  Instead, we bring the essence of that experience into the classroom in any way we can.  In short, when we cannot take our students to other countries, we bring key elements of cultures into our classroom: the sights, the sounds, and the scenarios.

When it comes to Service Learning, we face a similar dilemma.  Though we may be highly motivated to involve our students in service, the constraining reality of scheduling, budget, and curriculum keeps us from venturing beyond the classroom.  Yet, fortunately, Service Learning is more than a field trip; it is a mindset that can inspire students in the present and for the future.  Just as we can bring elements of other cultures into our classroom, we can infuse the ethos of Service Learning into our daily lessons.  While “real” experience is ideal, do not underestimate the value of imagination, play, and simulation.  Through critical thinking and creative expression, language learners can gain insight and compassion regarding global issues.  “The result of [Service Learning] is that a generation of students…learns in a new way, and perhaps in the process advances its own moral development and the ethic of service to fellow human beings” (Humphrey Tonkin, professor and President Emeritus of the University of Hartford).

Teaching about Numbers and Colors

Imagine a language classroom in which the mindset of service is woven into each curricular theme.  At the start of the school year, students learn their numbers by considering their world: the number of continents, countries, languages, and people.  Next, they learn the Spanish words for an array of colors.  They recite the vocabulary list while making friendship bracelets.  Through a web quest they learn about The Pulsera Project’s work in Nicaragua with street kids and artisan cooperatives.

Teaching about School and Children

A chapter about school introduces practical terms and expressions that will be used throughout the year.  At the same time, it provides a platform for beginning to analyze and contrast cultures and socioeconomic groups.  The students’ target language vocabulary is limited at this point, but the introduction of the terms lujo (luxury) and necesidad (necessity) allows them to debate as they sort words for school facilities and supplies.  Through a study of the United Nations’ bill of rights for children, the contrast becomes clearer.  The class views the Derechos de los niños on UNICEF Colombia’s website.  For homework, each student reflects by making a list of what they have in their own life: a house, a family, food, an education, etcetera. The next day in class they work together to rank lists in order of importance.

Teaching about Food

The textbook has a chapter on food, and the teacher has decided to skip ahead to it.  This month Student Council is organizing a drive for a local food pantry.  In all of the language classes, students get to help sort the donations.  It’s a fun, hands-on way to learn the vocabulary while helping a great cause.  A slide show is created, with labels and captions in several languages.  It’s posted on the school website, and students eagerly share the project with their families.  In social studies and language classes, the universal issue of hunger is examined further through resources such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  The organization’s website offers country profiles, statistics, and media resources.

Teaching about Housing

In a unit about houses, the focus is not on designing dream mansions, but rather simple structures for those in need.  A guest speaker from the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate shares statistics and stories from near and far.  In groups, students research a Latin American country to learn about typical housing styles.  They explore the Habitat for Humanity website for their assigned country.  Over the weekend they scavenge “building supplies” in their recycling bins at home: cereal boxes, paper towel rolls, and more.  On Monday they are eager to take stock of their group’s supplies and begin their construction project.  Each day there are words to learn, such as fundaciónparedtechoventana, and puerta.  Making the muebles is the most fun part.  One group even builds bunk beds.  Through journal activities and skits, students imagine the perspective of a family that will have a new home.

Teaching about Clothing

Social enterprise is a new concept for most of the students in the class.  They read about it before starting the chapter on clothing.  As they study the vocabulary, they talk about TOMS Shoes, a company that provides shoes to children in over twenty countries.  Everyone in the class gets to design a pair of TOMS.  After writing paragraphs describing their designs, the class votes for the coolest pairs.  For a big project at the end of the chapter, they go to the computer lab to create eco-friendly clothing companies.  They can design either a catalog or a website.  Ropa verde has an awesome logo for their company, and Salva la selva has T-shirt designs with rainforest themes.  The RainTees line of clothing by Andira International inspired their group.

Teaching about Health

After memorizing a lot of vocabulary words about health and tackling the chapter test, students prepare for a virtual trip.  The teacher passes around two cups full of country names.  First, everyone randomly chooses his or her country of origin.  Then, they select their destination country.  “Imagina que eres médico o enfermero…” the instructions begin.  “Vas a viajar a otro país para ayudar en una clínica.”  Each student researches his or her destination country and explores the website for Doctors without Borders.  Throughout the week, they log the experiences of their imaginary trip.  Some create journals and scrapbooks, while others choose to create a Facebook or Twitter page.  The technology director stops by to show them how to “green screen” themselves into photographs.  The photos tell most of the story, so the captions are simple, such as:  Marcela tiene siete años.  Ella necesita una inyección. 

Teaching about Sports

The sports chapter is aptly reserved until the spring heat wave arrives.  “Field trips” to playing fields on campus help bring the vocabulary to life.  This chapter’s project centers on love.fútbol, an organization that empowers communities to build safe play spaces.  Students explore their website and YouTube channel, watching videos about their completed projects throughout Guatemala.  This is a great opportunity to learn more about Central American geography.  In groups, students write dialogs from the perspective of children that do not have a safe place to play soccer.  They incorporate sports vocabulary, as well as terms like basura and carros to describe the existing conditions.  After the skits are presented, each group receives a shoebox for their construction project.  They scavenge the recycling bins around the school for colorful paper.  They begin designing a diorama of a soccer field, complete with 2-D goal posts and children.  The love.fútbol logo is drawn on the playing surface, and the surrounding walls are decorated with the logos of corporate sponsors.  In one corner there’s a pole with a Guatemalan flag.  The dioramas are later displayed outside of the school gym, along with facts and images about the non-profit.


By the end of the school year, the students have acquired far more than language skills.  Along with a wealth of vocabulary and strides in fluency, they have gained a compassionate perspective on their world.  Many have found a cause that inspires them, and they have eagerly shared this awareness with family and friends.  As the countdown to summer begins, they consider ways in which they can serve their communities during the break.

Ideally, all language students should have the chance to participate in volunteer projects during their academic career.  In order to steer them toward such opportunities and, more importantly, to help shape their worldview, we need to bring the ethic of service into our classrooms.  By fine-tuning existing units, common themes can become a platform for teaching far more than vocabulary.  Through thoughtful, creative projects, you can bring the sights, sounds, and scenarios of Service Learning into your classroom.

Resources Mentioned:

The Pulsera Project
UNICEF (Colombia): Children’s Bill of Rights
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
Habitat for Humanity: Latin America and the Caribbean
TOMS Shoes
Andira International: Rain Tees
Médicos Sin Fronteras (Doctors Without Borders)

Additional Resources:

Peace Corps: Worldwise Schools
Cruz Roja (Red Cross): lesson materials
UNICEF: photo of the week and photo essays
World Vision
Campaign for Education
Create Good foundation / Pura Vida Coffee
Médicos Sin Fronteras: childhood malnutrition
One World Football
Solidaridad en el Aula: lesson materials
Facing History and Ourselves

Note: This article was originally written for El LASO, a University of Kansas newsletter: Edition 2012.pdf

This entry was posted in OFLA News: Association, Vol. 51, No. 1 - Fall 2012. Bookmark the permalink.