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Voices of Service and Learning: Preservice Teachers Writing with Adolescents Labeled "At Risk".


The voices composing this article reflect two significant and related issues in education: the first surfacing in teacher education and the other surfacing in the education of students labeled "at risk." The first issue is simply the following: Although teacher education institutions are increasingly adopting service-learning, research on service-learning as a pedagogical tool with preservice teachers is limited. Current research on service-learning in teacher education has focused on several areas: courses intended to foster the acquisition of a professional disposition, such as an orientation toward care (Root & Batchelder, 1994); courses that foster multicultural sensitivity to students with diverse ethnic and social backgrounds or disabilities (Siegel, 1994; Vadeboncoeur, Rahm, Aguilera, & LeCompte, 1996); and courses that prepare candidates to use service-learning in their own teaching (Wade, 1995). However, overall, research documenting the influence of service-learning in teacher education is scarce, especially with regard to evidence supporting or challenging service-learning as a pedagogical tool used to help preservice teachers better understand the course content.

The second issue is not quite so simple. First of all, as noted by Evans, Cohen, Cicchelli, and Shapiro (1995), over one quarter of the students entering high school as 9th graders in 1994 dropped out or were pushed out of schools by the time their peers graduated. Recognizing that this rate is different for students with differing ethnic and socioeconomic class backgrounds, there is an urgent need for research to understand the experiences of students who are "at risk" for leaving school prior to graduation. In addition, preservice teachers tend to lack the personal experiences and teacher education experiences that lead to an understanding of students "at risk" of educational failure (Haberman, 1991; Zimpher & Ashburn, 1992). However, results of several studies indicate that field placements with students labeled "at risk" may aid preservice teachers in constructing knowledge effective for working with students who have typically failed in school (Bacon, 1992; Richards & Gipe, 1993). Finally, while research on students labeled "at risk" has a growing literature base, research with students labeled "at risk" and research that documents the experiences of this group of students is meager. The authors of this piece have found themselves in the fortunate position of working with preservice teachers and students labeled "at risk" and are committed to creating a forum for their voices, while contributing to the qualitative and quantitative literature base.

Foundational Literature

Service-learning is a pedagogy that offers a possible solution to the separation of theory from practice in what has been called "instrumental rationality," by Habermas (1984), and "technical rationality," by Schon (1983). These paradigms argue that the institutional norm in teacher education is to separate principles and theories in educational foundations courses, while educational practice occurs later in the program during student teaching. This approach has been critiqued primarily because it is based on the assumption that theories can be learned outside of the context of practice, and then be retrieved and applied when a practical problem surfaces. This assumption contradicts a more current epistemological view that locates knowledge construction within the contexts and situations within which it was developed and applied (Anderson, Blumenfeld, Pintrich, Clark, Marx, & Peterson, 1995).

In teacher education, service-learning might be viewed by some as a kind of field experience; however, it can be used as a pedagogical approach outside of teacher education, in K-12 education, for example. In addition, as a method for meeting real community identified needs while improving the preparation of preservice teachers, it has larger social goals than typically conceptualized field experiences. For example, as a pedagogical approach, service-learning merges service in the community with the application of course content. In teacher education, it allows preservice teachers to better learn the content of their education courses because they are able to apply what they have learned in real-life settings. In addition, and of equal importance, a reciprocal relationship develops between preservice teachers and the students they tutor and mentor that allows the students to teach the preservice teachers about their lives and experiences. Therefore, both the preservice teachers and the students with whom they work take the role of teacher and learner.

A true "praxis" in preservice teacher education takes place when we are able to establish a dialectical dynamic between theory and practice or reflection and action (Freire, 1970). In this context, dialectic means a continually interactive and mutually constitutive relationship between service-learning experiences and the conceptual frameworks reconstructed in class discussions. The students' transformed understanding of those service-learning experiences are then tested and enhanced over the course of the semester in an ongoing way, balancing the theory and content of the university classroom and their experiences in local schools. This circular or recursive relationship becomes a means for deepening and widening a critical understanding of university content and conceptual frameworks, K-12 school practices, and the lives of people who teach and learn in schools.

EdLinks: A University-School Partnership

In a recent article, Anderson, Blumenfeld, Pintrich, Clark, Marx, and Peterson (1995) called for reform in Educational Psychology courses as a challenge to the paradigm of "instrumental rationality." In response, EdLinks: A University-School Partnership was created by the first author of this paper and the assistant principal of a branch of the local high school (the third author) as a mechanism for reform in both teacher education and K-12 schooling. The branch offers a program that serves seventy-five secondary students, grades 9-12, labeled "at risk." High school students volunteer and apply to the alternative program and are selected from a pool of applicants each quarter. They complete the same graduation requirements and adhere to the same attendance policy as local high school students.

For the EdLinks Partnership, the preservice teachers tutor and mentor high school students labeled "at risk." In exchange, the high school students provide the teacher education students with information about their lives which may support, challenge, or contradict the university course content. Through this experience, teacher education students are able to apply, test, and evaluate theory in practice; they use their experiences working with the high school students as sites to transfer their knowledge of course content and apply it within classrooms and tutoring sessions. At the same time they learn, from the high school students, the current concerns and issues of adolescents. These two components are linked through course assignments which require that the teacher education students reflect upon and merge their experiences with adolescents with theories of adolescent development, teaching, and learning.

The EdLinks Partnership was specifically created to meet two needs by drawing on two community assets: the university and the alternative program. There was a real community identified need to provide the students at the alternative program with tutors and mentors; adults who had recently conquered adolescence and made it successfully through high school and on to university. When students have had difficult experiences in schools and in their families, the impact of a caring adult who values their mind and their everyday concerns can be an incredible support and motivation. In addition, most preservice teachers tend to have had successful experiences in school, as exemplified by the numerous preservice teachers who note that a particular teacher was their role model and reason for becoming a teacher. And even if they were motivated to become teachers based on difficult experiences--teachers who they thought were terrible inspired them to become teachers and do better--they still somehow managed to navigate the system successfully. So knowing both the preservice teachers with whom we work and the literature mentioned earlier with regard to understanding and constructing knowledge effective for working with students labeled "at risk" (Bacon, 1992; Richards & Gipe, 1993; Haberman, 1991; Zimpher & Ashburn, 1992), we felt that experience with students labeled "at risk" was an important step to improving the teacher education program.


A large study was conducted to capture the relationship of the preservice teachers and the high school students with whom they worked as they engaged in a writing class offered by the alternative program. Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used to document the development of the preservice teachers' knowledge and beliefs about teaching and learning, epistemological assumptions about knowledge construction, and teaching roles and identities, as well as the development of students' literacy, and learning roles and identities. This paper offers a small portion of the data collected, in particular the development of teaching roles and identities of preservice teachers and the development of students' roles and identities as learners.

Data was gathered ethnographically by observation, participant observation, formal and informal interviews, and document analysis during the Spring 1999 semester. Both the course requirements of the preservice teachers and the high school students were analyzed. In addition, a quantitative Likert scale was used as a pre- and post-test at the beginning of the semester and again at the end. To clarify, two sections of an Educational Psychology and Adolescent Development course participated in at least 15 hours of service-learning and one section of the course was used as a comparison group; rather than participating in service-learning, the preservice teachers in this section wrote a research paper examining current adolescent issues.

The authors recognize that comparing two sections with an integrated service-learning component and a text-based section may be problematic. Still, we made the comparison for three reasons. First, while the pedagogy was different, other aspects of the sections were held stable: the course content across all three sections was exactly the same and presented in the same order, all but one assignment was exactly the same, and the one assignment that differed allowed preservice teachers to examine current adolescent issues, topics which were similar with what we expected to surface in the tutoring and mentoring conversations. Second, we were unwilling to ask the preservice teachers to involve themselves with adolescents without the supervision and structure provided by the service-learning partnership. Finally, the service-learning sections were asked to perform at least 15 hours outside of class time engaging in the EdLinks Partnership without an additional credit and without a reduction of coursework. We felt that if the preservice teachers in the service-learning sections gave us positive feedback, even after completing additional work without compensation, that we could argue that their experiences must have been quite powerful.

The Voices of the Researchers

For the preservice teachers, of particular interest to us was the development and/or shift of teaching identity and the roles that they saw themselves playing in their future classrooms. Our aim was to use service-learning as a pedagogical tool that would help the preservice teachers learn, understand, and retain the theories and ideas raised in their course content and in classroom discussion. As critical researchers, we also hoped that our students would begin to identify and ask questions regarding the necessity of "alternative" high school programs. For example, we wondered if the preservice teachers would begin to ask central questions such as: Why are these students opting out of the main high school environment? and What is it about this alternative environment that helps students labeled "at risk" to complete their high school requirements?

For the high school students, we hoped to document a shift in their identity as learners. Perhaps, we thought, the additional support from preservice teachers and the opportunity to teach preservice teachers about their lives would lead to a sense of self-worth. We hoped to see a reconstruction of identity from students who were alienated and pushed out to students who were participants in a community and who felt like they had something to offer that was valued.

The Voices of the High School Teachers

The writing class was team taught by the school partner in the EdLinks Partnership and a preservice teacher who was completing a year long internship that began as a service-learning placement. Dave,(1) the assistant principal and teacher, and Jamie, the intern, helped us to interpret the events in their classroom by giving us information about the kinds of students in the program and their approach to teaching the writing class. Dave noted that the students had histories of being isolated and independent, and that they were typically not team players. According to Dave, many of them did not bond well, perhaps because the adults in their lives had been transitory, and, for this reason, they became cautious about developing relationships with new people. About 30% of the students came from alcoholic families, and about 10 young women were homeless.

The writing class began with an emphasis on building community in the classroom and creating a safe space for sharing and critiquing each others' ideas. The curriculum followed a circular path from an exploration of self, to the natural word, to the social world, and back to self again. Both Dave and Jamie wanted to allow the students time to reflect on their position in the world and reevaluate their identities after examining events in the natural and social world. Both teachers approached their work in a manner representative of Freire (1970), and their curriculum spiral paralleled the development of critical consciousness, although neither one used his ideas to frame their work. Jamie told us,
 In order for our children to be healthy members of society, as educators we
 must teach them to love themselves first. After this is achieved, this
 personal confidence can be channeled into a larger world concern for social
 justice. I believe that every classroom should start the academic year
 incorporating the material in a way that allows teachers to focus their
 attention on the personal voices of the students rather than on the
 technical correlation to texts (I, 5).

Both Dave and Jamie identified themselves as critical teachers, concerned about their students and the larger word that the students would join and participate in as adults. In another interview, Jamie emphasized that,
 In order to improve social justice on a large scale, we need to help
 students help themselves by sharing with them the gift of having a critical
 consciousness. This concept is threatening to many districts and parents
 alike who believe that encouraging students to question authority leads to
 mutiny and violence. This fear of uncovering a new generational voice comes
 from a society that does not practice sincere thinking about their own
 lives. Because of this lack of communication teachers have with their own
 inner question and because of the threatening learning environment within
 the classroom, teachers produce a climate of silence, where students'
 voices drown in a world of hypocrisy and power games (I, 3).

For both Jamie and Dave, reading and writing provided the students with much more than completed assignments that could be used toward credits for graduation. Reading and writing were perceived as keys to access society, as well as methods to use to participate in the world and, if desired, work toward social change. Like most adolescents, the students with whom Jamie and Dave worked were interested in getting involved but had had so many experiences where they weren't welcome that they were a bit cautious.

With experience in both traditional and "alternative" settings from California to Montana, Dave and Jamie felt fortunate to work in this high school program, citing specifically the quality and commitment of their colleagues. The majority of the faculty, including three full-time teachers and six part-time teachers, held advanced degrees and had published articles. Most important, however, was their sense of commitment to the students, to the profession, and to each other.

The Voices of the High School Students

The voices of Tiffany, Amber, and Alicia are representative of the students' voices in the writing class. This work reflects some of the poetry that was published in an end-of-the-year volume entitled, Things to do About Bozeman, and pieces that were contributed for this article, specifically. It is important to note here that the creation of these poems was a painstaking process that involved self-reflection, self-exposure, public review and critique, and finally positioning oneself as an author. To do this was not simple or easy. The author had to admit to herself and the world that feelings, ideas, and perspectives must be shared and were worthy of being shared and that, in addition, once shared, the work was available for public comment and critique.

Tiffany, a sophomore, told us, "The reason I wrote these poems is because it's the way I see the world, instead of yelling and telling people what I do, I write it down and hope people take it into consideration. Most of my work is about the world and the people and the discrimination" (I, 1). To reflect her feelings about discrimination, Tiffany wrote, rewrote, and reworked the following poem until she was satisfied that it expressed her thoughts.

 Hate is black.(2)
 It bites like a dog on a hot summer's night.
 It smells like garbage that has been sitting there for weeks.
 It feels like a rugged scar.
 Hate is a dying fish ...

Perhaps one of the most profound experiences for Tiffany was her experience with discrimination and not feeling wanted. In fact, many of the students' poems were about discrimination, inequity, injustice, and similar social issues.

Another approach to self-expression was taken by an older student, Amber, who wrote about her own methods of relaxing and coping with difficult experiences by connecting with nature. Amber was 18 years old, married, and expecting her first baby. She graduated from the program in June of 1999. Amber told us, "When I decided to write this series of poems it was a way of expressing how I felt. Writing poetry allowed me to be free and a place to go when life was too stressful. In these poems nature and beauty are my getaway places and my means of inspiration" (I, 2). One of Amber's poems is included here.

Senses of the Night
 Stretch your arms into the night
 I wish I could touch the beauty of the stars
 A cool breeze whistles through the trees

 Can you feel it?

 This night of sparkling twilight
 Love beats in a passionate rhythm
 Silence is the only conversation

 Can you hear it?

 Moonlight breaks through the clouds
 A tear of happiness penetrates the eyes
 Wide-open space feels of freedom

 Can you see it?

Amber was a school success story, graduating, being in love, and beginning a family. Her work was valuable to us and her peers as a role model, reflecting positive ways to cope through difficult experiences.

Alicia, a sophomore, loved writing poetry and wrote every day in her spare time; both informal journaling and writing poetry that she hoped would be published one day. She also noted that she was a "very social person": "I love meeting new people and experiencing new things" (I, 3). About the poem included here, she said, "In Lunatic I'm saying how not everyone is normal and the person in my head is trying to figure out reality and trying to be heard" (underlining in the original written statement).

 You run to catch up with your thoughts,
 The thoughts that keep sinking in the quick sand ahead.

 The moment of losing them ticks away a wasteful hour and a
 useful minute.

 Now you're lost, where have you been?
 You keep this voice inside you.

 Ignore it, they say, it's just the lunatic in your head.
 The lunatic that laughs at you and them.

 You close your eyes hoping not to see.
 You shout but no one seems to hear you.

 There's someone in your head
 And it's not me.

 Who is in your head?, I ask.

 It's the lunatic in the chair, it's the loony who stands
 beside me.

For Alicia, there was just one aspect of adolescence, high school, and life in general that repeatedly surfaced as a troubling issue: being heard. In fact, though people could always rely on themselves, ultimately for Alicia, the difference between the real self that she attempted to share with others and the self that others saw, figuratively, split her in two. Trying to keep track of these two selves led to confusion and distraction.

Feedback from Tiffany, Amber, and Alicia helped the researchers to raise the issues that the students felt were important and use them as discussion topics in the university classrooms. Discrimination was discussed, as were coping skills, and feelings of alienation from the self and from society's images of young people. Over the course of the semester, the environment of the writing class was transformed into an "author's workshop" with multiple drafts stuffed in folders and notebooks and deadlines for typing, editing, and binding copies for distribution.

The Voices of the Preservice Teachers

For each of the three sections of the Educational Psychology and Adolescent Development course, the voices of the preservice teachers were captured in two ways. First, the preservice teachers wrote several papers as course requirements: 1) a common paper for all sections asked the students to reflect on the influences of their experiences in their family, school, and community upon their career choice, as well as their ability and limitations; 2) a second common paper asked the students to construct a narrative of their future classroom, drawing upon the work of three theorists; and 3) the sections involved in service-learning were asked to interview students about their experiences while the text-based section completed a research paper on current issues in adolescence.

As, perhaps, might be expected, there was no difference in the first two papers across the sections. However, the students in the service-learning sections overwhelmingly (94%; 90%) felt that their experience interviewing the students with whom they worked and learning about their lives was the most important part of the course. Though the service-learning requirement was very difficult or difficult to schedule for many preservice teachers (47%; 51%), again the majority noted that it was either important or very important as a method by which to learn about students labeled "at risk" and the concerns of today's adolescents (94%; 85%).

Perhaps less expected were the preservice teachers responses to a pre- and post-test Likert scale that was constructed to measure three qualities of teachers' roles: knowledge and beliefs about teaching, knowledge and beliefs about learning, and general epistemological beliefs. Twenty items were constructed to compare a traditional classroom role emphasizing teacher authority, delivery, and "teaching as telling" with a more critical classroom role emphasizing facilitation, higher order thinking skills, and "teaching as engaging students in the process of social knowledge construction."

All three sections showed that about 70% of the students maintained their position, while about 30% of the students changed their positions between their pre- and posttest responses (text-based section = 73.5% no changes and 26.5% changes; service-learning section 1 = 72.7% no changes and 27.2% changes; service-learning section 2 = 69.1% no changes and 30.9% changes). However, the two service-learning sections showed a majority change in the direction of critical teaching (88% of the changes; 92% of the changes), while the control section showed a majority change in the direction of traditional teaching (67%).

Preservice teachers interview comments included statements such as: 1) "I had no idea what some kids go through just to get to school. No wonder she was late so frequently!"; 2) "School is so different now. I never had to deal with this stuff."; and 3) "I can't imagine trying to study for a test with those worries." Along with what the researchers would call a truly transformative experience for the preservice teachers, important questions surfaced such as, 1) "How can I relate to those kids? Their life is too different." and 2) "I'm not sure I feel comfortable here. The kids swear!" All the feedback from the preservice teachers found a place for discussion in the university classroom.

Most interesting to us was that regardless of the preservice teachers' final feelings about working with youth labeled "at risk," they did begin to ask the kinds of questions that we had hoped they would. For example, the class discussions toward the end of the semester took an abrupt shift toward asking questions like, "What is it about the structure of the main high school that makes these kids not want to go there?" This question alone led to a lengthy discussion that touched on issues of school and class size, teacher workload, trust and respect for students as well as teachers, and federal and state mandated policies affecting teachers and students in schools, such as standards, standardized testing, and labeling and funding issues. Within a few exchanges the preservice teacher who asked this question, answered it for herself by saying, "Well actually, after having been there, you know, I probably wouldn't feel comfortable there either! I had a crazy time just trying to find my way around, let alone all the other things going on."

Concluding Thoughts

Legitimately so, preservice teachers in the service-learning sections had some mixed feelings about the service-learning experience: it was an "eye opening" experience and a troubling experience at the same time. As a consequence, some preservice teachers became more motivated to "play a large role" in the lives of their students (74%; 70%), while others felt that they should more carefully choose the settings in which they teach (26%; 30%). The researchers and teachers felt that both outcomes represented success.

Our results point to several conclusions which together speak to the positive effects of using service-learning as a pedagogical tool in teacher education. First, preservice teachers in the service-learning sections produced work that was more insightful in terms of the complexity of teaching than the preservice teachers in the other section as a whole. Papers included more analysis and insight, along with more appropriate examples for applied theory. Second, in terms of teaching identity, the preservice teachers in the service-learning sections produced work which reflected a more complex and flexible teaching identity based upon multiple teaching roles. The preservice teachers more accurately saw the complexity of teaching, the tensions of multiple stakeholders, and their responsibilities. Third, the high school students were able to accomplish complex writing tasks with the support of the preservice teachers, and celebrated their accomplishments by publishing their own volume of work and contributing their poetry to this article. Not only did they agree to jump in and share with us their ideas, they also created and chose their best work for publication. And finally, a shortfall of this research: the researchers did not construct any objective measure of the high school students' developing identities as learners, other than to document their progress with their poems and their final completed works. In response to this error, we've planned to begin our next school year with baseline measures in place.


(1) The participants in this partnership were individually asked if they would like to choose a pseudonym for their representation in this text. All of the participants opted to use their real first names and to exclude their last names.

(2) A "teachable" moment was missed by the first author and Tiffany's teachers when we took this image as given rather than recognizing that it could be seen as a stereotype. We caught this only later, after the poem had been published. For us, this missed chance to explore racism in language and images is a haunting reminder to be ever vigilant.


Anderson, L., Blumenfeld, P., Pintrich, P., Clark, C., Marx, R., and Peterson, P. (1995). Educational psychology for teachers: reforming our courses, rethinking our roles. Educational Psychologist, 30(3), 143-157.

Bacon, C. S. (1992). Preservice teachers and at-risk students. Fort Wayne, I.N.: Indiana University & Purdue University.

Evans, I. M., Cohen, M., Cicchelli, T. & Shapiro, N. P. (1995). Staying in school: Partnerships for educational change. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Haberman, M. (1991). The pedagogy of poverty. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(4), 290-294.

Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action. Vol. 1 Reason and the rationalization of society. Trans. T. McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Schon, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Richards, J. C. & Gipe, J. P. (1993). Inside an urban elementary school: Nurturing an exemplary university/public school collaborative. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. San Diego, C. A.: ED 356-192.

Root, S. & Batchelder, T. (1994). The impact of service learning on preservice teachers' development. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

Vadeboncoeur, J. A., Rahm, J., Aguilera, D., & LeCompte, M. D. (1996). Building democratic character through community experiences in teacher education. Education and Urban Society, 28(2), 189-207.

Wade, R. (1995). Developing active citizens: Community service learning in social studies teacher education. The Social Studies, 85, 122-128.

Zimpher, N. & Ashburn, E. A. (1992). Countering parochialism in teacher candidates. In M. E. Dilsworth (Ed.), Diversity in teacher education: New Expectations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jennifer A. Vadeboncoeur, an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations, teaches educational psychology, philosophy, anthropology, history, and sociology for both undergraduates and graduates. She uses service-learning as a method for teaching content and community connections. <> Dr. Torres, currently an Immigration Counselor for Santa Clara County, taught in the Teacher Enhancement Program at the University of New Mexico for four years. David Swingle is currently the Assistant Principal of the Bridger Program, a branch of the main high school. In addition, he is in the process of coordinating a museum exhibit for the Museum of the Rockies entitled, Weapons That Changed the West: From Flint to Fusion. Jamie D. Anesi is currently an English and Film teacher with the Bridger Program and coordinates the library resources.
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Author:Anesi, Jamie
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Previous Article:Teaching Research with Service-Learning.
Next Article:Faculty Success and Satisfaction in Service-Learning.

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