Kids show Norwich students
what teaching is all about © Oct. 17, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

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video by the Norwich University Office of Communications2008 service learning project with the Northfield Boys & Girls Club

Rainy days can be detrimental to an afterschool program’s morale, judging from a situation inside the elementary school in Northfield, Vt., one October day.

The afternoon’s plan to learn about ecology at the nearby Dog River was cancelled, and the group of two dozen K-3 children from the Northfield Boys & Girls Club were moved into a gym. The kids let loose after a day without outdoor recess. Some ran laps around the gym, some squabbled while others clung to their teacher—trying to tell her all at once about the long day.

Norwich University seniors Ashley deGrasse and Casey Seibert, who had planned the river trip as Day 2 of a service-learning project for their Methods of Teaching Science class, didn’t see the rain as a setback. Instead, they took it as “what happens,” as deGrasse put it—a challenge that encompasses everyday problems teachers must handle.

Like all good teachers, they had a backup plan: Four stations were set up around the gym for children to study insect and amphibious life in the river.

You don’t get a sense
of working with
small children until
you do [it].

~ Casey Seibert,
NU psychology student

“If we can’t bring the kids to the Dog River, we bring the Dog River to the kids,” said Diane Byrne, associate professor of education and psychology at Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college. She created the service-learning opportunity for her class, and came to observe.

A station featuring Dog River water and samples proved most popular. “You guys are going to see bugs!” said Seibert as the first group arrived at a table littered with jars of mud, water, plants and critters. The kids rotated through stations, looking through viewers, identifying and drawing what they saw.

“Remember, these are all living organisms,” deGrasse reminded youngsters before enthusiasm got the best of them.

The children’s attention remained glued on the stations. “This is the quietest day ever! It’s awesome!” said Tiffany Daniels, an afterschool aide.

Seibert was relieved. “Yesterday was really hard at first, but today was good,” he said. Both psychology majors, Seibert and deGrasse have worked as counselors and afterschool volunteers, but this was their first solo teaching experience.

Not all their ideas were perfect. On Day 1, they led an oral and visual presentation with words and pictures of local animal life used in a matching game.

“The first day we had one big group, and because they are so young, one fed off the other—plus, they were all cooped up because of rain,” deGrasse said. “Breaking [into groups] was one of the best ideas we had.”

“It was too big a group yesterday for them to sit the whole time,” said Angela Marble, director of the Boys & Girls Club’s afterschool programs. “I think Casey and Ashley saw a real challenge yesterday when they saw [the kids] as a group and then came in with a whole new plan.“

She added that the students’ project benefits the club, as their numbers recently doubled without increased funding. “We used to be 12 [children], now we have 24.”

“Service-learning is the best way to learn about anything,” Seibert said. “My girlfriend goes to Penn State, and nobody does anything like this. Because [Northfield is] such a small community, there is this unity.”

“Service-learning is driven by students and it fills a need. The sky’s the limit,” Byrne said. “Teacher education usually consists of doing something for an authentic audience. Casey and Ashley [got] to do something outside a classroom and [saw] children in a different environment. They become aware of other things.”

Seibert put it more bluntly. “You don’t get a sense of working with small children until you do [it]. At first it was like herding cats."

He added that the support he received from Byrne and the Corps of Cadets, of which he is a member, were a big help to him. Norwich offers a choice of military or traditional student lifestyle, and other opportunities to interact with the community.

“Service-learning is the incorporation of service into the curriculum. Prof. Byrne’s project was a perfect example of this pedagogy,” said Michelle Barber, Norwich’s service-learning coordinator. “Last year, almost 20 percent of the student body was involved in projects like this.”

“We were not only teaching them, but we learned things too,” said deGrasse.