Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  1

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Keeping the “Learning” in Service-Learning

Jacqueline Thomas, Texas A&M University-Kingsville


Jacqueline Thomas, Ed.D., is Regents Professor of French



Summer camps for young learners fulfill a recurring community need and provide higher education students with the opportunity to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate their discipline as they collaborate to plan engaging activities for the youngsters.  This article describes the individual and institutional impacts of a service-learning project in foreign languages that can be reproduced in other disciplines.



An exemplary service-learning project retains a balance between service and learning.  However, in attempting to provide a needed service to the community, service-learning practitioners sometimes insufficiently stress the learning part of the equation.  This article 1) describes a project that fulfills a recurring community need while providing university students with a successful learning experience that is not available in the traditional classroom; and 2) presents an easily replicable model for other disciplines.


Parents of 4th and 5th graders, especially those who work outside the home, need worthwhile activities for their children during the summer when school is out.  Institutions of higher education are well placed to provide summer camps for this age group through their undergraduate programs.  During a two-week summer camp, university students satisfy the requirements of an advanced class in their major or minor by teaching their discipline to younger learners. 


In order to plan the summer camp, the students must collaborate to evaluate and select content and design a program of activities.  Thus they must review what they have learned and analyze its significance and, just as importantly, link theory to practice in an authentic setting.  As they teach the youngsters, they are made aware of what they know and what they only thought they knew; and they are asked questions that make them think.  In the case of a foreign language, they enhance their own language learning and meet goals that cannot be met within the walls of the classroom.


Course goals

In Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century, published by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (National Standards, 1999), one goal specifies that “Students use the target language both within and beyond the school setting” (p. 64).  Specifically, foreign language learners are expected to participate in a career exploration or school-to-work project that requires proficiency in language and culture; use community resources to research a topic related to culture and/or language study; and present information about the language and culture to others (p. 65).  Another goal specifies that “Students show evidence of becoming lifelong learners by using the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment” (p. 66).  The learners are expected to use various media in the foreign language, design culturally authentic activities, create games, enjoy music, and research topics of personal interest (p. 66-67).  The students involved in the project described below met these goals in French 4310, Special Topics in French Civilization and Literature, which required their participation in the French Summer Camp for 4th and 5th Graders in June 2004.


Description of the course and summer camp

Six students signed up for the class, five of whom were female.  Four of them were Hispanic, one was African (from Nigeria), and one was Anglo-American.  The first week of the four-and-a-half-week summer course was devoted to studying theories of foreign language acquisition and approaches to teaching.  The four undergraduates and two recent graduates, all of whom had French as their minor (no French major is offered), responded to the readings in readers’ response journal entries.  They were asked to note (in English) their reactions to the readings: what surprised them, intrigued them, frustrated them, or confused them, for instance. Given this opportunity, some students gained insights into problems they themselves had had at earlier stages of learning French.  They also reflected upon the best way to teach different aspects of the language to others.  This level of analysis and synthesis is hard to achieve in a traditional French classroom in which the focus is theoretical and the activities are hypothetical. 


The second week of the course was spent in class designing the scope and sequence of the summer camp.  The six university students, who were from backgrounds in English, psychology, communication and theatre arts, and engineering, had to negotiate and compromise (in French) about what should be included for learners who were 9, 10, or 11 years old. They formed alliances to produce units together, drew up a list of what materials they would need, and designated who would purchase the needed materials (with funds provided through a small grant from the American Association of Teachers of French).  The enthusiasm level was high during this period as the students were engrossed in evaluating what topics would lend themselves to engaging activities for the younger learners.  As they used their French to communicate with each other, they were involved in the highest levels of critical thinking: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.


For the next week the class did not meet to allow the students time to prepare their materials for the activities for which they were responsible.  They prepared games, identified songs and rhymes to teach the youngsters, and designed posters and worksheets on topics such as the alphabet, the numbers, the days of the week, and many more.


The two-week summer camp extended beyond the end of the university’s short summer term and into the break between first and second summer sessions.  Twenty local students signed up for the French Summer Camp for 4th and 5th Graders, eleven of whom were girls.  Thirteen of them were Hispanic, one was Asian, and the remaining six were Anglo-Americans.  While some of the students seemed to be gifted and talented, others exhibited tendencies that indicated that they might be learning disabled or be suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder.  They certainly varied in their abilities to concentrate and to perform certain tasks.


The “campers” met for four hours per day from 8:30 am with a snack break at about 10:00 am.  After the “campers” had left for the day, the student-instructors met with the professor of record and with a collaborating high-school teacher for debriefing sessions.  Reflecting upon what had (or had not) worked and why was an important part of their learning process.  During these sessions, the student-instructors sought reassurance about their own knowledge of the discipline, in this case rules of pronunciation, grammar usage, and vocabulary.  A more effective way to enhance their learning is hard to imagine.


The students’ motto was to keep the youngsters active.  They did not select a topic unless they could think of an engaging activity as a follow-up.  They had the children coloring, drawing, designing posters, joining the dots, spelling words with letters for alphabet soup, singing (and acting out the songs), marking dates on a calendar, making and decorating clocks and showing the time on them, and responding physically to commands given in French (an approach known as Total Physical Response).  They also played charades, hangman, home-made card games, and commercial games such as Petanque, Monopoly, and Pictionary. In addition, they watched videos and listened to mini-lectures about aspects of French culture such as the Eiffel Tower, the Tour de France, Toulouse-Lautrec, and French expressions used in English.


Each topic was introduced one day, then “recycled” in another way the next day.  For example, the “campers” learned how to greet each other on Day One, then on Day Two they learned a song that contained the greetings.  Many of the topics were “recycled” on several days to reinforce the youngsters’ budding language skills.   This proved to be a very effective technique according to one “camper” who had received two years of French at her elementary school in another state.  She told the student-instructors that she learned more in two weeks at the summer camp than she had in her two years of formal instruction.


On the final day of the camp, the student-instructors invited the parents and grandparents of the participants to a demonstration of what the young “campers” had learned. The student-instructors worked with groups of four or five children for ninety minutes to develop an activity that illustrated one or more of the sixteen topics that they had studied.  The “show-and-tell” session was well attended and enthusiastically received.  According to the parents and grandparents, some of whom worked at the university where the camp took place, the youngsters looked forward to class each day and were excited about their experience.  Both adults and children asked about the possibility of another summer camp next year.


Individual impact of the service-learning project

The student-instructors were required to reflect upon the benefit of the service-learning experience through a reflection paper.  Perhaps because their reflections were written in French or perhaps because the students were not given enough guidance about what was expected, the reflection papers were somewhat superficial.  They were, however, very positive.  Individual benefits were identified as enhanced foreign language learning, a rewarding interaction with learners of a different age and from a different background, and an insight into the teaching profession. 


Several of the students indicated that they had increased their vocabulary and had grown more confident about speaking the language for their personal enjoyment and enrichment outside the classroom.   One student, an English major, remarked that she had enhanced her language skills by being forced to communicate real messages (in contrast to the drill and practice exercises that characterize many foreign language classrooms). This same student also commented that she had enjoyed the teamwork and collaborative nature of the project. The psychology major made connections between the children’s behavior and theories of child psychology that she had studied.  This same student stated that she had a new respect for teachers after discovering how much work is involved in maintaining discipline and explaining difficult concepts.  One of the students, who proved to have a natural talent for relating to the young learners, indicated that he was now considering going into teaching when he graduates. 


All of the students developed critical thinking skills and applied their knowledge to the betterment of their community.  They worked as a team with students from different disciplines and used their foreign language to communicate with each other.  They reinforced their prior learning and reached a new level of confidence in their ability to put their learning to good use.  Moreover, they became active learners as well as contributing members of the university’s surrounding community.


A word of caution about selecting students to participate in similar projects is in order.  Polansky (2004), who reports on a project that engaged undergraduates in tutoring pupils learning languages at elementary, middle, and high school levels, warns that information must be provided about “the student’s proficiency level, performance, diligence, and general suitability for this experience” (p. 368).  In the present study a small grant (from the Texas A&M University System’s Academy for Educator Development) paid for student stipends.  While the prospect of receiving a stipend did not affect the students’ proficiency level, it did guarantee their diligence: they knew that they would receive the stipend only if they remained actively involved in the project.


Impact at the program level

The benefits to the French program should be noted.  While a volume of the American Association for Higher Education series of monographs on service-learning and academic disciplinary areas is devoted to Spanish (1999), no such volume exists on service-learning projects in French.  Indeed, many of the projects described in Construyendo Puentes (Building Bridges): Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish could not be replicated with students of French as they predominantly deal with heritage speakers of the language, specifically with Mexican-Americans/Chicanos and Cubans.  Opportunities for students of French as a foreign language to interact with heritage speakers of French are few and far between in the United States.  But learners’ needs to use their language skills for the betterment of society and to develop a sense of citizenship are just as great for learners of French.  Giving students with a minor in French the opportunity to enhance their learning and perfect their skills outside the classroom generated enthusiasm in their subject. They have shared this enthusiasm with other students, who have asked if they in turn will have the same opportunity next year.  Moreover, because French is not offered in local middle schools, the French program was able to introduce the local community to this important international language.  Overall, interest in the French program has increased, thanks to the summer camp.


Institutional impact

The institutional benefits were numerous.  Most importantly, the university provided a much needed service to the local community.  Parents are eager for engaging activities during the summer break for their pre-teens.  In addition, offering summer camps allows the institution of higher education the chance to show off the expertise of its students and programs and its facilities to members of the community.  Moreover, the summer camp is an early attempt to recruit future students.  Aware of the benefits to the institution, its students, and the community, plans are afoot at the university to organize summer camps in the future in other disciplines such as art, biology, chemistry, creative writing, engineering, history, math, physics, social studies, and theater arts.



One of the purposes of the summer camp was to allow students of French at an institution of higher education the opportunity to use their language skills outside the classroom and to present information about the French language and culture to younger learners. In doing so, the students became engaged in a successful learning experience involving higher-level thinking skills, and, at the same time, fulfilled a perennial community need.  Because of the multiple benefits to the individual students, to the program, and to the institution, the project described provides a useful model that could easily be replicated in other disciplines.



Hellebrandt, J., Varona, L. T. (Vol. Eds.) & Zlotkowski, E. (Series Ed.).  (1999).  Construyendo Puentes (Building Bridges):  Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish.  Washington, DC: AAHE.


National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project.  (1999).  Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century.  Yonkers, NY: ACTFL.


Polansky, S.  (2004).  “Tutoring for Community Outreach:  A Course Model for Language Learning and Bridge Building Between Universities and Public Schools.”    Foreign Language Annals, 37, 367-373.