New Experience, New Mindset: Engaging Students through Service Learning

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” —O.W. Holmes, Jr.

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A service learning student participates in a group project.

The historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles recently played host to an NCLR convening of students, parents, and teachers through the Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción (CASA) program. CASA is an NCLR project that explores how service learning can encourage community development and increase academic achievement. Six schools from across the country traveled to L.A. to engage in the fall CASA National Institute and were exposed to a culturally relevant service-learning model. In this year’s session, attendees participated in lessons from the newly revised CASA curriculum, gained tools to engage in service-learning projects, and networked with NCLR Affiliates through learning activities.

Dr. Feliza Ortiz-Licon, Senior Director, K–16 Education, set the tone with opening remarks that highlighted the importance of the CASA program and connected the mission of the service-learning project to NCLR’s civil rights advocacy work, as well as to the organization’s larger goal to uplift the Latino community. Thanks to the generous support and investment of State Farm, the CASA National Institute has evolved over the past few years to include three tracks aimed at teachers, students, and parents. “By engaging these stakeholders, NCLR hopes to equip participants—particularly youth—with skills, knowledge, and confidence, and to leverage their assets and resources to effectively address a need in the Latino community through school-based, service-learning projects,” said Ortiz-Licon.

Students participated in a variety of activities geared at familiarizing them with the service-learning cycle. For example, students participated in a mural tour hosted by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. The tour guided the students along historic Olvera Street and the 101 freeway to analyze the murals and how they play a part in Los Angeles’ culture. Students and parents learned the history of the city’s murals and gave their interpretations of the artists’ message. Many students understood the use of murals as a creative, expressive, and accessible platform to document history, celebrate culture, and denounce social injustices.

Other youth-oriented activities included the cultural awareness campaign “Being Latino means….” After the lesson, students were tasked with completing the phrase and proudly displaying their interpretations of Latinismo on poster board.

“The Being Latino activity was fun because we were able to reflect on our culture and why we’re proud of being who we are,” said one eighth-grader after the exercise.

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CASA Institute teachers collaborate during a breakout session.

The two-day institute ended with the students, teachers, and parents boarding a bus to Pasadena, California, where they attended the 2014 NCLR ALMA Awards®. For many of the students, it was the highlight of the night as they were excited to dress up and catch a glimpse of their favorite stars.

“The students and teachers were very thankful to have been invited to the ALMA Awards,” said Magdalena Mireles, California Regional Office Manager, who led the youth track in this year’s institute.

The CASA National Institute received raved reviews from attendees. Students appreciated the opportunity to travel and meet new friends. Parents were excited for the learning experience and teachers emphasized the importance of complementing classroom teaching with real-world experiences that expose students to new ideas, places, and people that will widen their lives and perspectives.

Planning for next year’s CASA National Institute has already begun due to the overwhelming success of this year’s event.

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