Ms. Wendy Whisner, CTRS, teaches leisure programming for students majoring in Recreation and Leisure Studies at East Carolina University. She has been guiding students through a complex service-learning project for over four years. This project is helps them apply the programming skills they are learning in class. She started using the book in 2008. The interview has been edited to increase clarity.
"Every student doing a service learning project should have this book. The price is very reasonable and it has dozens of practical tools that help students get engaged in every phase from planning to reflecting. This is a book they will keep and use during their career in human services."
Cheryl: Tell me about how you are using the book with your students. How is your experience with the service-learning project different now that you’re using the book?
Wendy: Before I used this book with the students they were glassed over and they really didn’t seem to comprehend what I was saying when I talked to them about the project. Now, with these materials and in their hands, they can lead me and have easy access to the information they need. The lab for the class only met once a week so I could cram all I could in for two hours, but we also had other tasks to do during that time. I felt like students were glassed over and I felt like they were missing pieces of what I was asking from them, or what I was trying to teach them. So, when they have this resource in their hands they actually had the information they needed, they could review it on their own time, and they could then have a better understanding of the process. Before I used the book I was just telling them lots of things to do, they were glassed over, I felt like they would leave class and not really know what just happened to them.
Cheryl: So, to clarify, these students are planning a Recreation program and did it work better when they started using the information in the book?
Wendy: Yes, it worked. They were much more focused. They actually provided the quality of work I’ve been looking for in past semesters.
Cheryl: Can you describe some of the ways students have used the tools in the book?
Wendy: Initially we worked on the mission of the project and then together we determined the goals for the project. These goals are the foundation of the project. I’ve found that their development and ownership of these goals has been lacking in the past. Even though I’ve tried different techniques to try to get them to write the goals, just the concept of using the worksheet and tweaking it helped get them involved and made them more accountable. In the past, it ended up just me, doing it for them, and I think having the book helped them leave my presence and work together better. We used some examples from the book and the worksheet, and then I helped them tweak the goals. They were much more focused with their goals, and in the past that’s been one of the deficit areas. I think it’s just because I didn’t have the structure, and I didn’t even think of this kind of worksheet kind of idea to help them be more focused.
Cheryl: I’m really curious to know more about how the worksheets worked for your students because that was an important decision in designing the book. We debated whether students would use the worksheets or whether everything should be done electronically.
Wendy: They did use the worksheets, and I encouraged them to put pen to paper to help them focus their thoughts. In the moment [in the classroom] they could sit there are pass it around and look at it. It was much more accessible than having everyone facing a computer. I think the worksheets were actually more efficient, because students could pen it out, and then re-read it, change it, and as a group they could do this, which I thought was easier than passing it back and forth via email (or however else they would using technology). It was much more efficient to have them use the worksheet.
Cheryl: So, when you used the worksheets you found students were actually able to write the project’s goals and put some real thought into them.
Wendy: What I’m teaching these students is straight forward. They are entry-level students in the RCLS major, and they take this class during their first semester in the program. They have not been introduced to writing goals and objectives. Thus, the worksheet was very valuable in helping them get their initial thoughts together and polish them. It gave them a place to start and they had to start somewhere. What I experienced in the past was that the goals and objectives piece was very difficult for them because they’d had little exposure. They had to write goals for their project before we covered the topic in class because the service learning project has to get started early early. The worksheet helped me, and helped them, focus and be able to develop and polish some true goals.
Cheryl: I’ve had a similar project with the service-learning project in my class. I feel like I should cover a lot of content first so the students will know the information I’m asking them to apply. But, by necessity of the fourteen week calendar imposed by the semester, I need to have them start the service project before we’ve covered topics in class. Has this been your experience as well?
Wendy: Yes. I start my project early as well. The book gives them a snippet of what’s to come later because I can’t wait until we go over goals and objectives. It’s one of the first things needed for movement forward for this project and it comes up so much later in the semester. The topic is kind of out of sync due to other things I need to cover first, and the book helps bridge that process.
Cheryl: So it sounds like your saying the book helped give students ownership of the process.
Wendy: Yes, they did the project. In the past one of the problems I ran into was doing too much of the project for them. The process—the text and the 5 steps—add boundaries for me as an instructor because I ended up doing the work because the students were not walking away from class having the resources and information they needed. Adapting the basic worksheet really made them take some ownership and kept me out of the process. This is good because my involvement was diminishing their learning anyway. When I stepped in and did it for them that was a piece removed that they didn’t learn. So, I wasn’t getting the results I was looking for. I was doing part of the project for them and the students were left out of the equation. So having these tools gave me a way to put it back into their lap, where they had to be responsible. They had to think about it and have more control over it.
Cheryl: So how did you see the five-step process benefiting the service learning project as you went along?
Wendy: The quality of the project was better. The students had better focus and better direction. The goals were smarter, better and more achievable. The students were more invested in the project because it was theirs, versus "This is what you’re going to do; this is your goal." They had so much more ownership and they were invested in the project in a way that I really saw through their personalities, their connectedness as a team, and positive interactions with the clients. Their energy about the project was evident, even in class, when they were giving an update. I think it’s because they had truer ownership of the project because it was theirs.
Cheryl: It sounds like you’re saying they’ve had better energy throughout the project. What I’ve seen—without the steps—is that students don’t get excited until they are finally there with the clients. What it sounds like you’re saying is that students had a level of ownership throughout the project instead of it waiting [for it to occur] more toward the end.
Wendy: Right. It was the whole process. It was ownership and excitement about getting the goals done, and then pursuing the activities they wanted to do. It was an investment throughout the process whereas pieces of that have been missing previously.
Cheryl: So to confirm what you’re saying: student’s investment and energy levels, were more even instead of kicking in at the end of the project.
Wendy: Yes. It was very consistent throughout the process versus at the moment of the service and getting excited because of that. They were really invested throughout the process.
Cheryl: What other tools in the book did you use?
Wendy: I used the mission, and that helped them focus on "Why they were in the business, so to speak." We worked on the mission, the goals and objectives.
Cheryl: How about the communication skills and team building?
Wendy: I’ve done a lot of team building, and I read this, but I didn’t use a specific part of the book.
Cheryl: During a previous conversation you said, "This is a book people would take with them. These are exercises people can use." I know you’ve worked professionally in the field for many years, and I’m curious how you think these tools will be helpful to future professionals.
Wendy: I do some teambuilding in class to get people familiar with strengths and weaknesses so people can appreciate each other’s differences and figure out how to self-govern. The tool where you talk about listening really reinforces some of the things I’m talking about in class. In the past, when I would get an Email from a student about something not working there would always have been a communication break down somewhere. For example, I’d hear, "Someone’s not pulling their weight" or, there would be some other dissention within the teams. Even though I’d done team building and they’ve worked together there was always some glitch they wanted me to help fix. Now, after putting this text in the student’s hands, when a student comes to me with a problem and they want me to intercede, the first thing I do is ask "What have you done about it?" I put the responsibility back on the student because they are responsible for governing themselves, making this work, being assertive, and being able to communicate with one another. I put it back in their laps and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This is a tool that actually will help them try to work through some of the problems themselves. When the team’s not working well they can review how to have efficient meetings, and so on. There’s so much in this text that I don’t have time to cover in class (like having efficient meetings). We can scratch the surface, but now I can refer them back to the text—try these tools, think about what’s needed, and try to work through the problems.
Cheryl: So you’re saying that you, as the teacher, can use these tools to put the solution to problems back on the group?
Wendy: Yes. I statements, do’s and don’ts, constructive feedback, the listening part—sometimes it’s just one or two of those things that someone’s not doing well and now I’m able to refer them back to the book so they can try and practice and their own. I think it’s a great life lesson because that’s how business is going to work. There’s not going to be the instructor to run to and say "fix this for us, we’re not communicating well; Susie’s not pulling her weight" That’s not a real life situation. A real life situation is you’ve got to figure it out, and this text is one of the tools that helps these budding professionals figure it out.
Cheryl: I think of the action plan on page 53 as the meat and potatoes of the service-learning process. Did you have your students use that?
Wendy: In the past, I had students do something similar, but I focused more on it after reading this. Now I have a better understanding of how I can facilitate it. I definitely had them do the action plan and the deadlines were imperative because traditionally the students will procrastinate and wait until the last minute and try to cram everything in prior to an event or an activity. That doesn’t work well. And so, the specific tasks and specific deadlines, who’s going to do what ... I thought that really helped the group move forward as a team. Everybody was held responsible for something. There were deadlines so that things got done on time or ahead of time. With the tasks there is always something have not thought about, and I had not been breaking it down that specifically. After reading this book, I realized I was expecting too much of these students. I’d think, "of course, they’re going to think of that" and that’s not really the case. But, having this action plan forced them to break down even the most minute tasks, where I would think "Of course they’re going to get it" they would overlook something. This worksheet helped the students and me to really identify what had to be done and when.
Cheryl: So you reviewed the action plans in order to give formative feedback?
Wendy: Yes. I reviewed the students’ worksheets to make sure deadlines were reasonable. Also, I could see "the persons responsible" and this was a great way to see that everyone had taken something. That way, it’s not "Sally" doing everything. Also, the resources part of the action plan was very important because, again, I assumed they could be resourceful enough to figure things out. I thought they would know to check out the phone book, or look at this Web site, but most of the time I had to tell them. Having this item on the action plan made them aware that they had to think about that piece. That was something I didn’t always include because, again, I made some assumptions that they were going to be bright enough to figure this out. Well, they were bright enough, but they just were not doing the work.
Cheryl: The "resources" was something I added to the action plan based on my experience working with students. Once I decided I wanted my role as teacher to be that of a coach I felt I needed to help them see where the resources were. Even though this is student-centered learning, students can’t put the resources together in their heads the way I can because their meta-skills are not as highly developed with regards to the project and its related tasks.
Cheryl: Did you have your students do the master task worksheet and then the action plans or was your project small enough that they could just do the action plans?
Wendy: There were three components to our project. So, since we only had three components we did an action plan for each of these. The project was small enough that the action plans were sufficient. I definitely think for a larger, more complex project, the key functions would be the way to make sure things were not left undone or overlooked, but the action plans worked well for what we were doing.
Cheryl: Did you have your students use any of the journaling exercises in the book?
Wendy: I refer to the tips for journaling to give them an idea about what I am looking for and not looking for. They were asked to journal every time they engaged with a consumer. They wrote about what happened. It was structured. It’s always a problem because students can interpret what journaling means in a lot of different ways. Actually having these tips written for me made it much easier for me, as the instructor. Again, since the students have this text in their hands they can walk away knowing what they’re responsible for, and I can hold them accountable knowing this is in their hands.
Cheryl: Did you have your students design any kind of evaluation for their project? The book has a section on evaluation, and I shared it with student interns. It seemed to work well for them.
Wendy: One team did an evaluation, but I didn’t place a lot of emphasis on that. I need to focus more on evaluation. We do a smattering of that for the project, and in class we go in depth. I’d like to get a lot more structured with having students design and evaluation for their projects.
Cheryl: Do you see this as a book students would use for more than just your class?
Wendy: This is a book students would use post graduation as an entry-level professional. They should be experienced by then. This is a good, foundational tool they can take with them because they are going to be, hopefully, employed and responsible for pulling off these programs and services. When you’re out there new and fresh and given this responsibility, and when it’s just you or it’s other some guy you’ve never worked with, this is a good tool for the entry-level professional to have on their book shelf. It’s the bones of providing the services. And, I think it can probably generalize to other disciplines besides human services because it’s just the foundational of how you put a project together and see it to fruition. I think it’s just that useful.
Cheryl: One of the things we’ve learned about succeeding in today’s workplace is that it’s more about adaptation skills than knowledge. What it sounds like you’re saying is that this book would give students the tools they need to adapt to whatever situation they’re facing.
Wendy: This is a good set of bones, and you can add whatever meat you want to it. It’s a good basic foundation that you can tweak and change to fit whatever discipline you’re in because it is about having an idea, developing the idea and seeing it through. It’s that, plus, it’s reflecting on, learning from and gaining understanding from experience. So, I think it’s great bones and you can put whatever meat on it you want (for lack of more professional terms). I remember being entry-level and having the responsibility for putting on programs and projects. Now, all of a sudden, the recent graduate doesn’t have an instructor and he or she doesn’t have 16 classmates to muddle through with and they are responsible. This would have been a good text to refer to.
Cheryl: To back track some, before you used this book did you feel like there were too few students doing all the work? How has that changed?
Wendy: I think the main tool that changed this situation was pretty much the action plan. It made everybody responsible. Even though I had attempted to do that before I think this plan format just helped me get more organized. It also helped the students get more organized and accountable. Beforehand, it was several students doing the bulk of everything.
Cheryl: Did you ever see students holding each other accountable?
Wendy: This time around, yes, and sometimes in the past. Everybody was assigned something and we’d check in and say "Okay, for X, Y & Z students who were responsible for this task...," they would refer to their action plan and say, "Sally’s got that accomplished, this needs to be accomplished, where are you with that Sug?" It’s a much tighter way of taking care of business than what we had done in the past. They were help holding each other accountable because they had identified who was doing what in a much more organized, specific fashion.
Cheryl: I noticed your emphasis is on "they," can you explain what you mean?
Wendy: They did the project. I didn’t have to do it for them. In times past, they didn’t necessarily assign tasks for each other, but it ended up me having to coax them into doing it. You know, "Have you thought about that? Have you thought about this?" And using this form, I didn’t have to go there. Students understood what they were responsible for. Since they understood what they were responsible for it put the control and the responsibility back in their lap, which is what I think I’ve been lacking and why the process has been so laborious. I think I was doing most of the work and this puts it back in their court, and they get to learn.
Cheryl: It sounds like you were spending a lot of time either thinking through the project for the students or worrying about what they were and were not doing.
Wendy: That’s right. I’d be thinking things like, "What’s going on, is it getting done? This is our relationship to a community group." These projects are ECU’s and my personal relationship with the community so it’s important that they go well. Using the steps I knew a lot more about what were they doing and where they were with the project. It was much more organized and students were more responsible. I think they even felt more capable because the responsibility was theirs and they were making decisions instead of me dragging them through.
Cheryl: So, would you say your anxiety level during the project was lower?
Wendy: I have much less anxiety. It diminished significantly because I felt confident students were more informed.
Cheryl: How about the students’ level enjoyment of the service-learning process? How would you compare before using the book to after?
Wendy: Before we used the steps I would say chewing nails before the project and having some select words about students being lazy and irresponsible. I now realize that wasn’t necessarily the case; they didn’t necessarily realize what had to be done and when.
Cheryl: My assessment of students during service-learning is that they often appear to be lazy and irresponsible, but in reality they just don’t know what to do. What do you think about this?
Wendy: Students are ill-equipped and unsure and so the five step process helped me change my perspective. I thought I had given the structure and information they needed, and I had to a certain extent, but I still was maintaining some of the control and the boundaries were not what they needed to be. But the step-by step-process really helped put control in the students’ hands and took me out of the picture. I could see a difference in them actually investing/learning the things I’d been wanting them to learn. They were doing the tasks and being more resourceful. What I would call "responsible." They were doing the things they needed to be doing without me telling them, without me spelling things out for them, without me doing it for them, so they could move along the process. They were much more self-sufficient and that’s why I definitely want this book in their hands so they can be that much more self-sufficient. I can spend less time talking about details because I’m going to supplement the information in the book.
Cheryl: Tell me about the exercise you’ve used to help students identify strengths and weaknesses in order to help them work better as a team.
Wendy: I ask students to assess their strengths and weaknesses and then the group makes assignments based on that. I have students identify a strength and make one assignment based on that. I also have them identify a weakness to work on and make one assignment based on that.
This exercise helps to recognize that we’re all different and we’re going to work with all kinds of people in the future. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. We sat down to think of all kinds of strengths and weaknesses. This involves the students’ thinking about what are they truly good at; what’s their niche, what’s their skill set, and what are the things they are not good at. I think it’s just as valuable to understand what our strengths are as understanding our weaknesses. There’s no crime in not being good at everything, but it’s important when you’re working on a team to know what people’s weaknesses are so we’re not asking more than what they can give. We had a couple of students who said, "I’m not very timely with things, but I am good at this" so, if there is something that’s time sensitive I’m not your guy, but I’m very creative and I think this way, so I can do that part.
Cheryl: Do you think students respected that?
Wendy: I think they did because we publically talked about what we were good at and what we were not good at and processed the fact that "That’s cool, That’s okay. You’re not supposed to be super at everything." I think it made everybody feel okay and it broke some barriers down and little bit and put everyone on a level playing field. "I’m not good at that but I’m great at this."
Cheryl: I think that would be a really good exercise to add to teambuilding.
Wendy: Yes. It was kind of humorous at times and it seemed to melt some barriers.
Cheryl: So you used that exercise instead of the group norms.
Wendy: It’s kind of a substitute. I think it really worked well and students were very honest. And that was the intention—to create the kind of culture that valued honesty. It has minimized some of the bitterness I’ve seen in the past where students were given tasks that they were not going to be successful at because we really didn’t understand their weaknesses or their strengths. This exercise helped us decide, as a group, "Does Joe really need to be doing that?" Remember his set of weaknesses and his set of strengths. Everybody got tasks they felt comfortable with and could reasonably accomplish successfully. Students were not set up for failure because we didn’t necessarily understand that they were not good at that.