A Classroom Practice: “Community Service”


The mundane, practical tasks involved in running a classroom—setting up a VCR to show a movie clip, sending out reminder emails, etc—can add up over the course of a semester to be a real burden on the instructor. By delegating such tasks to the students in a system I call “community service,” I have not only lightened the load on myself, but have also secured further benefits for the class. When students are involved in the practical details of making their classroom experience happen, they are more invested in the class and feel a greater sense of responsibility to each other.

To put it another way, we’ve all done some chores that were necessary to our teaching but utterly thankless. When students take turns doing those chores, they thank each other, and with many hands making light work, cheerful volunteerism becomes the prevailing spirit.

More Details

When teaching ENWR, I announce at the beginning of the semester that everyone in the class will be expected to perform “community service” at some time in the semester. I explain that “community service” does not have anything to do with one’s grade; it is simply an obligation to the class community. Then, throughout the semester, I ask for volunteers to “do community service” by performing some small, non-academic task to benefit the whole class. After a student performs “community service,” I make a note of it and that student is not expected to perform “community service” again. (One benefit of this formalized system is that you do not end up with the same few students always answering the call for volunteers while everyone else hunches into the “don’t call on me” position.)

Examples of tasks that can be assigned to students as “community service”:

·      taking notes from the board and typing up those notes to email to the whole class.

·      being responsible for running a/v equipment on a day when it is needed.

·      tabulating responses to the mid-term and end-of-semester polls on “what most helped you learn” and “what least helped you learn.”

·      tabulating responses to “choose which movie we should watch” polls.

·      sending a reminder email to the class the morning of mid-term conferences.

·      bringing in supplies (e.g. scissors, glue sticks) for in-class projects.

·      bringing in food or music for the last day of class.

The general idea is that a “community service” task should benefit the class as a whole, but should not be something that involves substantial intellectual work or engagement with the course content (we call those kinds of tasks “assignments”!). In the case of tasks such as tabulating poll responses, the students are on their honor not to corrupt the results. I have not had much difficulty coming up with enough “community service opportunities” throughout the semester so that all students can do their part, but if for some reason a student doesn’t perform “community service” I would not impose a grade penalty. The “community service” system is meant to exist entirely outside of the academic and grading structure of the class. So far it has worked effectively in my classes and no student has voiced a complaint about it; on the contrary, students have been very willing to buy into the notion that they can each make a small contribution to the smooth operation of the class as a whole.