A Service Learning Tour

I’d like to highlight Trinity’s service learning program for two reasons.

First, service is rightly one of the hallmarks of a Christian school.  If we are not modeling and teaching students to serve, how can we call ourselves by the name of the one who came “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45)?  As we approach the Christmas season when we celebrate the Incarnation of God’s own Son for us and our salvation, let’s remember that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6,7).

Second, service learning is one of the hidden gems of Trinity.  Parents don’t get to see so much of what goes on as students learn through serving.  In one way, I am glad of that: Jesus warned us not to show off our deeds of mercy and acts of righteousness (Matthew 6:1).  At the same time, part of my job as Headmaster is to show our families a vision of what Trinity is and can be.  Think of this Parent News piece as a short tour of Trinity’s service learning program.  There are two stops on our tour.

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The first stop is Lakewood Elementary School in Durham.  It’s 8:00 am and as we enter the cafeteria we see nine Trinity seniors spread out at lunch tables, paired with second through fifth graders.  Lakewood, part of the Durham Public School system, serves almost 500 students, over 90% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch.  Like so many school serving that socio-economic group, Lakewood is a “low performing school.”  This is only part of the picture though.  Lindsey Kennedy, the president of the Lakewood PTA, has written an op-ed piece celebrating this school and her own children’s experience there.  Reality is almost always more complicated than we expect, and this is one of the invaluable lessons our own students are learning as they immerse themselves into the lives of some of the students at Lakewood.

And what are these Trinity students doing?  We see Riley going over a chart of vowel sounds with one student who is new.  They are practicing the sounds and she is teaching him hand motions and mnemonics to go with each sound.  Across the table, we see Libby working with her student on a magnet board, forming words in a consonant-vowel-double consonant pattern.  Service Learning Director and class instructor, Lori Easterlin, explains that these nonsense words provide a way of assessing whether the students (who spend so much time in class drilling for EOG tests) are really mastering the phonics and not just memorizing words.  Nearby Isabel is guiding her student as he reads sentences.  Barnes is doing the same exercise with his student, and we hear him quizzing for comprehension.  When it is clear that this young boy hasn’t understood what he read, they go back and try again.  Davis is playing hangman with his tutee as they practice what they’ve learned.  

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All nine of these Trinity students are putting into practice what they’ve learned from the Orton-Gillingham approach to reading, a time-tested and scientifically researched approach that helps students master the code of the English language.  They start in class at Trinity with Mrs. Easterlin, who has been trained in this method through the local literacy non-profit, The Augustine Project.  After weeks of training, they go out to Lakewood, where they work over the course of the entire year with an elementary student.  Trinity students have to prepare lesson plans, which they review weekly with Mrs. Easterlin.  The class meets weekly together at Trinity to collaborate, troubleshoot, and to reflect on what they are learning.  For instance, one of our Trinity students has been assigned to a homeless boy and is learning a lot more than phonetic pedagogy in this class.


Vanderbilt University’s Janet S. Eyler (winner of the 2003 Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service Learning) and Dwight E. Giles, Jr. have defined service learning as “a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students. . . seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.”  Trinity’s Augustine Tutoring Class is a serious endeavor to put this into practice.  The good these students are doing in the community is measurable and meaningful.  The impact on their own lives is striking as well.  I am thinking of one Trinity student who is now training to be a teacher, who discovered passions and gifts through this class several years ago.  At the end of this piece I have included one of our student’s college essay, which he wrote about his experience in this class.



Our second stop on the tour is along the right side of the Trinity driveway, where the hundred-acre wood forms a V and the creek runs under the driveway.  You’ve probably seen the pile of wood and topsoil that has been there for a week or two.

All of these materials are part of a project that Service Learning Director Lori Easterlin and Lower School Director Robin Lemke have been planning since the summer.  Early in the process, they brought students from the Durham Nativity School to Trinity to share with our students what they learned when they built their own flower beds.  Students helped design flower beds and make materials lists for this project.

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Now that the weather has cleared, our fourth graders have begun transforming those raw materials into a our own flower beds.  

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Fifth graders are lining the beds and filling them with topsoil.  



Once the construction is completed, our younger Lower Schoolers will plant bulbs and water them (well, they may not need to do much watering, if this rain keeps up).  Then, like the farmer in Mark 4, they will go to bed and get up (for several months) and then find that they have bloomed into beautiful flowers.
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Finally, our older Lower School students will take the daffodils to a nearby senior center or assisted living, to give to residents as they initiate conversations.  

What’s fascinating is to see in our Lower School students the same “cycle of action and reflection as students . . . seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves” as we saw in our Upper School Augustine tutors.  

(Below is Davis Culton’s essay on his Augustine tutoring experience.)
    If given the opportunity to give a TEDtalk, I would talk about The Augustine Project, a local program in Chapel Hill focused on teaching children how to read. Literacy in America is a significant problem that receives little attention in the media. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for 2015,  65% of fourth graders in North Carolina read below grade level. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 85% of juvenile offenders are not proficient readers. There is a direct link between incarceration rates and literacy, in fact some states use the reading scores of current second graders to project budgets for future prison construction. Despite these disturbing statistics, school administrators, instead of addressing problem, allow the children to advance instead of holding them back. Under resourced schools resort to social promotions, thus contributing to childhood illiteracy. Obviously this problem deserves attention and for that reason I would use this opportunity to give a TEDtalk about the Augustine Project and how everybody can contribute.
    This is an important topic, because anybody can become an Augustine tutor. I am currently taking a class in which we are trained to be tutors and then assigned to a struggling young student at Lakewood Elementary in Durham. Being able to raise awareness to recruit more tutors would be an amazing opportunity I would be eager to take advantage of. Not only does tutoring a child help the community, but it can be an invaluable experience for the tutor. My student, Taisean, is an extremely motivated fifth grader, focused on improving himself. Unfortunately, he is homeless and often arrives late to tutoring sessions because of unreliable public transportation. Despite his tough situation, he has an optimistic attitude, and a love of learning that inspires me as a student, and as an individual. I know my fellow classmates would agree that both the student and the tutor learn with the Augustine Project.
    The Augustine Project is extraordinary not only in their mission, but in their method of teaching. Instead of teaching kids to recognize specific words, a method used within the public school system, the Augustine Project teaches kids how to encode and decode words. Encoding words is the process of taking letters and sounds and forming words while decoding is breaking down words into sounds and letters. By learning how to encode and decode, children are equipped to add words to their vocabulary in the future instead of having to memorize every word they encounter.
    The Augustine Project is an important program addressing urgent issues in our society today. I personally have loved my time spent tutoring, and would love to give a TEDtalk to help the project recruit other tutors, and raise awareness about the problem of illiteracy in children.


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