One of the most rewarding feelings a person can experience is that of knowing you are helping people to better themselves. This is exactly the feeling I myself experienced every Tuesday during the college year after completing my hour of reading with the children of fourth class at a primary school in Galway city. Being able to play a part in a child’s education, especially during his/her formative years, is a responsibility that I do not take lightly. Knowing that I am helping these children, many of whom do not receive reading support at home or have little access to resources such as books to develop their education and enhance their reading abilities, is definitely a privilege.
The programme I take part in is a university module I do as part of my second year studies in English at NUI Galway. ‘Service Learning-Literacy Lift Off! Reading with Children’ is a seminar course, where students such as myself support fourth class pupils with their reading in a supervised classroom setting. We also participate in a seminar class each week which allows us to reflect on our experiences in the school earlier that week. I decided to take this module because I have always considered primary teaching as a future career, and having worked with children before, I really enjoyed it. Each university student is assigned to a group of between one and three children to help with their reading. One of my personal aims as an educator in this setting was to instil as much confidence as I could in these children. Many of them come from socio-economically disadvantaged areas and because of their circumstances have fewer opportunities than their counterparts growing up in other areas.
One of the many benefits of partaking in this module was being given the chance to play an active role in bettering the local community. While university is undoubtedly one of the best times in a young person’s life, something most college students can probably relate to is the lack of community atmosphere. In an institution of more than 18,000 students, plus staff, it can often feel like that community aspect of life, which was so present during primary and secondary school, is now missing. By participating in service learning, students are getting involved with the local community and fulfilling NUI Galway’s civic commitment to its locality.
Participation in the local community and service learning are central to NUI Galway’s civic mission. In 2013, more than 40 undergraduate degree programmes included a module that involved service learning. Some 1,400 students of the university engage in service-learning style programmes each year, leading to the development of strong links between NUI Galway and its community. The university’s dedication to its community goes beyond just service learning. The Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI ) at NUI Galway is a major project that was established to ‘underpin and realise a civic mission as part of its core activities’ and to cultivate community-university partnerships. The Community Knowledge Initiative encourages civic involvement by students and staff of the university. The CKI is at the core of the university’s plans to make students more aware of their community and the positive contribution they can make to it.
My personal experience on the course has been an overwhelmingly positive one. I looked forward to going to the school each week. On our first day we were grouped with the children we would be reading with, and my group consisted of two boys, both aged 10. We read the David Walliams novel, Mr Stink. I found the course to be a rewarding experience. I really enjoyed chatting with, and getting to know, the children on our first day. I felt it was important to give the children attention and make them feel as good as possible before we began reading, because many of them may not have received much individual attention before, which can result in low self-esteem.
The course has helped me to understand some of the issues teachers face on a daily basis. While the two boys in my group are very well behaved and especially eager to read, there will always be challenges when in charge of a group of more than one child (I can only imagine how a teacher of a class of 25 feels ). A challenge for me was maintaining a balance of voices in the group. One of the boys was very eager to answer all the questions I asked, while the other boy was more reserved. I had to develop some strategies to help him come out of his shell.
Using an idea that was mentioned in a seminar, I drew a picture of a star, writing the pupil’s name in the centre, and whenever the pupil displayed a positive characteristic while reading (eg, confidence, good tone ), I would jot down that word around the star. By the end of our reading session the star would be surrounded by positive words that the pupil could look at and relate to himself, instilling a greater sense of confidence.
My experience in the seminar part of the course has been similarly positive, the two-hour class was the most enjoyable one of the year. It is a place where we felt comfortable sharing our experiences in the school that week, and planning how we could improve the following week.
Service learning has a sizeable impact on the lives of the children. One of the many reasons service learning programmes like this are so important is because many of these children may never have been read to before, except by their teacher. Service learning provides us with an opportunity to pass on our love for reading to these children, and helps undergraduates who are used to the confines of campus to connect with the outside world. One of the core aims of our service learning programme was to help improve the children’s reading comprehension and literacy skills. Such a large part of modern education depends on being able to read, and studies show improvements in children with low literacy skills immediately after they started receiving assistance with their reading.
Without a doubt, the service learning module has been the best thing I have done at university. As well as being fun, it has given me a sense of leadership and responsibility to my community. The programme shows that there is more to the study of English than spending hours slaving away over poems and novels. I think what I will take most from this experience is that opportunities in education are not limited to a lecture hall or classroom like the one I was based in, but can be found all around us in our communities.