LARNet; The Cyber Journal of Applied Leisure and Recreation Research 
Combining WAC and Recreation:
Using Writing as a Tool to Facilitate a Service Learning Experience
(May 2006)
Deborah Smith, Southern Connecticut State University

Contact information:
Deborah Smith, Associate Professor
Southern Connecticut State University
Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies
501 Crescent Street, TE-5
New Haven, Connecticut 06515-1355
Phone: 203-392-6390

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is a growing movement across college campuses that encourages the use of writing to develop and communicate knowledge in and across disciplines. This article describes a pedagogical model developed by the author to use writing as a tool for both building required service learning competencies, and engaging students in post-event synthesis and evaluation.

 keywords: writing across the curriculum (WAC), service learning, Bloom’s taxonomy, process learning


There has been an increasing amount of attention given to the need to have students write across the curriculum (WAC). Originally fueled by such issues as faculty frustration with poor student writing skills, pressure to assess student learning, and pedagogy reform movements that encouraged such things as process learning and the use of expressive writing, the WAC movement began to gather momentum across campuses in the mid 1970s and has become a visible force for educational and pedagogical reform (Young, 1999; Walvoord, 1996).

A primary contribution of WAC has been that of encouraging teachers to explore the role of writing in learning ( Walvoord, 1996). Simply stated, the core principle of WAC is that students should use writing as a means to both develop and communicate knowledge in and across all disciplines (Young, 1999). Proponents of WAC believe that writing should be expanded beyond composition pedagogy and be used as a tool to help students learn specific subject matter as well as build confidence and effectiveness in communicating what they have learned (Walvoord). WAC encourages the belief that writing is most effectively taught within the context of specific discipline norms, values, and applications; rather than as a set of discrete skills delivered through only one university composition course (Howard & Jamieson, 1995). When used pedagogically, writing also becomes a strategy for engaging students as active learners, and increasing participation in and commitment to course material (Howard & Jamieson). This article describes a pedagogical model developed by the author that uses writing as a tool to both build service learning competencies as well as involve students in the process of post event synthesis and evaluation after their service learning experience has been completed.

Recently, there has also been much attention given to service learning because of increased focus on what has been called institutional citizenship: the civic responsibility of universities to assume an active role in community affairs, and a strong involvement in community problem solving (Astin, 1998). From this arises the question what can universities do to inculcate civic responsibility in students and involve them in civic process? Service learning has been a response to this question. It functions as civic education; a way to connect students to community and extend learning into the civic arena. As such, it has a moral and ethical objective. Our challenge, as educators, is to take service learning and give it a pedagogical thrust; to take activities that are conducted in the community, connect them to course content, and fully integrate them with course learning. As part of this pedagogical challenge and of particular interest to those of us committed to the use of writing in our curriculum, increasing attention is being given to the role that writing can play in service learning applications. A discussion follows of what service learning is and the model this author developed to employ writing pedagogically in a service learning experience

There have been many definitions set forth for service learning. Jacoby and Associates (1996) describe service learning as “a  form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development” (p.5). Williams and Lankford (1999) state that there are three components that must be included in service learning activities to maximize the student learning experience.

First, the service learning experience should be directly connected to academic subject matter. Williams and Lankford (1999) point out that teachers can accomplish this in a variety of ways that range from simply providing extra credit options for participation in a service learning experience to the use of the service project for performance assessment in lieu of a paper or an exam..

Second,  the service learning experience should facilitate positive student contribution to individuals and organizations in their community. This component directly connects students from the classroom to civic involvement and responsibility, and is driven by the ethical/moral objective of service learning. Finally, the service learning experience must require students to engage in some reflection process.

It is this third component, reflection, that many feel is the most important aspect of service learning because it is what differentiates service learning from a volunteer experience (Lott, Michelmore, Sullivan-Cosetti, & Wister, 1997). It is in this third component, reflection on the service learning experience, that writing has been commonly employed as a way to link course content with service, and have students take the learning that was situated in the community and connect it to academic objectives.

In many instances reflection is discussed as a final step of the academic learning process involving service learning (Williams & Lankford, 1999). When writing is employed for this type of reflection, it can facilitate an evaluative process that requires students to ruminate about their service learning experience and synthesize academic and service learning connections. It can also be used as an effective tool for demonstrating growth and learning. The pedagogical model this author sees emerging is this:

 The Tool                 –>            The Product             –>            Writing
 Service Learning    –>   Academic Learning        –>     Post-Event Reflections

The model can be articulated as follows: service learning is the tool that is used to promote academic learning objectives that are the product of teaching efforts. These learning outcomes are facilitated through post-event reflection which is oftentimes accomplished through writing activities.

However, reflection (and writing as the reflection method) can also be used in other ways to connect service learning with academic objectives. The remainder of this article describes a different pedagogical model that emerged for this author as she attempted to use writing as an important tool for not only having students reflect on the value of service learning but also, used writing to build skills needed to perform the service learning project. This model is the following:

              The Tool             –>           Writing              –>           The Product            –>           Writing
      Academic Learning    –>          Reflection          –>         Service Learning     –>  Post-Event Reflections

It can be verbalized in the following way: academic learning, which is the tool, employs reflection or writing as a way to help students think their way through the process necessary to produce the service learning initiative or product. A culminating evaluative reflection component is also accomplished through writing. This model differs from the first service learning pedagogical model outlined because service learning is no longer used as the tool for academic learning. Service learning becomes the product of learning objectives, a capstone experience, and writing is employed not only as a post-event evaluation tool, but also as the vehicle for process learning. An in-depth explanation of this model and its implementation follows.

Expanded Use of Writing with Service Learning

The impetus for the pedagogical model described here was a program design course for undergraduate students majoring in recreation. The purpose of this recreation course was to build student understanding of the overall process of planning, implementing, delivering, and evaluating recreation programs. It was felt that the addition of a service learning project directed at producing an actual special event in the community would provide students with the opportunity to apply and practice what they learned in class, as well as give them the experience of producing the kind of product they will be expected to deliver once they are professionals in the field.

A major challenge to instructors who employ a service learning model is to ensure not only that students master learning objectives but also that students produce a quality product that provides a real service to the community. The emphasis on quality is very important from the perspective of the faculty member overseeing the service learning initiative who wants to be proud of the endeavor, and from the perspective of department public relations because a poorly produced service initiative can jeopardize the department’s reputation as well as continuing relationships with various segments of the community.

The model being presented here emanated from the concern that students begin the semester without the requisite skills necessary to produce a quality service learning initiative. The focus of the course became one of process learning; guiding students through the steps necessary to plan, implement, and conduct a special event so that they not only learned the process of programming but also developed the skills to then use what they had learned to independently produce a quality product. One of the fundaments of WAC philosophy is that writing is a form of thinking and as such becomes a tool for helping students to draw connections between various subject matters, and to articulate what they really understand about course materials (Blakeslee, Hayes, & Young, 1994; Coppola & Daniels, 1996; Russell, 1997; Stout, 1997).  Writing was deemed an appropriate vehicle to incorporate into this class for facilitating both post-event reflection, and the skill development necessary to produce the service learning initiative. The following discussion explains the service learning experience created, and the writing intensive principles employed to teach students the programming process.

The Service Learning Project

The Service Learning Initiative was called the Evergreen Terrace Special Event. It was a series of special events that students planned, promoted, conducted, and evaluated at the largest family housing complex affiliated with the university. Evergreen Terrace is composed of 304 apartment units that house approximately 1200 residents. A large percentage of the residents are international with over forty countries represented. This setting provided students with the opportunity to experience programming for a diverse population that requires cultural sensitivity. Because of the complexity of the service learning component, the maximum enrollment for the Program Design class was thirty students. Students were divided into five groups the second week of the semester. Each group was given complete responsibility for producing one Friday night special event for the youth and families at the Evergreen Terrace complex. The special events took place the last five weeks of each semester with attendance ranging from 30 to 80 participants. Each event team was given a 75 dollar operating budget from the family housing recreation office. Each student group conducted a site visit at the beginning of the semester; solicited at least one donation per student to help fund event activities; developed an in-depth special event proposal and promotional fliers which were submitted three weeks prior to the event date; communicated frequently with the Evergreen Terrace Recreation Director about supplies and event details; and assumed full responsibility for all event planning, implementation, set-up, staffing, production, and clean-up. Events were usually two hours in length, with a wide range of activities and refreshments developed around organizing themes. Grade points were awarded for the site visit, group proposal, fliers, donations, event production, post-event evaluations, and individual effort which was determined by group members. 

Incorporating Writing Across the Curriculum Components

A fundamental criteria of many WAC programs and writing intensive courses (WIC) is that writing assignments and exercises be pedagogically integrated into course design and used as instructional tools for achieving course objectives (Blakeslee, Hayes, & Young, 1994). In accordance with WAC principles, writing strategies are designed for primarily two purposes: learning to write and writing to learn. Both learning to write and writing to learn assignments and exercises were incorporated into this course and used as a way to get students to think their way through the process of planning and implementing events and programs. Writing is recognized to be an important professional skill and learning to write applications pattern the kind of writing students are expected to be able to generate once they are on the job (McQueeney, 1999; Russell, 1997; & Stout, 1997). It was felt that writing exercises requiring students to emulate workplace documents would be motivational, because of the direct connection between writing requirements and job preparation. Writing to learn applications are based on the premise that writing is not separate from thinking and can function as a tool for helping students to think about, learn, and synthesize subject matter (Blakeslee, Hayes, & Young, 1994; Stout, 1997). Writing to learn assignments were designed to have students dissect the process of producing an event into its smallest pieces and concentrate on detail orientation. Teaching and writing assignments were also used in tandem to guide students through the sequential steps necessary to accomplish a culminating event.

To reinforce the importance of the writing requirements in this course, writing assignments and exercises replaced tests as the primary assessment methods. Test scores comprise only twenty percent of the course grade.

Developmental Use of Writing for Process Learning
The use of writing with intentional redundancy has been built into the design of this course, with each subsequent handling of materials demanding a higher level of application. Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of educational objectives was used as the organizing framework. In his taxonomy, Bloom classifies educational outcomes hierarchically into six levels of intended cognitive behaviors that are arranged from simple to complex. These levels are as follows: (1) knowledge (the recall of information); (2) comprehension (understanding of information, the ability to explain); (3) application (the use of information in particular and concrete situations); (4) analysis (being able to break information down into its constituent parts and explain relationships); (5) synthesis (being able to arrange and combine pieces and parts in patterns and structures not clearly there before); and (6) evaluation (judgments about the value of material and methods for given purpose). Students in the program design course were first introduced to new course materials (knowledge) through assigned readings and short lecture/discussion modules. The following developmental sequence of written exercises and assignments were then used to move students through the program planning process with increasingly higher levels of application required:

Written Worksheet Exercises –> Individual Written Projects –> Group Written Project–>
Service Learning Initiative (Evergreen Terrace Special Event) –> Written Post-event Evaluation

Following is an explanation of this sequence.

Written Worksheet Exercises. Written worksheet exercises were used to have students handle the “smallest pieces” of the programming process: the building block competencies that are needed in order for students to be able to accomplish the larger programming projects in the class. These worksheet exercises were directed at comprehension and application levels of learning and were used to reinforce materials presented in class, assess student understanding, or have students apply new information to real world situations.

Some of these worksheets were designed to be learning to write exercises. For example, one assignment required students to compose a memo because many recreation students are not accustomed to business forms of writing. Other worksheets employ writing to learn as a way to have students practice a specific competency. One example is an exercise that required students to develop goal and objective statements. Many recreation students have trouble learning how to program with intentionality, detail orientation, and specificity. Written exercises such as this one helped them to start thinking about designing programs to accomplish specific outcomes. Whether worksheets were done as out of class assignments or as in-class exercises they were collected, graded, and returned to students with the option to rewrite for full credit until the competency was mastered.

Individual Written Projects. Written worksheets served as a building block to individual written projects. Individual written projects were directed at comprehension and application levels of learning. There were several individual written projects in the class each of which had students focus on a different aspect of event production. The first week of class students wrote a short essay discussing the type of recreation setting and job they saw themselves being in five years from now. Students were then asked to use this information as the backdrop for their individual written projects. Student feedback at the end of the course indicated that this personalization of projects helped to create student buy-in and increase motivation, because  assignments were relevant to career endeavors.

The first individual written project was a special event proposal which required students to write out all the operational considerations for a special event of their creation. The considerations include such things as an in-depth description of the event; a map of the event/facility layout; personnel, supply and equipment needs; a schedule for the day that outlined all activities and the times, location, and staff for each; a time line indicating all key dates for preparation and post-event tasks; and a safety section that described risk management considerations. Worksheet competencies were reiterated in the individual project assignments as part of the building process. For example, students needed to include a memo with their event proposal which stated the purpose of the special event, and specific goals for and program outcomes anticipated from the event.

The second individual project that students completed was a line-item budget for the special event operationalized in the first project. The assignment required students to submit a cover memo, an expense/revenue breakdown that identified every event expense as well as all anticipated event revenue, and a summary sheet that listed the totals of all expense and revenue categories.

The third individual project was a promotion packet for the special event developed in the first project. The promotion packet included a cover memo, seasonal brochure entry, newspaper press release, radio public service announcement, and an event flier intended for mass distribution. It was emphasized that each of these promotion items were to be written creatively; and incorporate who, what, where, when, why, and how content in the formats prescribed by each of the targeted media.

All three individual written projects could be resubmitted for additional half credit to ensure student competence. Individual written projects served as building blocks to the culminating group written project which incorporated the requirements of all three individual projects. The individual project sequence wass completed before students submitted group written projects.

Group Written Project. The group written project was directed at application, analysis, and synthesis levels of learning. As a team, students were required to submit a group proposal for their actual Evergreen Terrace special event. This group proposal included all the components of the written individual special event proposal, as well as a budget for the special event, and an event flier which was distributed to Evergreen Terrace residents promoting the event. Group proposals were reviewed by the course instructor and the Director of Recreation at Evergreen Terrace before being returned to student teams to redo and resubmit for full credit. Writing became a social activity in the group written project and fostered a community of social support and learning. Students were given the opportunity to collaboratively apply what they had thus far learned  through class activities and individual written projects, to the collective planning and implementation of their actual Evergreen Terrace event.

The written group proposal also provided the instructor with a quality control mechanism. Many potential event “disasters” were averted because group proposals alerted the instructor to planning flaws and oversights that inevitably result from inexperience. In addition, the intentional redundancy of the course design from worksheets to individual written projects to the group written proposal helped to ensure that students had engaged in sufficient depth of planning to experience a successful event. The program design course is a core course in the recreation curriculum and is one of the first classes that students take as a recreation major. Students come into the class with an excitement about the career they have chosen to pursue. It is important that they complete the class retaining this excitement.  Nothing contributes to sustained enthusiasm more than a job well done.

Service Learning Outcome (Evergreen Terrace Special Event). Giving students the opportunity to conduct the event that they have meticulously planned also gives them the opportunity to exercise analysis and synthesis levels of learning. It is one thing to imagine the animation of an event, it is quite another to take planning components and see how they all play out in an actual event production. Even though the instructor provided students with considerable feedback on individual and group written proposals, there are some things that students can only learn when they themselves observe the ensuing relationships between the actual and the planned.

Written Post-Event Evaluation. Immediately after the Evergreen Terrace special event was concluded, student teams collectively debriefed the event. Students were then required to individually reflect on the experience with an in-depth, qualitative questionnaire that was submitted to the instructor the week following the event. This questionnaire was directed at an evaluation level of learning. Students were asked to critique the event and various aspects of their event planning, implementation, production, and student team dynamics with short answer questions that ask students to reflect on what went well and what they would do differently. Students were also asked to share what they have learned about programming, working in teams, and servicing diverse populations as a result of the Evergreen Terrace experience.

Concluding Thoughts
There is a significant amount of literature that has been generated on learning styles. Research has shown that a large percentage of recreation students have a preference for active learning situations that provide the opportunity for application and practice (Russell & Rothschadl, 1991). This is also a common profile of the overall undergraduate student population (Silberman, 1996). Writing is not commonly perceived to be an effective teaching method for students with this type of learning style profile. When writing is used as the instrument of a product driven class however, it can be effective with active learners, especially if they can see that the writing is necessary for achieving products that have professional value and application. In addition, the extensive use of writing can provide documentation of student competence for both the instructor and students. Recreation students include the written projects they complete for this class in their professional portfolios and when done well, use them as persuasive tools for demonstrating professional competence when they go for that first job.


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