A Week Without Walls: Service Learning in Action

In early October, something spectacular happens at ASF. The entire grade 9 generation travels to Las Estacas, Morelos for a week of learning outside the classroom – literally a week without walls.

An inaugural event entered its 10th year. While the venue has changed over the years, the purpose remains the same: connecting students to each other and the community. However, this year’s excursion saw an evolution in the curricula. This year, grade 9 students were tasked to create a field study. History teacher, Roberto Jones explains, “The academic activity required students to create a field study of Las Estacas through an economic perspective, a humanities perspective, and a science perspective in an attempt to holistically understand the processes that happen in the park.” In addition, a new experience in service learning was coordinated by Upper School Student Activities Specialist, Jennifer Byrnes and Upper School Dean of Students, Chris Muller. Both activities enriched the experience for all.

Las Estacas is located in the Municipality of Tlaltizapán in the State of Morelos. With its natural beauty and unique features, it is a rich place for discovery and learning. The students were required to turn in their phones and focus on the activities of the day led by the Explora camp directors and the assigned field study. Grade 9 student, Ana Sofía Cadena said she struggled at first without her phone but quickly adapted, “I liked that we were disconnected and it made us more connected to each other.” The activities throughout the week required students to work together as teams to complete tasks. Isabella McCawley, grade 9 student, enjoyed the independent time to swim and explore, “I also really liked the team building activities. Looking back, it required a lot of patience, but we really had a lot of fun working together.” During the independent time groups worked together on their assigned field study due at the end of the week.

Not far from the park is a local school in the town of Temilpa Nuevo about two kilometers away, where Byrnes and Muller were able to connect the Week Without Walls event with a project at the school. Mariano Matamoros Primary [VAM1] School, named after a hero in the fight for Mexican Independence, was severely damaged during the September 19 earthquake. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but several buildings collapsed requiring the campus to close. In the interim, a local storefront hosted the students so they could continue their learning. “If you can think back about how you felt when we were sent home the day of the earthquake and the days after, you will remember how you wanted to go back to school and have everything return to normal. These kids didn't have normal until May and they're still in the process of making the repairs.” Muller shared. Currently reconstruction continues and the space where students used to play is home to new construction and the space where the students could play is quite muddy. Working with the director of the school in late August, Muller and Byrnes, agreed to “make over” a large patio into an area for students to play.

Back on ASF’s campus, Muller and Byrnes recruited the help of others, Byrnes explains, “Clemen Aguilar and I worked on getting the appropriate paperwork to the SEP offices in Morelos and developed a logistics plan.” Working with Susan Seibel (MS Art teacher), Byrnes created mock-ups of what the new playground would look like. Consideration of colors, gathering of materials all had to be coordinated before the October event and the timeline was short but according to Muller, the opportunity to create a powerful learning experience was a true driving force.

Grade 9 student, Peyton Tattersfield recalls first learning about the event, “I remember them coming to our homerooms to talk about the Week Without Walls, and I was excited to learn about the school we would be helping.” The Link Crew, a student leadership organization in the Upper School, visited grade 9 homerooms to promote Week Without Walls and to give the students background on the school and community they would be working with.

Once arriving at Las Estacas, all hands were ready and the students were eager to help. While grade 9 teachers worked with the Explora staff and taught lessons on Economic, Ecology and Humanities, Muller, Byrnes and Dan Godshall, PE teacher  implemented a plan of action at the school. “We drew chalk lines, implemented some geometry and prepared the ground for the students to come in and paint.” Byrnes explained. Due to the time constraints, Muller is a bit regretful that the students did not have a more of hands on role in the development of the project, “Next year we are really going to tie the projects and the learning together put more ownership of it on the students.” Nevertheless, grade 9 student Natalia Rooks wouldn’t change a thing, “I loved seeing their faces at the inauguration of the playground. I liked that something that I did made someone else smile.”

The students did come in and paint the playground with numbered circles, four-square courts, a hopscotch track, and a big color-wheel. At the inauguration, ASF students taught the elementary students camp songs they had learned throughout the week, played games with them and encouraged everyone to participate. During the week leading up to the service learning project, the attending teachers from ASF are working closely with the students. Isabel Duque, Humanities teacher, reflected, “I really enjoyed the experience. It gave me the possibility to bond with my students in a different way and get to know them better. I saw the same thing among them in terms of their interaction and bonding possibilities.” Roberto Jones considered the location, “The students step out of their routine to explore this new place and through the many activities planned for them. The students learned more about each other whether they were already friends or someone new. It was interesting to see how privilege was deconstructed as the students helped out with the beautification of a public-school patio.”

As with all experiences hindsight is 20/20. For Muller and Byrnes, this was a growth experience for everyone involved that truly left a place better than it was found. Byrnes sees value in this week, “This project gave our students an opportunity to help rebuild and establish relationships outside of our campus. They gave their time and hard work to create a beautiful space for the students at Mariano Matamoros Elementary School.” In the future, a more direct connection between the curriculum and project is planned. Byrnes plans are already in motion for next year. “My hope is that we visit the school and students at Mariano Matamoros Elementary School next year during Week Without Walls with the next generation of  grade 9 students so they can get an idea of what work we did there. I would love to find another school in the area and repeat this activity, to bring color, light and play to schools in need.

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