Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 2, April 2008

Procession of Lessons

Shayna Israel


An enthusiastic and bright-eyed me entered the Civic Engagement Office with high hopes on the day of my Summer of Service interview. Answering each question, I spoke passionately from my heart. In retrospect, I can diagnose myself with an acute case of idealism. Two semesters later, I still consider myself an idealist, but my idealism is matched by a sharp realism that has made my vision—my vision for my life and my vision of life—more acute.

Sponsored by the Civic Engagement Office, Summer of Service is a funded opportunity for students to live, serve and learn together. Five students live together in a house on campus, spend 32 hours each week volunteering for a service or activism organization in the Philadelphia region and spend an additional three to five hours each week in service-learning activities. My service field site was the Chester Education Foundation (CEF). Located in Chester, Pennsylvania, the CEF is a nonprofit educational partner established in 1988 by a consortium of local and state leaders. Its mission is to support educational excellence and promote community revitalization in the Chester-Upland School District through providing direct services and capacity-building initiatives. There, I interned for a few weeks and then co-taught Language Arts—reading comprehension, spelling and grammar—to ninth and tenth graders in their School to Career Program.

My field site was the place of my greatest struggles and my greatest joys. I loved working with my students, my co-teacher, my supervisor and other employees of the CEF. We laughed, joked, shared personal stories, praised each other, thanked each other and helped each other in ways that made our days go much faster. However, it was difficult to be socialized into the rules and culture of the professional world when much of the world that I had experienced thus far as a student was so different. Throughout the summer, I began to appreciate both the struggles and the joys only after I realized how each experience, difficult or easy, worked to strengthen my character and perspective.

Before I became acclimated to the organization’s inner workings, I thought that the CEF could do this or that better. As I gained more exposure to and experience with the organization, I realized that the organization had a logic that worked very well for its context. Once I saw all the things the CEF had to deal with—limited resources, school districts, attendance problems—its strategies and methodologies made perfect sense. This taught me to reserve judgment when encountering a new setting and to observe first, taking in the entire context, before being critical.

After the internship ended and the teaching began, new challenges emerged. I had to learn quickly to become a disciplinarian, educator and counselor for my students. They did not warn me before they acted in ways that required me to shift roles. I was thankful for my co-teacher, Mrs. Johnson, who was a teacher in Chester High School. It was hard for me to learn to discipline students if they broke rules or acted out of order, so Mrs. Johnson mostly took on that role, allowing me to watch and learn, until I was ready to do so myself.

I really loved my teaching and counseling roles because I was not only giving advice or presenting lessons, but I was also becoming a better student and listener. I acquired the ability to sense when a student needed someone to talk to and would pull students aside in class or in the cafeteria and let them know that I was there to talk if they needed me. Doing this eased my job as a teacher because the students knew that I was not only telling them what to do, but also was willing to listen to them and change lesson plans or activities to suit their requests or needs.

It was rewarding to see how much the students appreciated my teaching. One student told me that she did not know before this class that she used nouns when she spoke. Another student told me that I was making him a better writer. Yet another student said that I made learning to spell words fun. It was beautiful to know that one experience could heavily affect those students, especially since this experience profoundly affected me. This experience affirmed the idea that service is not when a particular group or person acts on or for another, but when both parties are engaged in service and learning with and for each other.

Despite the sense of achievement I felt and that I think my students felt, too, I often wondered if I were losing myself and my convictions. For example, there was a strict dress code that required pressed, professional clothing. I did not own any professional clothing, and ironing wasn’t a skill I was eager to acquire. I had not bought clothes for a year because my financial resources were limited and because I had promised myself to reduce the amount of clothing I owned. I thought that the notion of making workers buy professional clothing was elitist and classist. Aside from that, I had made a conscious decision not to follow fashion conventions. I consider my self-presentation a political statement about the importance of making choices.

I addressed this challenge in three ways: one, I saw the professional world as having a culture, and I imagined it asking me to respect its mode of dress even though I may not agree with its beliefs; two, I thought of my work attire as a costume that I had to wear temporarily; and three, I bought my professional wardrobe from thrift stores and spiced up my outfits a little bit. I felt reasonably comfortable on this middle ground.

Through the Summer of Service program, I have grown tremendously as a person and have made invaluable connections. The opportunity to make mistakes, struggle, grow and learn with the support of the Civic Engagement Office was a vital blessing. This same office continued to support me by sponsoring a Praxis III course that allowed me to sustain my work with the CEF throughout the school year.

Participating in Summer of Service was like marching through a procession of lessons. I began with so many ideas and expectations, but I had to come to terms with a world of different ideas and expectations. This procession of lessons has helped me prepare for a career devoted to bringing peace, possibility and beauty to the world. While this may seem as idealistic as I sounded the day of my Summer of Service interview, I assure you that there is a big difference. I bring a fresh perspective to my work—a new 20/20 vision built on idealism and realism, hope and practicality, dream and honesty.

Shayna Israel ’08 is working toward a degree in sociology. She currently leads a poetry/rap club for high school students through the Praxis program and participates in the Teaching and Learning Initiative. Shayna is a member of the Bryn Mawr College feminist rap crew 3X a LADY CREW and is actively pursing her career as a rapper, teacher and performance poet.