Emerson is widely known for strong academic programs in visual media arts, creative writing, and sound production, among others. Through these and various arts and communication disciplines, the College also seeks to instill in its students a strong commitment to community service and leadership, reflected in the service learning course offerings coordinated by the Office of Academic Engagement and Community Action (AECA), and in the recent creation of theElma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning and Research.
Writing, Literature & Publishing’s Beth Parfitt (senior lecturer) and Stephen Shane (part-time faculty) have piloted service learning courses to help infuse this commitment into the creative writing program at both the undergraduate and graduate level here. Students in this program teach writing and tutor students for success on standardized tests at two local schools. Parfitt, who oversees the academic engagement efforts of Emerson graduate students serving at East Boston High School (EBHS), said the work was born from an urgent need to increase Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores. This system of tests are designed to both assess student learning, and hold school districts accountable to standards set by federal mandates. If a school’s students consistently don’t perform well, it can be subjected to corrective action from the state, “The school was in the danger zone,” Parfitt said. “If the student body couldn’t improve test scores, the state was going to come in and take over.” Parfitt deemed her program a success, noting that “almost every tutored student scored a level higher” than they had on the last test. She said the feedback from Emerson students has been overwhelmingly positive, and that the program will not only continue, but will grow: Emerson students will now help the EBHS high schoolers prepare for tests and future academic success in addition to teaching creative writing.
Shane created a similar collaboration with Charlestown High School(CHS) centered around tutoring, helping high schoolers prepare for the MCAS, and also working with the CHS students on college and scholarship applications. He noted that while CHS was never in the “danger zone” like EBHS, it has a high population of students for whom English is a second language, presenting a unique set of rewards, learning opportunities, and challenges throughout the relationship.
Suzanne Hinton, director of the AECA, noted that the engagement was mutually-beneficial in that the CHS students were not just receiving service, but were helping educate the Emerson students—exactly the kind of partnership that defines how Emerson wants to engage with schools, nonprofits, and government organizations. Through teaching and tutoring, Shane’s students learned about their own teaching styles, as well as how to adapt them for different types of learners. This exercise helped them achieve greater success in classrooms at both CHS and Emerson. Emerson students also learned lessons big and small by hearing presentations from the CHS students on what it is like to immigrate to America, or to grow up in America as the child of immigrants. This kind of partnership also serves to connect neighbors who may not have met otherwise, Shane remarked. Many of the CHS and Emerson students live in Chinatown, yet were strangers until this experience.
Shane plans to continue to have his spring semester students academically engaged at CHS. “You work within a system and empower young writers to move through this system into the world at large,” Shane said, “and that is really powerful.”