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TNLI: Action Research: Curriculum Implementation: Benefits and Challenges to Service-Learning with First Generation Immigrant Students


Despite the growing trend toward using service-learning curriculum in the classroom to promote civic participation, little research has been done regarding the benefits and challenges of service-learning for immigrant students.  According to an initial survey we conducted, many immigrant students feel disconnected with the communities to which they immigrate because they feel that few people care about what they have to say as newcomers and consequently, they may feel little responsibility toward the community.  Therefore, this study uncovers some of the benefits and challenges of using service-learning with first generation immigrant students through qualitative data such as student reflection papers, classroom observations, and participant-observer observations and reflections.  The analysis of this data shows that service-learning with immigrant students: (1) helps students discover their identity, (2) allows students to serve as a bridge between the larger American culture and their communities, and (3) validates academic learning as applicable to life.  However, there are challenges such as time and funding.  This study will contribute to future research on this topic, potentially leading to a shift in teacher education about the value of service-learning and funding from the government to carry out such projects.

Definition of Service Learning
According to Learn & Serve America, part of the independent federal agency Corporation for National and Community Service, “Service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” 

Problem Statement
As Humanities teachers, we asked students to question their civic responsibility.  During these conversations, we learned that our first generation immigrant students felt they could not make a difference in their communities.  Therefore, we wanted to investigate if a service-learning project would motivate them to become active participants. However, we tried service-learning last year and found the beautiful brochures, produced by students, on the ground, signaling to us that it wasn’t a very meaningful project.  Thus, we took more time to plan and get student input to create a project with more significance.  Additionally, current research shows that there is a growing trend in the use of service-learning in the classroom as an effective tool for civic participation. This led us to our research question.

Research Question
What are the benefits and challenges service-learning curriculum presents to first generation immigrant students?

Data Collection
We collected data from both the bilingual newspaper and the research project.

  • Baseline survey
  • Reflection papers
  • Classroom Observations (from outside observers)
  • Participant-Observer Observations and Reflections (from teacher researchers)
  • Post Project Survey

Data Analysis
We read through the data looking for patterns.  We then coded the data by highlighting similar patterns.  We typed these pieces of data, reread them, and looked back at the literature review for connections to current literature.  Finally, we labeled the patterns as follows:

  • Community – Research shows that students need to feel a sense of community before they will engage in civic participation (Evans).
    • Identifying with
    • Connecting to/Learning about
    • Bridging Native Language and American Community
  • Choice - Students make choices based on what is meaningful/important to them.  It gives students ownership of the project.
  • Voice & Resonance - Sense of being heard; contributing member of community; what they have to say has value; more opportunity students have to express voice, the more they want to contribute to society (Evans).
  • Skills – Students gained life and literacy skills by doing these projects.
  • Challenges – There were both teacher and student challenges.

Summary of Data
Benefits – Service learning:

  • makes immigrant students question who their community is.
  • enables immigrant students to learn more about the people and the resources in their communities.
  • creates opportunities for immigrant students to serve as a bridge connecting their immigrant communities to a larger American community.
  • provides a real audience of community members to hear student voice.
  • makes students feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.
  • provides choice thus giving students a sense of ownership.
  • gives students an opportunity to gain and utilize both academic and life skills.


  • Teachers can’t always foresee specific skills that students will need to complete the project independently.
  • It is difficult for teachers to balance curricular goals with student need and choice.
  • Because teachers must assess students formally on their projects, it is difficult to measure authentic feelings about service.
  • Service-learning can require funding which exceeds school budget allocations.

Key Findings
Do you feel you can change things in your community?

Shahzia Pirani-Mellstrom


Laura Berson

Research Focus:
Curriculum Implementation
Parental/Involvement & Immigrant Engagement

TNLI Affiliate:
New York City

The Brooklyn International High School

If you would like to learn more about Teachers Network Leadership Institute, please e-mail Kimberly Johnson for more information.



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