Whitman students learn by teaching, serving

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From left to right, Whitman College students Amy Gipsman, Yonas Fikak and Kate McMurchie serve as volunteer teachers, delivering lessons on the civil rights era to Deborah Shade's Berney Elementary fifth-graders.

The vast majority of Whitman College students quickly embrace the charm, beauty, pace and complexity of Walla Walla, often on their initial campus visit as a prospective student.

By the time they graduate, nearly 75 percent of them will have participated in a local community service initiative. They continually look for new ways to engage with their home-away-from-home during their college years.

Every semester hundreds of Whitman students volunteer, learning about and working on important local issues ranging from reducing homelessness and hunger to spending time with senior citizens, restoring streams and taking care of abandoned pets.

Often Whitman has the good fortune to be able to partner with Walla Walla University and Walla Walla Community College, as we will do for Spring Service Day in late April.

On top of this, Whitman students also seek out additional ways to expand their classroom learning beyond the campus so they can put into practice some of the lessons and skills their coursework provides.

As one response to their desire to integrate their on and off campus worlds, over the past two years Whitman has taken several important steps to expand our ability to connect our students with roles in our community that benefit local organizations and provide powerful learning experiences.

Under the leadership of President George Bridges, Whitman has created a focus on bringing the community and the college closer together, to explore ways of helping our students better understand and be able to contribute to their temporary home and also to try to help make a positive difference in Walla Walla.

The recent "Whitman Teaches the Movement" program exemplifies this focus and how the college is working to bridge on- and off-campus learning and add value to Walla Walla. WTTM reflected a partnership with Walla Walla Public Schools and was supported by the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The program was designed to increase the understanding of the civil rights era in America. It is one of the most challenging eras in our nation's history, and it's a topic about which Washington state has minimal educational standards.

Whitman developed this project with our local school system for three key reasons:

To respond to the great number of Whitman students who want to become teachers - this year we have a record number of successful applicants to the prestigious and competitive Teach For American program. The program provided real-time, real classroom experience.

To build upon the successful volunteer programs we've developed in partnership with the district, including our mentoring program, Story Time project, College Coaches initiative, Whitman Institute for Scholastic Enrichment and Science Outreach.

To counter the state's low curriculum expectations for teaching about civil rights history.

WTTM involved 100 Whitman students who had received intensive training specifically for this project. In January they served as guest teachers in nearly 50 second-, fifth-, seventh- and 11th-grade classes in schools throughout the district.

The program resulted in several mutual gains: The school kids had the chance to meet interesting college students and learn about an important moment in our nation's history. Whitman students were able to teach a real class to real students, meet some fantastic public school teachers and gain insights into our community's diverse population.

Whitman is always looking for ways to help our students contribute to Walla Walla. These kinds of initiatives are powerful learning moments as well as meaningful community engagement. We welcome ideas about how local organizations and businesses would like to partner to develop more of these win-win initiatives.

Noah Leavitt is assistant dean for student engagement at Whitman College. He can be reached at leavitns@whitman.edu.

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