Service Experiences in Grade 9 English spring out of Novel Study

by LeeAnne Lavender (Service Learning Coach)

It began with a story.

In revising the English 9 syllabus for the 2020/21 school year, teachers decided to bring a graphic novel into the mix. With so many excellent graphic novels available, there were many titles that would have served as an excellent anchor for a unit of study, but the Concordia team wanted something that would challenge students to engage with a global issue and to help them walk in someone else’s shoes.

They chose Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano. This beautiful and heart-breaking book tells the story of a young boy from Ghana named Ebo who attempts to follow his brother and sister to Europe. There is hope and tragedy in the story, and Ebo has to face many challenges, from crossing the desert to weathering perilous days on a makeshift boat on the Mediterranean Sea. His story brings to life the statistics about the plight of so many migrants and refugees in our world today.

The English team, captained by lead teacher Dagne Furth, first analyzed the narrative structure and style of the book, and then linked the story to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), asking students to create connections between the text and the targets of various SDGs.

This led to a full service learning cycle where students, in groups, chose one SDG and 1-2 specific targets, and then created a central question to guide active MISO research (media, interviews, surveys and observations).

Questions were varied and thoughtful, ranging from questions like “How can nonprofit and government organizations, as well as individuals, offer sustainable income to those who don’t have access to necessary sustainable resources?” to “How can we, as students and faculty at Concordia, improve access to water for people in Ethiopia, Nigeria and DR Congo?”. Students focused on SDGs about gender equity, access to clean water, poverty, reduced inequalities, sustainable cities and communities, and more.

The MISO interviews were stellar, with students interviewing Concordia teachers, community members and NGO representatives from around the world. One group researching sustainable solutions to malaria deaths interviewed a representative of Nothing But Nets ( Another group researching the needs of Syrian refugees living in Jordan interviewed Jordan Hattar, founder of Hope 4 Refugees ( and four Syrian refugees who have been living in Jordan for multiple years. A group researching human trafficking talked to representatives from three NGOs (Stop the Traffik, Trace Kenya and Haart Kenya). Dozens of knowledgeable and experienced people in the field shared stories with students. The interviews fostered empathy and awareness among the grade 9 students.

Students learned how to conduct surveys when a senior student who had taken Concordia’s Big Data course shared a screencast on how to identify a diverse sample set to gather valid survey data. Athena R., who is part of the graduating class of 2021, created this screencast in her free time to help the ninth graders understand how to approach this complex task. Some groups, as a result, created excellent surveys that yielded interesting data. One group, for instance, asked a simple question of grade 9 boys and girls, asking if they felt Concordia was doing a good job of creating a fair and equitable environment for all genders. The boys’ responses were aligned and 100 per cent of respondents felt that, yes, we were doing a good job. The girls’ responses, though, were markedly different, showing that almost ¾ of the girls felt there was significant room for improvement. This one survey question prompted the two students to explore SDG #5 (Gender Equality) and create an action plan to open an Instagram account where girls attending Concordia could share stories about their life experiences as a way to build empathy and understanding among peers across genders.

As an overview of some of the action plans created by students, here is a snapshot of the work of several groups:

·      funding the purchase of 30 malaria nets through the NGO Nothing But Nets

·      creating a proposal for a high school experiential learning trip to rural China to work on a water/sanitation project

·      social media campaign to share the stories of Syrian refugee women living in Jordan in order to spread awareness and build empathy

·      writing articles for the Help 4 Refugees website to highlight personal stories of Syrian refugees living in Jordan and to support the work of the NGO

·      creating curriculum for a homeroom session to raise awareness about human trafficking

·      creating a video (public service announcement) about plastics in the oceans to show to peers and parents to raise awareness and discourage the use of single-use plastics

·      creating curriculum for a homeroom session to raise awareness about Gapminder and Kiva to unpack some root causes of SDG #1 (Zero Poverty)

·      creating a prototype app to develop water conservation habits by tracking data, and sending users reminders, tips and stories

Students making final presentations about their service learning experiences. 

“My biggest takeaway from this experience was that no one chooses where they’re born and our basic needs (as humans) are all the same,” said ninth grader Carson. “We often take what we have for granted and sometimes don’t even know we’re taking our privileges for granted.” Carson was part of the group that researched sustainable solutions for malaria deaths. They are currently raising funds for Nothing But Nets, and hope to purchase 30 nets by the end of June.

“What struck me was how much we didn’t know about the situation about water access worldwide,” said ninth grader Andrew. “Before, I would take 20-30 minutes to shower but now I am taking much shorter showers because of what I’ve learned.”

Andrew’s group is organizing a simulation for the entire ninth grade class at the end of the school year to help peers understand water access issues and root causes.

“My group researched marine life and climate change, and I learned there are so many simple thing we can do to reduce our carbon footprint and help the oceans,” said Evan. “Using less plastic, reducing our energy usage and not supporting companies that contribute to overfishing… these are all things we can do.”

When asked if they learned more about the text and the world through this learning experience, as compared to a traditional research assignment involving an essay or presentation, all three students nodded their heads vigorously and commented “yes”. They said their learning in this unit had been deep and meaningful.

For a summative assessment, groups created formal oral presentations to share their service learning experiences with their classes, and the semester 2 final exam also featured a reflection where students could process their learning and reflect on what they had learned.

Reflection is an essential ingredient of a service learning experience, and of learning that fosters new mindsets, and the semester exam is an excellent example of how to use reflection as a summative tool. Students summarized their service experience and SDG foundation in an introductory paragraph, and then used three body paragraphs to reflect on how their experience built skills in three areas of Concordia’s deeper learning framework. This framework is used in high school courses to reflect 21st century skills such as agility, initiative, purpose and more. Using criteria from the framework, students connected what they had experienced in the unit with these core skills and their own growth/development. In a final paragraph, students pulled all of this reflection together using the framing of our school’s Student Learning Outcomes (insightful learner, effective communicator, reflective spiritual being, active global citizen and principle-centered leader).

Every ninth grade student at Concordia was able to engage with this meaningful service learning experience in May of this year, and plans are already afoot to build more layers into this unit next year. Congratulations to teachers Dagne Furth and Naimah Bazemore, and ELL teacher Iris Frankel, for their work in teaching this unit.

Grade 9 English teachers Naimah Bazemore (left) and Dagne Furth (right) and I after a lesson co-teaching some portions of the service learning cycle in May. 

Below: a video about plastics in the oceans created by one grade 9 group.