English professor Libby Gruner’s children’s literature class has universal appeal, and the two sections she offers every fall are almost always overflowing. But students in the class are responsible for more than just reading significant books for children and young adults. For the past seven years, with the assistance of the University's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), Gruner has made community-based service learning a part of her curriculum. Students explore first-hand how books impact school-aged children by interacting with kids in the greater Richmond community.

This past summer, Gruner was one of 13 faculty fellows to participate in a CCE workshop on integrating community-based learning components into courses. Staff in the CCE have worked hard to establish lots of new community partnerships with schools, hospitals, nonprofits and other organizations throughout the area, which means faculty who want to take learning out of the classroom have many great community placements from which to choose.

In past years, service learning in Gruner’s class has been optional. After completing the CCE workshop, however, she revamped her syllabus and now requires all students enrolled in her children’s literature course to participate in some kind of community project.

“Integrating community based-learning into this course benefits my students and the community partners alike,” said Gruner, who meets regularly with the 12 other faculty fellows in the CCE's program to discuss problems and share ideas. "There is not as much an emphasis on service; it’s more about students' involvement in the community."

Several of Gruner's students tutor elementary and middle school students while others volunteer for childhood literacy programs. Still others are examining the way children's literature is marketed in libraries and bookstores.

Though service learning is now a requirement of the course, Gruner’s two classes, numbering over 50 students between them, present a variety of scheduling needs. The time commitments of the projects vary to accommodate student athletes, Bonner Scholars and first-year students still adapting to the college workload. Gruner makes a point of discussing all the projects during class time; sometimes the conversation is so engrossing that it takes up the entire class period, which Gruner never regrets.

“It’s a great way to parlay their study of English into the real world,” she said. “They’re learning about the way that this particular kind of literature impacts the community, and they’re learning it through personal experience.”

One way students learn about literature’s impact on children is through volunteering for programs such as Reach Out and Read, Church Hill Activities and Tutoring, the William Byrd Community House and the Youth Life Foundation. All of these organizations focus on children and education, especially reading. While most of the programs focus on tutoring, especially for those kids who might otherwise slip through the cracks, Reach Out and Read works a little differently.

Since early childhood literacy is a strong predictor of future academic success, Reach Out and Read volunteers go into pediatricians’ offices in under-resourced areas and read to the children in the waiting rooms. The benefits are two-fold—volunteers get kids interested in books and reading and engage the kids in counting and word games at the same time that they’re modeling read-aloud skills to parents. 

“It's so awesome reading these books in class and then getting to see kids so enthusiastic about them during the volunteer work,” said Amy Nicholas, ’11. “Not only do we have the opportunity to read the books to children but we get to have them read to us.”

Students volunteering in community schools have a diverse group of elementary and middle schools to choose from in the area. On one end of the spectrum is the Orchard House School, a private, all-girls school where Gruner’s students hold reading groups to discuss the novels that the girls are reading. The school’s small size (about 80 students total, divided into classes of 20) and the high caliber of teacher (many hold doctorates) create a distinctive learning environment.

“The girls' style of learning at Orchard House is fascinating,” said Eric Rudofker, ‘11. “They are passionate about what they read, and they read a lot! Even the way they talk about a character from a novel is impressive—they are observant of the characters they read about, and usually quite emotionally invested in their novels. Their style of education really does try to ride the boundary between pleasure reading and the study of literature.”

“They’re given an immense amount of freedom with the books they can choose, and I've found that, because of that freedom, they all love to discuss their readings,” said Barrett Neale, ’10. “It’s a great learning environment to observe. They all recommend books for each other to read and they’re always so excited to talk to us when they come because they love talking about books. It's really encouraging to see how excited they are about their schoolwork!”

The students also spend time at schools like Chandler Middle School, struggling to maintain its accreditation and located in an under-resourced neighborhood. Students assist in the classrooms, doing any number of tasks, as well as participate in after-school programs as tutors. Often, Gruner says, due to large class sizes and overwhelmed teachers, her students wind up doing crowd control. They report unruly behavior, frustrated teachers and many kids struggling with basic material. Bonner Scholar Hunter Cuniff, ’09, has been volunteering at Chandler Middle School since he enrolled at Richmond.

“There have been few more challenging or rewarding experiences than those I have had at Chandler,” he said. “It sometimes takes a great deal of time to break through to these kids but if it happens once, you’re hooked.”

Bonner Scholars, who are already required to complete 10 hours of volunteer work per week, find that integrating their service experience into a course like children’s literature helps them gain a different perspective.

“This is the fourth year that I have worked with students at Crestview Elementary,” said Elissa Yorgey, ’09. “Taking children's literature has enabled me to look at what I am doing at Crestview in an entirely different light. I now find myself thinking about the books we are reading to the students, or which ones they choose for us to read.  I now spend more time thinking about the benefits of certain books or stories over others for the students I am working with.”

All of the students in children’s literature post about their experiences online on the University’s social network, groups.richmond.edu. Using this dynamic discussion tool, Gruner can comment on what the students report, making suggestions or giving encouragement. The students can also see and comment on what their peers are doing in their placements. The comparative experiences, in Gruner’s opinion, have been an important addition to the subjects they cover in the classroom.

“So often in class we generalize about children; they become a monolith,” she said. “My students are now seeing all kinds of different children interacting with literature in varying ways and they’re bringing those observations back to class. Community-based service learning breaks down the generalization.”