In her book, Great Ideas: Using Service-Learning and Differentiated Instruction to Help Your Students Succeed, P. J. Gent describes service-learning as “service-based learning while helping to meet the needs of others, the community or the environment” (p. 2). In this idea-filled book, she provides an overview of the use of service-learning within an inclusive classroom environment. This text is as much about differentiated learning as it is about service-learning, and it provides clear and compelling examples of their integration. The first three chapters provide an introduction to the history of and rationale for service-learning and the implementation of service-learning within an inclusive framework. The remaining seven chapters detail the steps and implementation of service-learning: preparation, investigation, action, reflection, evaluation, celebration, and continuation. Each chapter opens with a vignette placing the use of service-learning within a classroom context. Those vignettes and student profiles were some of the strongest parts of the text. It is through those vignettes that the purpose and applicability of service-learning within an inclusive-learning environment becomes clear.
From the outset, the author clearly articulates why service-learning is important and how it can provide an organizing and central focus for inclusive classrooms. Service-learning can lead to increased engagement, increased collaboration with peers, and connection to the larger community. The author distinguishes among community service, volunteerism, school-based service, and service-learning—describing service-learning as authentic, needed within the community, and fully integrated into the academic part of the day, rather than as extracurricular or mandated. The author also stressed the importance of building collaborative relationships between the students and the groups they aimed to “serve.” Rather than groups simply “doing for” or “giving,” the author argues for involvement of the recipients at all stages of the process. I found this especially important, given the fact that students with disabilities are often constructed as the objects of “help” from their nondisabled peers, often without the reciprocity or collaborative problem solving that would make that relationship mutually beneficial and empowering. The author's conceptualization of service with rather than service to provides a model for collaborative relationships within the classroom as well.
Gent also stresses the importance of connecting service-learning activities and outcomes to standards-based, grade-level, curricula and Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals. The emphasis on standards-based curricula sets this approach apart from more traditional, community-based learning or add-on service projects, which tend to be decontextualized from academic content. The author further argues for a balance of functional life skills with standards-based academic content, although at times the presentation seemed skewed to the functional. Also, some of the examples positioned the students with more significant needs in nonacademic or noncurricular roles, despite the author's emphasis on having respectful roles for all students (p. 123). Fortunately, the vast number of specific examples provided a diversity of illustrations of meaningful engagement.
At times the book felt more like a textbook or workbook on differentiated instruction than on service-learning, but rather than being a detractor, the intimate connection was a benefit. The examples and related tools and templates demonstrated the natural connection and ease of integration. Instead of presenting service-learning as one more thing to do in a busy academic day, the author made a compelling argument for the “naturalness” of service-learning. Chapter 7, which focused on thinking critically and developing understanding, was especially useful, providing examples that extended far beyond application to service-learning. In the chapter, the author provided an extensive list of ways to meaningfully engage with and reflect on the experience of service-learning. I have already used and presented several of these strategies in my course on collaborative teaching for inclusive education. Throughout the book, any time I would ask the question in my head, “But how would you actually do that?” I would turn the page and find a specific example to illustrate the concept or a reproducible graphic organizer to make implementation of the ideas seamless.
It is clear that the author was interested in locating this practical text within a research-based framework. However, there were times when those research sections at the end of each chapter felt a bit forced. As this is an emerging area of research, it is understandable that the empirical research base is limited. Perhaps the research evidence could have been embedded within the chapter itself, rather than tacked on as a separate section.
Because this is a book focused on the integration of service-learning initiatives within inclusive classrooms, attention to the meaningful integration of students with more complex needs was important. The inclusion of many examples involving students considered to have more significant disabilities is a clear strength of the book. However, authors must be cautious when recommending paraprofessional support as a primary answer for providing such student-specific supports. Although paraprofessional support is vital in inclusive classrooms, teachers need to be careful not to relegate the education of students with the most complex needs to paraprofessionals. Research is clear about the potentially detrimental impact of intrusive adult support (see Causton-Theoharis & Burdick, 2008; Giangreco, Edelmen, Luiselli, & McFarland, 1997).
The biggest concern I had with the text was the author's unwillingness to enter into the discussion on the importance of inclusive education for all students. She stated, “[I]t is beyond the scope of this book to discuss the controversy [over full inclusion]” (p. 24). I understand that this was a practical and not a theoretical text, but the refusal to clearly articulate a preference for inclusion of all students leaves the door open for readers to argue, “Not this student, not this activity.” The examples and materials were so strong; the inclusive message could have been equally strong. All students, regardless of perceived severity of disability, deserve access to rich and meaningful curriculum, including service-learning. Authors supportive of inclusive education need to take every opportunity to articulate that vision with specific examples of how this is possible.
Despite these limitations, this book is a strong addition to the literature on differentiated instruction and inclusive education. The integration of service-learning, not as a mandated community service or “fun project,” but as an organizing framework for meaningful inclusive education is both timely and important. I applaud Gent on her practical and clear examples and reproducible materials, which will make application of this book's content easy and meaningful. I can already see where this book will be useful in my own courses for preservice teachers.