Exemplary Essay on "Life's Best Lessons Are Outside the Classroom"

WSU Citizen Scientists

Citizen scientists practice place-based education as they identify shoreline plants and creatures on Whidbey Island, Washington, part of a Washington State University Extension project to assess and catalog marine life on local beaches.

Photo by WSU Extension Beach Watchers

Peter Hasle, a student in Professor Sarah Zale's English course at Shoreline Community College in north Seattle, Washington, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article, "Life's Best Lessons are Outside the Classroom" by Daniel Fireside.

Writing prompt: In his article, "Life's Best Lessons are Outside the Classroom," Daniel Fireside reports on a group of schools that are emphasizing place-based learning, where students not only learn about their local environments, but also actively seek solutions to the problems they encounter. What has your service-learning project taught you about social injustice and how you can be part of the solution? Do you think this kind of experience is essential to a good education? If so, why?

Read author Daniel Fireside's response to Peter Hasle's essay here.

An Opportunity to Take Back My Education

by Peter Hasle

I’m an international student from Denmark, a country that teaches in a way different than many other countries. Denmark is a country that focuses on class discussions, group work, and making problem statements. In addition, Danish high school students have more than twice as many oral than writing exams. We, in Denmark, might think that we are educating students who are better at critical thinking and problem solving in the real world. After doing my service-learning project, I realized that this was definitely something both the American and Danish education systems could learn from. Through my service-learning project about international students and their work limitations, I learned that social injustice is closer than we might think. Going out of the classroom and gaining experiences by compassionately listening to people, I became educated in a whole new way.       

Learning outside the classroom was a new form of education for me. I must admit, I wasn’t too excited to take an English 101 class at Shoreline Community College. I thought it would be like Danish English classes, where students analyze and interpret texts and books, which I find rather dull most of the time. This English class would be nothing like my previous educational experiences. For once, we were told to close our books and get out of the classroom. In this class, we were to do a final project about a certain group of people who suffered from social injustice. Everything we would do in the class would have a connection to the final project about social injustice. We, the students, would go out in our community and listen to these people to learn and understand their situation better.

By going out in the community and getting hands-on experience, you gain much deeper insight and knowledge about problems such as social injustice. For my final project I chose international students and the social injustice they suffer from work limitations. International students are only allowed to work within the school campus, which makes the numbers of jobs available for the international students limited. For my project, I went out in my community and listened to an international student from Hong Kong.

By using compassionate listening skills, I found out how she had experienced social injustice. In class we learned and practiced compassionate listening techniques, and some of us also attended a compassionate listening course outside of class. Compassionate listening is when you listen to a person in a non-judgmental and non-adversarial way. You want to analyze the person’s feelings and values to understand his or her situation better. I used compassionate listening to the best of my abilities when listening to the international student. She told me how frustrating and irritating it is to have so few job options and how hard it can be to get one. From listening to her I got knowledge about this social injustice in a way no textbook or Internet source could provide. I learned that social injustice is much closer than I imagined. Daniel Fireside wrote in his article “Life’s Best Lessons are Outside the Classroom” about how “Students who engage directly with their communities and surroundings often see ways to take part in solving problems.” By going out and connecting with people in our community, we can learn from them and gain experiences. We can take those experiences to come up with solutions to problems in our society. Finding a solution is hard, but before any solution can be found the issue needs to be commonly known. I can be a part of that process. With my project I can create awareness regarding this injustice, and in that way take the first step towards a solution.

Service learning took my education to another level. By going out of the classroom and doing this service-learning project, it was a perfect opportunity for me to get more involved in campus life and get to know people I wouldn’t have talked to otherwise. Most of the international students are Asian. This service-learning project not only taught me about social injustice, but it also gave me a cultural experience. I became good friends with many of the Asian students, and they taught me much about their cultures. They took me to different Asian restaurants and showed me around Seattle’s International District. By doing service learning, students learn much more than they otherwise would learn in a classroom. Fireside says in his article: “The more students are exposed to hands-on learning the more they express an enthusiasm for engaging with their communities and taking care of the environment. And they gain critical thinking skills.” Service learning can teach students valuable skills, while textbooks and classroom teaching cannot. Through my service learning, I became educated more than any other English class has managed before.   

My experience taught me that service learning is a fundamental part of a good education. After doing this service-learning final project on social injustice, I have not only learned about social injustice and how close it is to my life, but also about it has also educated me in fields beyond social injustice. I got more engaged in my community and school, I learned about different cultures from my Asian friends, and finally, I learned to see problems from multiple angles and to think in a more critical way. In a normal English class I would never have had the opportunity to learn all this. For this reason service learning is an essential part of a good education, and I hope that in my future education, I will be able to gain similar experiences. 

Peter headshotPeter Hasle attended Shoreline Community College as an international student from Denmark in the fall quarter of 2010. Peter is currently taking a gap year and intends to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering at the Technical University of Denmark. At Shoreline CC, he was usually seen hanging out with his Asian friends or playing basketball at the gym.

Daniel Fireside's Response:


I selected Peter’s essay from the many fine compositions of his classmates because it best exemplified the kind of process that I highlighted in my article. A growing number of educators are coming around to the realization that by getting students to engage with the place they inhabit, they can become better and more engaged learners.

If the teacher had organized the English class in the conventional way, as Peter had expected, the students would have spent all their time going over textbooks and readings, writing papers on pre-selected topics, and struggling to improve basic English skills. Instead, the assignment forced Peter to answer a broad question (“How do people experience injustice?”), by engaging with the community around him. It led not only to a more interesting experience (one that I bet he will carry with him longer than many other lessons he has learned in school), but also one that was different for each of his classmates. Peter chose to look at the impact of work restrictions on foreign students. Others spent time exploring the same question facing groups from gays and lesbians to people with physical and mental disabilities.

Peter and the others experienced this in a college setting. In my article, I saw first-hand how talented and creative elementary school teachers applied these techniques to an inner-city school in Boston. Instead of relying on “drill-and-kill” rote learning, the teachers at the Young Achievers school taught language arts, social studies, public speaking, and project learning to seven-year olds by getting them to engage in a direct way with their own surroundings. They ended up not only improving their core skills, but also gaining insight into their own history and community.

Some critics of this approach suggest that time spent outside the classroom comes at the expense of learning the basics of a subject. As Peter’s example (not to mention a growing number of studies) shows, this is a false choice.  Peter describes how the assignment led him to make friends across cultural divides and helped him gain an understanding of issues affecting his larger community. Even though he discovered that there are no easy solutions to the problem he wrote about, he writes that he “became educated more than [in] any other English class … before.”

In my article, I wrote that “A number of studies by scholars and education groups suggest that the more students are exposed to hands-on learning, the more they express an enthusiasm for engaging with their communities and taking care of the environment.” It’s nice to see that Peter’s experience, and those of his classmates, confirms this.




Feb 2011 EdNews ScreenshotThe above resources accompany the February 2011 YES! Education Connection Newsletter