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05 June 2013

Special Olympics: Before Volunteering

As I mentioned in a previous post, my high-intermediate speaking and listening class volunteered at the Michigan Special Olympics. This was an assigned volunteer opportunity, and it was the first service learning component I have applied to my courses. I realize now that this was a huge undertaking for my first time implementing service learning. Most teachers usually start out with the soup kitchen or animal shelter; however, the Special Olympics were coming to town at the beginning of our summer term, and I couldn't let that learning opportunity pass me (and my students) by.

I will go into more detail about the actual day of volunteering in the second of this three part series; in this part, I would like to focus on what I did to prepare students for this experience. First, I asked students general questions about volunteering and their experience volunteering. Then I asked them if they've ever had experience with people with special needs. I had some questions written out for students to respond to in writing, then they shared them with a partner, and finally with the class (think, pair, share). Here are the questions I asked them, along with a few of their responses:
(1) Why do people volunteer?
-I think that it is a very active method to help others, but also can increase your self-confidence, social experience, and benefiting your English.
-To help other people and get experience
-People have the ability to help people in need
(2) Who does volunteering benefit?
-everybody can benefit from volunteering
-The volunteer might learn something different from volunteering, and some people can get help to get out of trouble.
-make a good community
(3) How could volunteering help international students?
-to offer them a job or to make them get to know the culture
-The volunteering can help international students to learn English, know new culture
-it can help them to practice their language
Next, I had the students watch a couple of videos and go to the Special Olympics website for homework. I asked them to watch these three videos:Champions Together, Different, and Unleashing the Human Spirit. Here are a few sample questions they were asked to consider, along with a few responses:
(1) What are the Special Olympics?
-Big event in sports for people with special needs
-In my opinion, the reason we organize special game is that we believe the people who is intellectual disabilities also need to be respected, they are a special group of people who need more special care
-health, education, sports
(2) Who participates?
-Everyone who is special needs who is over 8 years old
-People with intellectual disabilities, more than 4 million per year
(3) Who volunteers?
-Everyone can volunteer
(4) What do you think the goal of the Special Olympics is?
-Everyone want to make the people with special needs have happiness in their life because they need anybody to care for them
-Because it does a great job with disability people. "I like help people."They make them feel different.
-Because it benefits for every people in the word. Keep going.
As you can see, the students' responses about volunteering and the Special Olympics were thoughtful and reflective. They really took this assignment seriously and wanted to know how they could best help other people. It was also clear that they were interested in improving and practice their language skills in addition to helping others.  

I will post later in the week about the actual event itself and what students' responsibilities were. My final post about the Special Olympics will consider how to help students make the most of their volunteer experience through reflection.

Image via

If you have any experience with ESL and service learning, I would love to hear your experiences and advice. I know many of my colleagues have implemented this into their courses, as well as many other instructors around the state of Michigan and around the US. Please share what you have done and any suggestions you have for making service learning a valuable experience for English Language Learners. 
P.S. What did you think about the videos? I'll admit I got a little teary-eyed! How inspiring the athletes are!