English Composition Students Combine Service with Style

By Rosalind Fournier

spoon-group150Students in Cassandra Ellis's UAB freshman comp classes—including Alexis Silmon, John Thurber IV, and Kyle Thompson, pictured above—assist elderly patients at mealtimes in UAB Highlands Hospital's ACE Unit. Their experiences are the basis for essays and journal entries in Ellis's class UAB freshman Kyle Thompson made a new connection over lunch recently. It was mealtime at the Acute Care for Elders (ACE) Unit at UAB Highlands Hospital, and Thompson listened as his companion, a World War II pilot, recalled an aerial adventure. “His blue eyes gazed off at nothing in particular,” Thompson later wrote in his journal. “It seemed that he was re-living his days of flying through the air for his country.”

Thompson was taking part in the hospital’s SPOONS program, in which volunteers visit with patients at mealtimes, helping them eat or simply providing companionship. But his lunch plans weren’t simply a matter of good will—they were a part of the curriculum for his freshman composition course.

Cassandra Ellis, Ph.D., an assistant professor of English at UAB, was looking for new ways to teach basic English composition when she heard about SPOONS. Inspired in part by volunteer work she did herself as an undergraduate at Syracuse University, Ellis saw SPOONS as a way to get students involved in the larger Birmingham community—and as a rich source of inspiration for writing assignments. “It’s an opportunity for them to turn off their cell phones and engage in a real conversation,” Ellis says. “They’re in a situation where they’re not texting their friends and are instead completely focused on being of service to someone else.”

Surprise Visits

After piloting a similar curriculum a few years ago, Ellis recently received UAB’s official “service learning” designation for the fall 2012 course, a first for the English department. Fifty students in two sections of basic English composition are now taking Ellis’s course, which follows the theme “age, memory, and identity,” she says. In addition to their volunteer work, students watch films and read memoirs that deal with the issues of aging. The semester culminates with a research paper, and many students choose their topics based on experiences they have had in SPOONS, Ellis says.

“The time they spend with the patients helps them eat, but it also brings them back around to something that’s pleasant to talk about. This is not a person in a doctor’s or nurse’s uniform coming in. It’s a student, and they can all relate to that.”

When the semester began, students had no idea what they were getting into. “On the first day of class, I let them know that part of the requirement would be to volunteer for six hours with the SPOONS program,” Ellis says. “I didn’t know how they would react, but everyone was on board.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t some hesitation. “I was kind of nervous, because this is my first exposure to any kind of volunteer work,” says Alexis Silmon. “But after getting into the program and interacting with patients, I’ve really enjoyed it, and I know they enjoy it, too. I really love the fact that I can make people smile and laugh in that environment.”

Terri Middlebrooks, R.N., the nurse coordinator at the ACE Unit, says she has been amazed by the level of commitment the students have brought to their newfound roles. Several have expressed an interest in continuing to volunteer with SPOONS when the semester is over. “The time they spend with the patients helps them eat, but it also brings them back around to something that’s pleasant to talk about,” Middlebrooks says. “This is not a person in a doctor’s or nurse’s uniform coming in. It’s a student, and they can all relate to that. The patients start talking about when they were in school and things they used to do.”

Reality Check

Middlebrooks says that many patients on the unit suffer from dementia and have trouble feeding themselves. Other simply don’t have any family in the area and long for company. “Care is not all about pills and procedures,” Middlebrooks says. “It’s about compassion and just being here for a person in need.”

In Service

UAB students could choose from 46 officially designated “service learning” courses in fall 2012. Ellis hopes to build on her success with the SPOONS program by adding a service-learning component to other English composition courses. One idea is for students to help with an anti-pollution campaign through the Jefferson County Department of Health, while another involves tutoring kids at a local elementary school. For more on service learning at UAB, visit www.uab.edu/servicelearning.

But the exchange works both ways, Middlebrooks adds. “Some of them are just extremely interesting older adults,” she says. “They have stories to tell, and they have as much to offer the students as the students have to offer them.”

One benefit is extended time in a hospital setting, which can be a real eye-opener for students like Thompson and Silmon, who both are planning on careers in health care. “For some students, this experience really confirms their choice,” Ellis says. “Others find that after being in the hospital they realized it wasn’t for them. Either way, this is really valuable experience early on in a student’s college career.”

Thompson points to another intangible reward. “Talking with patients, you start thinking about your own life, your own decisions, and what really matters,” he says. He explored that line of thought in his journal entry about the former fighter pilot he met for lunch. “It seemed that all he had left were his memories, and yet he was slowly losing them,” Thompson wrote. “Yet as I asked him about his life, he looked at me and with full confidence in his words said, ‘I’ve been blessed.’”

More Information

UAB Department of English

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