Writing: A Tool for Historic Preservation and Civic Engagement

Regina A. Rochford and Susan Hock
Queensborough Community College, CUNY, USA and Queensborough Community College, CUNY, USA


The primary goals of this service learning project were to: (a) design a brochure to obtain support and funds to restore a historic cemetery; (b) improve student scores on the standardized CUNY Aligned Test of Writing (CATW); (c) provide English as a Second Language (ESL) students the opportunity to listen, speak, read and write in English; and (d) enhance students’ attitudes toward civic engagement. After two advanced remedial writing classes heard a presentation about a historic cemetery and reviewed the supporting literature, each learner in the advanced ESL composition class was paired with a Native Speaker of English (NSE) from another class, so that the ESL students could teach their partners how to create a timeline and a summary of the literature. During the next session, the NSE tutored the ESL students as they drafted topic sentences. Subsequently, all the students attended a lecture on Victorian death rituals to assist them in generating supporting details. Finally, both classes visited the cemetery, and proofread the brochure. Results indicated that both classes achieved higher scores on the CATW and exhibited increased enthusiasm, motivation, and civic growth.


How can two remedial-writing professors integrate service learning into their classes so that their learners engage in authentic writing activities and community service while they simultaneously prepare for the demands of a standardized writing assessment exam? These were the challenges faced when two instructors incorporated service learning into their courses at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York (CUNY).

Queensborough Community College resides in one of the most culturally diverse counties in the country (Queens: Economic development and the state of the borough economy, 2006). Less than 42 percent of the incoming freshmen are born in the United States; 25.16 percent are African American, 26.29 percent Hispanic, and 23.64 percent Asian (Queensborough Community College Fact Book, 2011). As a result of the students’ diverse cultural and educational experiences, more than 70 percent of incoming freshmen require remediation in reading, writing, and/or mathematics (Queensborough Community College Fact Book, 2011). In the fall of 2010, after completing the highest levels of remedial coursework, only 58.3 percent earned passing scores on the CUNY Aligned Test of Writing (CATW) (CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2011). Moreover, success among remedial writing students is 10 percent higher among Native Speakers of English (NSE) than English as a Second Language (ESL) learners (Queensborough Community College Fact Book, 2011). Finally, only 24 to 34 percent of the remedial students graduate after six years (Queensborough Community College/CUNY Fact Book, 2011).

In view of these issues, two remedial writing professors incorporated service learning pedagogy into their advanced NSE and ESL remedial writing courses to determine if active, reflective learning and community service could enrich student performance.

What is Service Learning?

Service learning is defined as a teaching and learning pedagogy that incorporates community service with instruction and reflection to improve students’ learning, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities (National Service Learning Clearinghouse, 2009).

According to Kraemer (2005), when remedial writing students participated in service learning, they composed their assignments with more thoroughness because they considered their assignments as publicly viewed acts. Moreover, when remedial writing students took part in a letter writing campaign and authored letters to elected officials, these learners earned statistically higher reading and writing exit scores on the ACT Writing Sample Assessment and the ACT Reading Compass Test (Rochford, 2013; Rochford & Hock, 2010), and they were more likely to remain enrolled in college (Rochford, 2013). These outcomes were supported by Prentice (2009) who also determined that after participating in service learning, students were more likely to exhibit passing grades and higher rates of retention. According to Deans (2000), these results occur because students place more value on service learning writing activities since they are purposeful and consequential, and because they become more integrated into the college community (Tinto, 1993).

However, service learning activities must be strategically designed in order to develop meaningful community and classroom experiences (Bailey & Alfonso, 2005). In fact, Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, and Yee (2000) demonstrated that when students could easily link the service learning activity to course content, service learning writing courses were more effective than traditional classes. Finally, Rochford (2013) determined that when the service learning activities occurred routinely as a common thread throughout the entire semester in remedial reading and writing classes, the students achieved statistically higher Grade Point Averages (GPAs) and passing scores on the ACT Reading Compass and ACT Writing Assessment exams.

Thus, with this research in mind, two remedial instructors developed a service learning project requiring their students to craft a brochure and related literature for the support of a small historic cemetery in Queens, New York.

The Service Learning Project: Goals

The primary goals of this service learning project were to: (a) design a brochure for the Queens Historical Society to obtain community support and grants for the restoration of a historic cemetery; (b) improve scores on the standardized CATW exam; (c) provide ESL students the opportunity to listen, speak, read and write in English with NSE; and (d) enhance students’ attitudes toward civic involvement.

Historical Significance of the Cemetery

According to the Queens Historical Society (2010), the history of the Moore Jackson Cemetery dates back to 1652 when the prominent Moore family settled on Long Island. In 1684, Samuel Moore, son of The Reverend John Moore, constructed a farmhouse on the property, which extended from the East River to Bowery Bay Road. At this time, since cemeteries were viewed as an essential part of a family farm, a burial ground was included on this property. Moreover, according to Biblical requirements during Colonial times, tombstones faced east; however, at Moore-Jackson Cemetery, every grave faced the west, although no reason was provided for this deviation. Today the cemetery is situated in the middle of the Woodside Houses in Queens, New York, and it is known internationally as the birthplace of the Newtown Pippin apple.

The last recorded burial took place during the Civil War, and after that time, the cemetery was gradually abandoned. Since 1965 historians and other parties have attempted to restore and landmark this abandoned and neglected cemetery, in which only about six graves remain intact today (More on Moore: A brief history, 2010).

Over the years, the cemetery has passed through many different property owners and has become deserted and filled with trash. Currently, the site is owned by the Queens Historical Society, which is in the forefront of a methodical cleanup so that this burial ground will remain an important attraction in a community intent on preserving its history.


This service learning project linked two advanced remedial writing classes. One class consisted of 26 advanced NSE, and the other 27 ESL learners. During this project, the students (a) read a package of literature about the historic Moore Jackson Cemetery, (b) created a timeline depicting the cemetery’s historical events, (c) wrote a summary about the history of the cemetery, (d) created compositions about their cultural death rituals, (e) visited the cemetery, (f) composed a paper in response to the cemetery visit, and (g) proofread the final brochure.


The students were introduced to this project when the executive director of the Queens Historical Society visited their classes to present information about the Moore Jackson Cemetery. After her presentation, she distributed a package of literature about the cemetery. For homework, the students were instructed to read it carefully. They were also informed that they would eventually use this literature to create a summary of the cemetery’s history and that the best summary would be included in the brochure.

It should be noted that the students in both classes were required to pass the CATW exam at the end of the semester before they could advance into English composition. This standardized writing assessment requires them to summarize an article and write a response to it in ninety minutes. However, because these two courses only intend to develop writing skills, many faculty members feel challenged by the summary requirement because it is a reading skill that involves a great deal of time and practice to learn. In addition to the summary, the Executive Director also requested that the brochure include (a) a timeline to illustrate the historical sequence of events, and (b) students’ reactions to the burial site. Therefore, these service learning assignments aligned directly with the course requirements for the CATW, because they provided multiple opportunities for the students to read, write, and respond to this thematic service learning project throughout the term.

After the presentation with the executive director, since the ESL professor had already taught her students the basics of summarizing, she instructed them to design a timeline for the events delineated in the literature. During the first joint service learning class, each ESL student was paired with a NSE, and the ESL learners were instructed to use the literature to teach their partners to construct a timeline and then to use the timeline to guide their partners in summary writing.

Before the next peer tutoring session, the NSE instructor reviewed the concept of summarizing with her class so that during the subsequent service learning session, her students could complete their summaries, compose topic sentences and prepare to teach their ESL partners how to draft topic sentences for a second composition about their cultural death rituals.

For the third service learning activity, because the students were beginning to draft compositions about their cultural death rituals, the executive director of the Queens Historical Society presented information about Victorian burial customs.

During the subsequent service learning activity, the two classes traveled to the cemetery to inspect the burial grounds in person. After the cemetery visit, as a final assignment, the students wrote another composition discussing a significant issue about the cemetery. After drafting these papers, their feedback was shared with the executive director of the Queens Historical Society, who selected a few of their remarks and inserted them into the brochure.

On the last day of class, the Executive Director presented two brochures to the classes, each of which presented the students’ contributions in different ways. She asked the students to proofread them and to decide which one should be used as the final brochure. While the students completed their final service learning activity, they also enjoyed a pizza party to celebrate the last day of class.


The following day, the students from both classes took the CATW exam. The CATW is a standardized writing assessment exam designed to obtain writing samples from incoming students to determine their placement in English composition or remedial courses. It is also used to establish students’ readiness to exit remediation. The test requires students to create a composition in response to a reading passage to demonstrate their ability to: (a) summarize the article; (b) provide a critical response to the text; (c) develop ideas; (d) organize an effective response; (e) construct sentences, and make appropriate word choices; and (f) utilize grammar and mechanics accurately (CUNY Assessment Test of Writing (CATW) Faculty Handbook, 2012).

Results: Academic Achievement

In the NSE class, 61% of the students passed the CATW test, which is slightly higher than the pass rate of 58.3% reported in the fall of 2010 (CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 2011). In the ESL class, 55.6% of the students passed the CATW exam. The ESL students’ results were quite impressive because these learners typically pass at a rate of 10% lower than the NSE (Queensborough Community College Fact Book, 2011).

A t-test of Dependent Means also exhibited a 10.23 point statistical increase in scores among both the NSE and ESL students (p < .000). More specifically, the NSE evidenced an increase of 11 points whereas the ESL learners’ scores improved by 9.17 points. In addition, a t test of Dependent Means indicated that the students who did not pass the CATW exam had statistically improved their test scores by 3.31 points (p <.000). Although this statistically significant increase in scores was only a few points, it infers that even the students who had not mastered the skills needed to pass this high stakes CATW exit exam had benefited from their service learning experiences, perhaps because of the exposure to authentic and dynamic writing activities coupled with purposeful community service. Thus, this project was associated with improved writing ability, even among the students who did not earn a minimum passing score.

The higher pass rate among the ESL learners supports the findings of Rochford (2013), who asserted that when service learning activities occur routinely as a common thread throughout an entire semester, these students advance their writing skills. This is because, as Deans (2000) indicated, students place more value on purposeful and consequential service learning writing. In fact, in the students’ reflection journals, many articulated how much the service learning assignments had prepared them for the demands of the CATW exam while it also permitting them to assist the Queens Historical Society in its endeavors. However, because of IRB restrictions, specific student remarks cannot be disclosed.

The instructors theorize that the enhanced writing ability among the NSE and ESL learners resulted because every component of the service learning project directly related to skills required to compose a passing CATW essay, and it provided the students with genuine writing tasks that would be viewed by the public. For instance, because the ESL students typically struggle with drafting summaries, which require them to determine the main idea and major details, their teacher taught them to craft a timeline that they used to write a summary. Next, the ESL students were required to teach their NSE partners how to create a timeline and a summary. By requiring the ESL learners to articulate the summarizing process to their NSE partners, who tested their knowledge with questions, the ESL students honed their summarizing skills because they were obliged to communicate effectively and engage in critical thinking that assisted them to become proficient at summarizing passages.

Another obstacle that many students encounter on the CATW exam is that they are unable to select one major detail from their summaries and develop a detailed response to it. Thus, after the Victorian death ritual presentation, they were required to summarize this lecture and write a response that would describe death rituals in their culture or religion. This activity facilitated the students’ learning to connect a learned topic to their own personal experiences in order to compose well-developed body paragraphs, which are required on the CATW exam.

Throughout the entire semester, the teachers endeavored to link service learning activities directly to the skills needed to pass the CATW exam. Therefore, they theorize that their students’ performance on the CATW was enhanced because this service learning program was carefully designed to meet the needs of both the Community Based Organization (CBO) and the students.

Civic Responsibility

When the two classes visited the cemetery, both the students and teachers were shocked at its grossly run-down condition. During the visit, several people took pictures as they diligently explored the grounds for headstones hidden behind the fallen trees, overgrown shrubbery, and debris. Moreover, after seeing the dilapidated burial grounds, the students understood why it was essential to restore this historic site, and they began to realize how their brochure would alert the local community to the history of the cemetery and its significance so that the Queens Historical Society might be able to access the funds needed to restore this landmark. As they departed from the burial grounds, many students mentioned that they now appreciated how their efforts could make a difference.

After gaining a deeper understanding of the burial ground’s history and visiting the site, some students also expressed deep concern about maintaining this facility because they believed it was important to value the past and pay respect to the deceased. Consequently, many volunteered to help clean up the site.

Throughout this project, several ESL learners indicated that they had never considered participating in community organizations because they did not feel as though they fit in. However, after observing how welcoming and appreciative the Queens Historical Society was, several students acknowledged that they now believed they could become integral members of their local communities whose contributions would be valued and respected. This is a significant shift in attitude, especially since many ESL students tend to isolate themselves by living among and socializing with people from their homeland.

Overall, these responses reflected student enthusiasm, civic growth, and the development of greater critical thinking skills. It is now hoped that these experiences will propel them to volunteer in their neighborhoods in the future. Clearly, as this project evolved, it truly afforded the participants the opportunity to cultivate their civic values and become better citizens.


Another essential component of this project was the creation of three partnerships that advanced this collaboration. First and foremost, the students worked in concert with the Queens Historical Society, the CBO, to address the problem of a run-down historic burial ground that required restoration funds while they simultaneously learned the value of writing effectively for a specific audience. This alliance produced a truly reciprocal relationship for both the students and the CBO, and it exposed them to the importance of civic engagement.

Another important feature of this project was the partnership between the ESL students and NSE who collaborated on an assortment of writing assignments that culminated in their generating an impressive brochure that enabled cemetery visitors to learn about its history. Through the ESL and NSE partnership, the students developed a healthy respect for each other and cultivated an assortment of research and writing skills as they produced a professional brochure. It is theorized that the peer to peer tutoring permitted both groups of students to become more comfortable with each other while they also acquired new learning techniques by jointly exploring writing tasks and assignments.

Lastly, the two professors worked closely together to plan a creative and meaningful project that fostered better writing while linking assignments to an important community situation that students could appreciate. As a result, this collaboration permitted the instructors to experiment with a unique pedagogy that improved their teaching and their students’ writing ability. Clearly, the partnerships that emerged through this service learning project enhanced the services rendered to the CBO and the students while assisting the teachers in enriching their teaching skills.

Fulfillment and Socialization

Aside from civic responsibility and academic achievements, this project also afforded all the learners the opportunity to develop and acquire new approaches to solve old problems by working with other students and their teachers. For instance, during the second service learning session, an ESL student who was struggling with grammar issues approached the NSE teacher to inquire as to the legitimacy of her ESL instructor’s feedback since no one had ever provided her with such detailed, meticulous corrections. After the NSE professor assured her that she needed to incorporate the revisions, this young woman began to modify her writing, and she met with her ESL instructor several times a week for additional assistance. By the end of the semester, this student had developed a close, trusting relationship with her professor, and she had made significant progress in her writing as a result of obtaining a second opinion. Best of all, she had finally passed the CATW exam.

In addition, the ESL students struggled in their first attempts to construct their timelines because the documentation was not presented in chronological order and didn’t always include dates. Many students mixed up events that transpired during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and they subsequently had to determine the correct sequence of events in order to list them consecutively. Consequently, this experience assisted them in understanding the importance of researching their information to verify the correct year in which each event occurred so that their timelines and summaries would present an accurate sequence of events. In addition, this misinterpretation initiated a healthy discussion of American history and why this country entered into the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

During the first peer tutoring session, when the ESL students assumed the role of peer tutors and taught the NSE how to create a timeline and summarize a passage, the instructors noted that this arrangement became a great equalizer because the ESL students adopted the role of a teacher, which enabled them to feel more confident and comfortable with the NSE. In contrast, this experience was humbling for the NSE because they had to step back and yield control of the project. However, by the end of this session, all the students were engaged and truly motivated. In fact, as the students exited the classroom, an in-class tutor noted that the students had clearly bought into the project. Best of all, the ESL professor noted that she had not observed one student answering a text message during this class because they were all too focused on their writing activities.

Although the teachers had originally planned to ask the NSE to teach the timeline and summarizing techniques to the ESL learners, reversing these roles proved to be beneficial because instead of being passive recipients of information, the ESL students were compelled to contemplate and communicate their summarizing skills clearly and effectively in English, while their partners questioned them and demanded logical explanations. Moreover, this assignment engaged both groups of learners in metacognition, which is an awareness or knowledge of one’s learning or thinking process (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2012).

After both classes worked together on summaries and topic sentences, the ESL teacher noticed that many more students began to seek extra help during her office hours. In fact, even though office hours did not commence until nine in the morning, several students were usually lined up outside her door as early at eight o’clock, and this flow of students continued until the professor had to begin class at ten o’clock. In contrast, during that same semester only a couple of students from another class visited her during office hours. In addition, during several of these office hour visits, many service learning students proclaimed how much they wanted their summary, timeline, or remarks to be chosen for the brochure, and how proud they would be if theirs were selected. As a result, they worked hard to perfect their writing because as Deans (2000) revealed they were writing for a real audience and perceived this project to be purposeful.

After the ESL students tutored the NSE in drafting summaries, the NSE teacher noticed that her students were also very enthusiastic about drafting the best summary because they wanted their individual summaries to be the one published in the brochure. In fact, one student arrived at the next class with a brochure that he had completed independently from the class. Although his brochure required much editing, it served as an effective model and a talking point so that the students could visualize the end product as they worked.

In addition, during this service learning session, it was also obvious that the NSE and the ESL students were comfortable working together inasmuch as many had been communicating through e-mails and text messages, and they readily initiated lively debates about death rituals. Moreover, since the NSE had already learned to construct topic sentences, they directed and encouraged the ESL students who were struggling with this concept.

During the presentation about Victorian death rituals, the students learned about specific Victorian funerary practices. As a result, when the students drafted their death ritual compositions, they began to include more detailed, personal reflections without their teachers’ prodding. The inclusion of more information indicated significant progress, as this method of paragraph development is essential on the CATW exam; the exam requires students to elaborate on what they’ve read by connecting the reading passage to their own personal experiences. Consequently, this presentation aided students in tapping into a wealth of unexploited personal knowledge and ideas so that they could write in more detail.

Moreover, as the NSE students worked with their ESL partners to develop paragraphs on burial customs in their countries, an interesting dynamic occurred. The NSE became truly interested in hearing about their ESL partners’ unique burial customs and demonstrated great respect and curiosity. In addition, the NSE developed more compassion for their ESL peers because they realized the difficulty of writing with a language barrier and why using correct vocabulary can be a struggle. As a result, they encouraged their ESL partners and functioned as cheerleaders while they also relished interacting and sharing thoughts with each other. Clearly, this project diminished ethnocentric attitudes among these learners.

The instructors also indicated that both ESL students and NSE served as effective role models for each other. NSE immediately noted ESL students’ tremendous work ethic, and their diligence motivated the NSE to be more meticulous in their assignments. In contrast, the NSE demonstrated how the ESL students could use the Internet as a learning tool instead of a crutch. Typically, the ESL professor does not permit her students to use their phones or tablets to access dictionaries or research materials because too many ESL learners rely on these devices to retrieve information in their first language and translate it. They often copy and paste the translated version into their writing. However, after the NSE demonstrated how they use technology to research a topic or check their vocabulary or spelling, several ESL learners admitted that they had never contemplated using their phones for research purposes. Moreover, the NSE emphasized that to be successful in this country, the ESL students had to be able to listen, speak, read, and write in English and not rely on translation devices. Clearly, both the NSE and ESL students benefited from the other’s divergent linguistic and cultural experiences.

Overall, since this project afforded students multiple opportunities to explore and learn about history and community involvement, both groups developed camaraderie with their professors and each other. Consequently, this service learning project provided these classes with a common purpose which unified everyone.


This service learning project escorted two groups of underachieving remedial-writing students out of the classroom and into the real world so that they utilized their writing and thinking skills to advocate for the restoration and support of a historic burial ground in the community. Moreover, this project yielded enhanced academic success because it offered the learners a series of authentic writing activities that were purposeful and consequential (Deans, 2000; Rochford, 2013) so that students directly connected their endeavors to their course objectives (Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, and Yee, 2000). Lastly, it assisted the students in understanding the significance of community service and civic engagement in order to enhance the quality of life in their communities.


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About the authors:

Regina A. Rochford

Regina A. Rochford, Ed.D. is an associate professor of developmental reading and writing at Queensborough Community College, the City University of New York. She earned a Doctorate in Education from St. John’s University, a Master’s of Science in TESOL from Queens College and a Master’s of Public Administration from Baruch College. She is the author of thirteen published research articles and five developmental reading and writing textbooks.

*Associate Professor, Developmental Reading and Writing, Queensborough Community College, CUNY, 222-05 56th Avenue, Bayside, NY 11364. rrochford@qcc.cuny.edu

Susan Hock

Susan Hock holds a B.A. in English from Franklin and Marshall College and a Master’s of Science in Secondary Education and English from Long Island University. She loves helping students improve their writing and critical thinking skills.

© 2014 Journal for Civic Commitment

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.