Meaningful Service Learning

Last week’s blog Starting Small As children grow, service learning needs to be part of school repertoire, so that children begin to recognize that service means more than taking care of those folks who reside within the same four walls at home or school.  In the book  Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning?,   Eyler and Giles (1999) claim service learning needs to be:

  • Positive, meaningful and real to the participants.
  • Involve cooperative rather than competitive experiences and thus promote skills associated with teamwork and community involvement and citizenship.
  • Address complex problems in complex settings rather than simplified problems in isolation.
  • Offer opportunities to engage in problem-solving by requiring participants to gain knowledge of the specific context of their service-learning activity and community challenges, rather than only to draw upon generalized or abstract knowledge such as might come from a textbook. As a result, service-learning offers powerful opportunities to acquire the habits of critical thinking; i.e. the ability to identify the most important questions or issues within a real-world situation.
  • Promote deeper learning because the results are immediate and uncontrived. There are no “right answers” in the back of the book or graded on a quiz.
  • As a consequence of this immediacy of experience, service-learning is more likely to be personally meaningful to participants and to generate emotional consequences, to challenge values as well as ideas, and hence to support social, emotional and cognitive learning and development.

With these guiding principles in mind, service learning can arise organically from a need in the school community, larger community or global community. By middle elementary age, children can begin to look at issues and needs and engage in a dialogue with those impacted to determine what is needed, how they can help and how they can put their compassion into action.  Guidance from adults who understand the underpinnings of solid service learning and who are willing to structure choices,  allows children to  expand their academic skills through reading, discussion, critical thinking, mathematical problem solving while expanding their knowledge of specific content and their comfort with new situations or challenges.  With reflection on what community or target group genuinely needs, they can play a role in improving the life of other or condition of the physical environment.  A clearly defined goal and steps that can be easily attained further allows children to develop the habits of service and compassion which will lay the foundation for a life time of service to others.

Schools abound with examples of how adolescents can find, organize and implement high-quality service learning – which not only serves the needs of the target audience, but also builds critical thinking skills, a stronger sense of empathy, self-confidence, and lays the foundation for life long service.  Three of the many  standouts seen recently include:

  • Students at the Lincoln Elementary School in Melrose, MA (outside of Boston) were moved to help Haitian earthquake victims, as were students around the world.   The population in this school includes many Haitian immigrants who have relatives or connections to Port au Prince.  Students  collected and donated their spare change over a one-week period, and raised $1,012 for earthquake relief in Haiti.  To read more, click here.
  • Harley School  (Rochester, NY) seniors participate in the Harley Hospice Outreach Program which provides students with the precious gift of providing hands-on care to the terminally ill.  The classroom experience spans one academic year. What makes this program truly unique is the opportunity for students to become full-fledged volunteer caregivers at nine Comfort Care Homes in the Rochester area, providing the dying with presence, conversation, listening, assistance with writing letters & life reviews, feeding and other dietary needs, giving medications, comfort/personal care at the bedside, and a wide range of holistic care that helps make the dying person, their family, and friends as comfortable as possible.  Also part of the school’s outreach is Hospice Corps,  designed to engage Harley Hospice students in the development of sustainable end-of-life care for regions in the world where there is no hospice or palliative care infrastructure.   In each region of the world, students provide bedside/comfort care, wound care, feeding and laundry assistance, support to orphaned and disabled children, and peer-to-peer training in acute/end-of-life care.
  • St. Anne’s School of Annapolis 8th graders are capping off their years at the school with reflection on their beliefs and code of ethics and explore their congruence to personal action. They  identified a societal need or issue that is important to them, one that they are passionate about and is connected to their personal beliefs. They then identified service organizations that are committed to work on the issue and secure a professional mentor and put together a proposal for “service” to that organization and complete the service.  These Capstone Projects are underway and include:

Annapolis Community Boating – a project involves working to support ACB’s efforts to  promote all boating on the Chesapeake Bay by providing affordable public access to a cooperative boating location and boating educational programs which highlight awareness of the ecosystems and health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Annapolis Pennies for Peace – a project is working to build local awareness of Pennies for Peace through collection drives in local businesses and to set up a long-term project which one class will run annually as part of their own service learning efforts.

Roots & Shoots Garden – provides a multi-generational learning opportunity spread across multiple curricula.  The Roots — parents, grandparents, extended family and friends– join the Shoots — children — in planning, building, planting and harvesting a community garden.  The garden becomes a unique outdoor classroom for teaching multiple disciplines and the experience becomes a lifetime lesson in the wonders of nature at work and the strong bonds of inter-generational partnerships.

For more information on service learning, check out the Service Learning Resources page above.  Feel free to leave a description of a service learning project kids you know are working hard on organizing, implementing or reflecting.

Starting Small-Service to Others

“From the time we were little children, we have all of us, at moments at least, cherished overwhelming desire to be of use in the great world, to play a conscious part of its progress.”

Jane Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War

What a startling, yet very primitive statement about children’s desire to be truly of service to others.  By three or four years of age, most children begin to see beyond themselves and consider the needs and feelings of others. Marietta McCarty suggests in Little Big Minds that compassion for young children, “means sharing another’s feels with as little resistance or selfishness as possible.”   That’s a hard lesson for many adults to internalize, let alone for wee ones.  But it’s visible every day in a class of threes and fours – that glimmer of compassion where for just a nanosecond, they step out of themselves and into the heart and soul of another human being.  It’s entirely possibly that the social structure of a classroom enables this to happen more fully than it might at home or with family, but it’s a start to the amazing acts of compassion which enrich lives, even in young children. This seed of compassion can only grow when nurtured and tended to so that it can become strong enough to blossom on its own.

One of the big goals of any preschool program is independence in caring for one’s own belongings. Putting backpacks away, hanging coats, clearing snack are all examples. Some children master this quickly and consistently use them. Others master and use when it suits them. Others continue to work on skills and show some frustration.  Often it’s some generous and kind soul who approaches and says, “I pour your milk?” or “I help you…” as she eager tugs a winter coat off an arm, straights in and hangs the jacket.  The recipient of this act of compassion is at first surprised by the adept skill, but then breaks into a smile and says, “dat’s good help!”    As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of our young writers are internalizing the significance of writing to express their ideas and feelings.  matching names and photos of friends to put on envelopes which go into identically labeled mail boxes is a valuable cognitive task, but there are also deeper life lessons of expression compassion and friendship incorporated into these neophyte acts of service.  As our early birds arrive in the morning, they help us “wake up” the classroom by setting out materials, gathering snack and setting the table, watering plants, mixing paint.  Each of these actions affords the participants meaningful ways to care for the people and objects in their environment.  It may mean foregoing that impulse to build with blocks or look at book – true demonstrations of selflessness and a lack of resistance for preschoolers.

Other examples of being service in the great world, no matter how small one’s relative size include:

  • caring for a pet or plants at home or school
  • cheerfully completing housekeeping task – many of which may initially appear challenging to an adult, but with encouragement, young children are successful
  • emptying the paper recycling for an entire school each week
  • pairing with younger students to read, do puzzles or art work, or learn a new outdoor game.
  • collecting food and delivering to a local food pantry.
  • offering hot cocoa to the snow plow driver in the neighborhood or bringing the mail to a neighbor.

Each of these tasks may on the service seems small and inconsequential, but in fact, offer opportunities to develop habits of the heart which will last a life time.  Such small steps which allow young child to show empathy, compassion and care lead to a larger belief  and later, action.

Return next time  we’ll look at what and how middle school students gain from service learning. Meanwhile, consider posting examples of how compassion toward others and service are  demonstrated by the young children you know in the comments section below.