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Meaningful Service Learning

February 16, 2010

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. David Downing permalink
    February 16, 2010 10:36 am

    I think honest, valuable community service has several important components. It has to start with service to the community closest to the child: the home, family, group of friends, classroom, school — where the child has solid roots and is the home to a compassionate community familiar to the child. There he learns what it means and feels like to have someone do something for him and to do good deeds for others, to help recipients feel as he did when he was the receiver of loving action. Then the child can reach out to others she hears about on the news or in another community, farther afield. Valuable community service has to be meaningful to the giver. Too many schools do community service as public relations, to crow about in the newspaper or as fodder for the next brochure or school evaluation. These events tend to be flash-in-the-pan events, over and done with quickly. They mean little or nothing to the kids who are the unwitting participants. When schools help kids create and maintain solid, face-to-face relationships with recipients (an elderly community, another school nearby, people who live in the neighborhood around the school), community service is most effective. It is OK just to raise money for a worthy but distant recipient, but nothing beats face-to-face contact. The latter breeds lifelong compassion.

    • wonderofchildren permalink*
      February 16, 2010 11:58 am

      Beautifully said! Our littlest learners do need that face to face contact with familiar recipients and in a familiar environment. Even older children benefit from working on behalf of those close to them – such as playing the role of buddies, readers or in other leadership roles with younger children. Just as we know children immerse themselves vigorously and passionate to inquiry that has personal relevance and significance, the same is true with service learning. It’s also important to model giving of one’s time and talent, not just funds. As always, your thoughtful and wise insights are appreciated!

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