Learn to serve, serve to learn!
Author: Jennifer VanBuren

Canned food drive! Coat drive! Blue Santa! Students are offered plenty of opportunities to give, but can service be transformed into a more valuable learning experience? In service learning, students apply academic lessons in order to help solve real-life problems. Not only is learning reinforced and enriched, children learn civic responsibility and the community becomes stronger.

The best service-learning experiences share five main characteristics
1. Students have a say in identifying the need, deciding the actions they want to take and implementing their plans
2. The experience is aligned with the curriculum
3. Students form partnerships to take action
4. Students reflect on their experiences in multiple ways before, during and after performing the service
5. Adequate time is given to allow students to meet community needs as well as the learning objectives

The term “community service” may sound more familiar than “service-learning.” Is this just the same thing in a different package? For some youth, community service can mean court-ordered service for misbehavior. In schools, community service usually involves making holiday cards, canned food drives, toy collections and coat drives. These projects serve a need but they are not the same as service-learning.

Service-learning takes community service to another level. Students are active in every step, from identifying the need, to planning, organizing and evaluating the effectiveness of the program.

Good intentions, misplaced efforts
We have heard stories about individuals with big hearts jumping into a situation without asking anyone what is needed. Well-intended volunteers showed up in Haiti without a place to stay, the proper gear, food or water for themselves or even a ride out of the airport; they became more of a burden than help. Crate-loads of donations included winter coats and stiletto shoes, expired food and prescription medicine, and there was no one able to open, sort or distribute the donations that could actually be used. In Florida, a truckload of mink coats showed up during the 2004 hurricane season, most likely a tax write-off for a retailer having trouble selling the furs.

Here is an example of a misplaced school service project: with the goal of increased participation, the school awards a pizza party to the classroom with the most donations to a food drive. To help her classroom win the pizza party, a teacher brings in a case of the cheapest item she could find and encourages her students to do the same. Even though the majority of their donations were unhealthy foods with low nutritional value, the kids won their pizza party. What lesson did those students learn?

Taking the right approach
By teaching students how to carefully examine the needs of others before providing service, students learn to research first and then follow through so that the service is meaningful and actually meets the needs of those being served.

In service-learning, a canned food drive becomes much more. Students can:

• Interview staff of the local food bank to find out what foods are needed most
• Examine data on hunger in the local community
• Learn about nutrition and help others gather ingredients for nutritious meals for a family of four
• Educate other students in the school about good nutrition and healthy eating
• Use math skills to graph the results of the food drive by type of food and number of meals
• Give a presentation about the food drive as well as hunger in the community to the school board and other organizations
• Write a press release for local news publications in order to encourage change

Opportunities for service-learning are endless.

High school students learning Spanish can improve their fluency by becoming pen-pals with bilingual fourth-grade students who in turn can improve their language skills by writing back in English. Students can not only clean up a stream, but research and record the pollution they find and come up with ideas to reduce the problem in the future. Students can create ways to prevent erosion in a community playground or maintain the beauty of a trail system with a child-created “puppy poop pouch” program. More ideas can be found at the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse at servicelearning.org.

The benefits of service-learning are also too many to list, but here’s a start:

1. Motivates students to learn. Don’t we all do our best when learning has meaning and purpose? Students are motivated because they feel engaged. By tapping into the desire to do something that matters and tying learning to interpersonal relationships, feelings and self-esteem, we help students believe that what we teach matters.

2. Improves higher-order reasoning skills. “But what about the STARR test?” When teachers explicitly tie service-learning activities to curriculum standards and learning objectives, standardized test scores actually rise. Going beyond rote learning, teachers guide students into learning higher-order reasoning skills.

3. Fosters personal and social skill development. Typical group projects can bring the stress of working toward a common grade. In service-learning settings, students work together on a project that has real implications, not just a grade. Students learn responsibility and trustworthiness because the goal is not an extrinsic reward. Believe it or not, youth who participate in service-learning are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking, unprotected sexual relationships and drug use.

4. Develops stronger ties to schools, communities and society. Service-learning can also establish a sense of civic responsibility to the school, community and society; it works both ways. The community will gain a better appreciation of the schools when they are seen as a valuable asset to the community, not just the place tax dollars land. The youth of the community have an improved self-image as well as earning the respect of their neighbors. The experience of working with and for others can be empowering to anyone, young or old.

5. Provides exposure to career pathways. Students often meet and develop bonds with adults other than their parents and teachers. They meet people with careers that were previously unknown by the students, such as social workers, architects, scientists, government workers and community agency staff.

6. Helps create positive school environments. One third of public K-12 schools in the United States participates in service-learning practices. Schools report improved teacher morale and more caring school climates.

Overall, service-learning is education in action and a great way for kids to gain knowledge and develop skills while meeting real community needs. Everyone wins!

Jennifer VanBuren’s homeroom never won a pizza party for the highest number of cans donated, but they did donate their share of nutritious foods.

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