Many schools participate in service-learning projects. Ours is one of those. But I’m not sure that until recently that I really knew what service-learning was. I think that in years past, I’ve said that I did a service-learning project, but really it was nothing more than a brief activity we did related to a holiday food drive or because there was a hospital next door to our school and we thought it was a good idea. Not until last month did I learn what I should have been doing in order to really call something service-learning. And now we’re actually doing it.
Even though the name really does imply its definition, I think it’s easier to start by saying what service-learning is not:
- It’s not just a one-time episode when you help someone.
- It’s not an add-on to your curriculum.
- It’s not logging in community service hours just because you have to.
- It’s not just something big kids or grown-ups do. (taken from information on http://www.servicelearning.org)
Service-learning is a strategy that involves meaningful, authentic service to address a problem or issue in your community, where your students learn and then reflect on what they’ve learned. It benefits both the volunteers and the recipients of your service.
Ok, but how to you do it? How do you make sure that you effectively combine the service part and the learning part so that your students benefit as well as the ones you are serving? Service-learning includes several important components to help make this happen:
- Preparation: As you prepare to do a service-learning project, your class (or school or Girl Scout Troop, etc) should identify a community need that you could address. Brainstorm possibilities and then choose one. After your need is chosen, then you will need to work to investigate or learn more about the need. This can be done through internet research, reading books about the subject, talking with people or groups that might be involved in the work already, or a variety of other methods. In the service-learning project we just did at our school, we focused on Veteran’s Day. We had an assembly on Veteran’s Day where we learned more about what veterans are, listened to a current serviceman speak about his experiences in Iraq, met people in our community who were veterans, and sang patriotic songs. We also read picture books and watched videos to help us get more information on the meaning of Veteran’s Day and why it should be important to every citizen in our country–even elementary students.
- Action: Not surprisingly, this is the step in which students actually do the service part of the project. Again, this should be related to the identified community need, and based on the foundation built while you learned more about the topic during the preparation phase. For our action step, we wrote letters to veterans. Most kids in our school wrote to veterans in homes or hospitals. We were lucky enough to have the name of an airman currently serving in the Middle East. He was a friend of a classmate, and so we wrote to him and told him how much we appreciated what he does for our country to keep us safe.
- Reflection: Part of what makes service-learning more than just community service is the reflection stage. Once you have completed your action step, it is important to step back and look at what has happened, what you have or can learn from it, and pay attention to the effects your project has had on you and those you were serving. The reflection step of our Robinson service-learning project actually started with every student in our school receiving a letter of their own in the mail. Every member of our staff wrote letters to students–in their own handwriting, in a hand-addressed envelope–and then there were mailed home. Later in the the same week, our class (and the rest of our school) sat down to reflect on how it had felt to receive a letter in the mail with their name on it. The hope was that students could then apply how that might have felt for the veterans to whom we had written. My students did a great job of identifying how special and “noticed” they felt to have gotten mail addressed to them; usually the mail was for the grown-ups in their house or was bills or junk mail. We had a great discussion about how our airman friend Mark might have felt alot of the same things when he received a big packet of letters from our class. Our hope was that it helped him to realize that he was doing a good thing and that we had noticed. We wanted him to feel proud for what he was doing to serve our country. Many connections were made during our conversation.
- Demonstration/Celebration/Evaluation:After you’ve done the amazing work of your service-learning project, take time to celebrate it! You could do this in a variety of ways, like by writing about what your students learned, in a journal or in a PowerPoint presentation. You could create banners or posters around the school highlighting the project, coordinate news coverage about your project or post the project on the school website. Here you also evaluate how the project went, and begin steps for doing your next service-learning project based on what happened this time around. The celebration phase of our Robinson service-learning project is ongoing, really. We have shared it on our website, and we are planning a schoolwide assembly in the spring at our school to highlight all of the projects that we will have been involved in throughout the year. Our class may create Wordles about it (related to my post from yesterday), or blog about it (once we start this next week!). No matter what we decided to do, it’s vital that we stopped to notice the work we had done and the difference we made!
So what will you do to participate in service-learning? Everyone can make a difference.