Find out how to begin service studying tasks that align along with your curriculum

Service learning projects are a great opportunity to combine student learning in the classroom with real world experiences in the community. They give students the opportunity to develop their leadership and communication skills, become engaged citizens, and grow as individuals. Service learning projects can help teenagers understand themselves better as they explore and develop ways to contribute to their community. You can develop confidence and an increased commitment to public service. The advantages are apparent. In practice, however, it can be very difficult to create meaningful service learning offerings for our students that fit into the school’s curriculum and calendar. To start service learning at your school:

In a recent report from Civic, 86% of teachers said they would like to offer more service learning opportunities. Only 16% of teachers said their school linked community service with classroom learning. That number is growing slowly but steadily.

We recently asked four educators who work in schools with a strong commitment to service learning to share their best advice on integrating service learning projects in a sustainable way that works for staff and students.

Design service learning projects easily and sustainably

We know that not every school has a dedicated service learning leader. And not all of us have the time to create and produce a major project. Keeping projects small and manageable is a great way for students to get involved and make sure a project is sustainable.

“The goal of service learning is to alert students that their actions can affect the world around them,” said Mari Lim Jones, elementary school teacher and now director of the Deeper Learning Hub at San High Tech High Graduate School of Education Diego, California, says.

“If that’s your goal, you can reduce this project to everything you need.”

Jones says that all service learning begins simply by working with the students on a problem. Ask questions like, “What problem do you see in your church? What did you notice? Why are you wondering? “Allow students to be the information gatherers in their community, then give them an opportunity to think about how they can solve the problem.

Service learning opportunity

In one of Jones’ fourth grade, students explored different ways of thinking about food from an environmental, health, and socio-economic perspective. Students then started a Food Day to educate their community about aspects of eating and make better decisions about the food they eat. The students then collected food and donated it to Feeding America.

Service learning opportunity

Second grade teachers at High Tech Elementary in San Diego, Marissa Adams and Rhea Manguil, encouraged their students to take on the roles of scientists and study bees in the ecosystem. The result? Students became advocates of bees! They wrote and performed plays about the bees. Then they wrote letters to the city of San Diego about the threat to the bee population. They planted over 200 bee-friendly plants. Then they built beehives to donate to a honey farm in Mexicali, California that supports local families and schools.

“After building beehives to send to Mexicali to help a community of women and children there, the students felt a sense of accomplishment and contribution to a problem that they realized affects us all” said Rhea Manguil.

Include all students in service learning projects

Denise Griffin teaches at Southmoore High School, a rural high school in Moore, Oklahoma. Your students have severe multiple disabilities.

“Service learning enables students to feel connected to their community and promotes a sense of self worth and worth. This is especially important with teenagers, ”says Griffin. “In addition, self-awareness and self-advocacy skills relate to transition services for people with disabilities.”

Service learning opportunity

Griffin started a project called “Creative Connections”. Your students create greeting cards, craft kits, and art projects for members of their community. “The goal is to add a little color to someone’s day and make them smile,” she says.

Service learning opportunity

Griffin is also part of a service learning book club discussing how to make a charitable cause like a grocery campaign more sustainable and meaningful. “Our goal is to expand the service offered and involve younger students in discussions about healthy food choices, while older students can explore why food actions are necessary.”

Griffin says her projects are sustainable because she developed strong community partnerships and involved the groups in the process. From the accompaniment and reflection to the evaluations and the celebration.

Work with organizations in your community

When service learning projects work with local organizations, students learn to engage with local people. They learn not only to serve others but also to respond to needs in their own communities.

Jen Denzin teaches English and psychology at Saline High School, a suburban school in Saline, Michigan. The service learning project that she organized with her students grew out of a need they recognized during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Service learning opportunity

Denzin students worked with the Saline Senior Center through weekly phone calls. The students also wrote cards for the seniors, paying tribute to important days such as birthdays and holidays.

The center reported that residents longed for talks during the lockdown. So their students started calling the seniors. Initially, the calls were intimidating for the students, but eventually everyone said their days got “brighter” after the calls.

“In most cases, our students learn more about themselves and the people they serve than they ever expected. And reflecting on this learning helps us continue to offer our community meaningful opportunities, ”says Denzin.

Integration of service learning projects into the classroom

Tiffany Searles is the Director of Community Engagement and Communications at the New Foundations Charter School, a K-13 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“Student retreat and dropout is often fueled by the lack of connection between what students learn in the classroom and what they need to know in their life outside of the classroom,” says Searles. “The integration of service learning helps students find purpose in their curriculum and builds their purpose and confidence as they build practical skills, connections and relationships.”

Service learning opportunity

Searles’ students have partnered with Judi’s House, a nonprofit nonprofit that supports grieving children and families. The students researched how to support children and families after the loss of a loved one. They put together a project that allowed participants to share words of encouragement, use songs, and make friendship bracelets. They helped the families in Judi’s home know they were not alone during this difficult time.

Service learning opportunity

The middle school students at the New Foundations Charter School learned that their community is a “food wasteland.” They grew vegetables in the school and community gardens, created care packages of recipes for their community members, and then hosted a garden party with a food prep demo that gave their community access to fresh vegetables and told them about quick, cheap, and easily informed recipes that they could could prepare at home.

For more information on service learning and SEL, see these resources.

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