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How to Bring Service Learning to Your School

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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Unless we get them meaningfully involved with school and community participation in government and decision making, we have reasons to worry about the quality of our leadership and our democracy in the future.


A Clear Definition

For educators, a plain distinction needs to be made between community service and service learning. When youth engage in service learning, it involves more than arriving at a soup kitchen or a park and serving food or cleaning up. It begins with preparation and learning about the particular problem area or context the service experience will address and, ideally, is linked to academic subject matter being studied.

So, preparation for a soup kitchen visit can involve learning about homelessness, poverty, or nutrition. Cleaning up a park can be linked to geography, environmental conservation, or community recreation.

After preparation comes action. This step should respond to actual community needs, be age appropriate and well organized, achieve specific benefits for the setting, and build specific skills in those carrying out the service. It should also involve direct collaboration with the recipients of the service, and should be genuine and personally meaningful, generating emotional consequences that can build empathy and challenge preexisting ideas and values.

It is widely agreed that the next component -- reflection -- is the hallmark of high-quality service learning.

At a minimum, reflection is guided, can occur in a range of modalities, typically is shared, and involves recalling elements of the service experience. It should also relate those experiences to prior situations, beliefs, and learning, asking questions, and coming up with solutions to problems, as well as considering the meaning of involvement for one's current and future identity.

The reflection process also provides an opportunity for feedback and skill building and development necessary to be more effective at the tasks the service activities encompass.

Finally, service learning includes demonstration and celebration. Those engaged in service learning share their experience with others, including their academic and social and emotional learning.

The Benefits

When students prepare for sharing with others, their learning is also deepened. They might need to make a set of charts related to nutrition and present those to parent and community groups, or organize an assembly and create stations illustrating for fellow students all the various activities needed to preserve a park and why doing so is important.

Service learning is a remarkable and powerful pedagogy because it focuses on the specific needs of communities and it is concerned with individual wellness, building strengths, fostering collaboration, promoting social justice, empowering participation, enhancing a sense of community, and respecting diversity. It gives voice to the rarely heard and underserved. There is a strong research base documenting, that, when implemented rigorously, service learning can have quite an impact.

A recent report provided an excellent summary of findings consistently showing benefits in social and emotional competencies, civic commitment, academic outcomes, and career planning to those carrying out the service. Recipients also benefit more from service-learning experiences than from those experiences characterized as community service.

Further evidence comes from the work of Andrew Furco, who compared high school students who engaged in service learning with peers who either performed community service or participated in no service. The service-learning group scored higher on all academic measures -- based on a rubric of academic goals -- and engaged in ongoing reflective opportunities.

Getting Started

There are many resources to help those of you interested in service learning. You may want to begin by reading this article here at The National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement offers a repository for ongoing research in service learning and provides techniques for sustaining it. Other outstanding tools are available for engaging youth in service at the Web site of the Presidential Service Awards.

Here are a few ways to bring service learning to your students:

  • The Giraffe Heroes Project is an organization that, according to its Web site, is for "people who have the courage to stick their necks out for the common good."
  • The Skills for Action program is offered by Lions Quest, an initiative of the Lions Clubs International Foundation.
  • Students find Barbara Lewis's books especially engaging, such as The Kid's Guide to Social Action, The Kid's Guide to Service Projects, and What Do You Stand For?

There is an ever-growing array of well-developed resources out there. It's time to bring service learning systematically into your schools and into your pedagogy. Your students will benefit socially, emotionally, ethically, and academically.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

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Jackie Stallard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Looking for more ways to bring service learning to your students?

Why not guide your students in developing, planning, and implementing a neighborhood service learning project? With a GreenWorks! grant from Project Learning Tree, you and your students can obtain funds to do just that.
Project Learning Tree(r) (PLT) is an award-winning national environmental education program for educators and their students in grades PreK-12. GreenWorks! is the service-learning, community action program of PLT that partners PLT educators, students, and communities in environmental service learning projects. GreenWorks! blends service activities with the academic curriculum and addresses real community needs as students learn through active engagement. Since 1992, more than $650,000 in GreenWorks! grants have been distributed to fund over 870 environmental projects in communities across the country.
Maurice Elias highlights that a distinction needs to be made between community service and service learning. The GreenWorks! grant application asks project managers to think through the various components of high-level service learning. Some specific questions include: How are students involved in planning the project?; Explain how the project is connected to academic curricula; How will students learn from the project?; How will the community benefit?

Through responding to these questions and more, project managers begin building backbones to successful service-learning projects. Elias also comments on the importance of reflection. Many project managers incorporate journaling into service-learning projects as an effective means to record and monitor reflection activities. GreenWorks! grants also require the submission of a final report, where students and project managers are asked to reflect upon the success of their service-learning activities. Project Learning Tree reviews these grant reports and then shares student experiences with over 40,000 educators nationwide through their quarterly online newsletter, the BRANCH.

You can learn more about Project Learning Tree at and then visit to review additional service-learning project ideas and submit a GreenWorks! grant application.

Another great organization with useful tools for service-learning beginners (and veterans!) is the National Youth Leadership Council. Visit their website at

Ruth Brinton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a retired teacher and volunteer at the Giraffe Heroes Project. I've been reading the Project's civic engagement curriculum for grades 6-9, and I'm very impressed with the design, structure and resources of this program. It makes me wish I were still teaching! It's easy to follow, and it gives teachers plenty of opportunities to interface with curricula in social studies, sciences, arts and literature.

The Project offers four curriculum modules: K-2, 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12, as well as a guidebook for adults called "Stick Your Neck Out: A Street-Smart Guide to Creating Change in Your Community and Beyond." The guidebook is also well-written and logically structured in a series of steps that anyone can use to develop service projects, either individually or in a group, and it has great examples (as do all of the curriculum modules) from the Project's database of almost 1100 Giraffe Heroes, people who've taken significant personal risks to work for change.

The Project's Education Director offers a dynamite training workshop for teachers. I encourage anyone interested in bringing service learning to a school or community center to check out these resources.

Bob Patterson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Bob Patterson. I was doing full time work for Discovery Communications Inc. (Discovery Channel) and now do contractual work for them. I am also the Chairman of The Board of Directors for the Giraffe Heroes Project mentioned in your article. We have learned many aspects of successful violence prevention since the Columbine tragedy. Violence Prevention includes; impacting bystanders, exploring attitudes, providing skills to handle specific situations with peers, and fostering the development of character traits that help young people be less violent, and have empathy for those who are bullied. One aspect of this prevention effort is Service Learning. Once young people are exposed to the gratification of helping others, and finding a deeper meaning for their lives in those efforts, the impact is life changing. They start to see more clearly the anti-violence message because their definition of who they are has changed. We at The Giraffe Heroes Project are dedicated to the efforts of inspiring young people to make a difference in our cultures, and see the expanded meaning of their lives through these efforts. We also feel fortunate to communicate with such dedicated people as all of you, thank you, Bob Patterson

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I invite readers to do as the Giraffe Project recommends and "stick your neck out." Share approaches to service learning that you have used, or pose questions so that others can help you find answers. Given that the literature supporting service learning is so extensive, I don't quite understand why it isn't more widespread. Perhaps it's because we have not made it clear that service learning can happen in any classroom, in hallways, in lunchrooms, and in school buildings, and not only outside the school. We don't have to make this overly complicated. As long as the key elements of service learning are in place, students will benefit from the experience.

Kristyn George's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The school I teach at took on the concept of having an 'Enriched Language Arts' section for the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes. We will be entering only our second year with this gifted class of students in place. Last year we began working on a project called "Community Plunge" which is centered around service learning. Each grade level chose a certain topic that coincides with their curriculum. For example, the sixth grade is doing work with local animal shleters and is trying to put in place a schedule where students will walk elderly people's dogs on Saturday mornings. This was brought about due to a novel they read where the main character is a dog. The seventh grade is focusing on 'Going Green' where they will try to implement recycling programs, look into ways to conserve energy along with volunteer to clean up local parks and residential homes in need. The eighth grade is still debating in which direction they will be headed. The idea of service learning is one that should never be left out of schools. Children can learn so much from helping others, the environment and essentially themselves. The Giraffe Heroes Project is one that I will be sharing with my colleagues in the fall. If anyone has information specifically about 'Going Green' I would be very interested in hearing it.

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