The National Service-Learning Conference, which just wrapped up its 21st annual gathering in San Jose, California, attracted some 2,000 attendees. Participants came from every state and more than 30 countries, but the most telling statistic may be this: a third of attendees were youth.
Given the chance to experience genuine service-learning, students often become outspoken advocates for this engaging -- but still underutilized -- way of learning.
Jim Kielsmeier, founder and CEO of the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), has been advocating for service-learning for three decades. Research is helping make the case for the benefits of this instructional approach. "We know that service-learning can deliver around the mission of what schools say they need to do," he says, "including academic achievement, civic responsibility, and personal development."
But a Harris poll released at the conference indicates there's more work to do to make sure those benefits reach all students. Two-thirds of the public are still unacquainted with service-learning, according to the survey, and only 47 percent of educators (pre-K-12) consider themselves familiar with the concept.
The Value-Add of Service
Kielsmeier and his organization are ready to help with a growing array of resources for educators, including standards for high-quality service-learning, a network of like-minded schools, and online professional development opportunities for educators.
But before diving in, most teachers want a better understanding of what service-learning is all about. Kielsmeier offers this shorthand definition: "It's learning by doing, with a giving dimension."
What does that look like in practice? For one student, a service project might involve doing authentic research for a science investigation. Kielsmeier recalls a student who reflected, "When I come to school, take a water sample, and send it on to the department of natural resources as part of an ongoing study of the river, I change from being a student to becoming a scientist."
Growing the Network
Real service-learning puts equal emphasis on both service and learning. Kielsmeier says he's seen "a bit of a correction" in the field in recent years. "There's a growing awareness that service-learning is more than community service. We're seeing teachers doing service-learning at a higher level," he adds, "and the richness of programs out there is astounding." Grounded in constructivism, service-learning shares many of the same features that make project learning effective.
One resource that is helping teachers design more rigorous and relevant service projects is the set of K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice.
Building on these standards, NYLC has just released a new online resource called Lift: Raising the Bar for Service-Learning Practice. It uses video examples featuring service-learning veterans as the foundation of online professional development. This self-study resource is appropriate for individual teachers, school-based teams, or other cohorts.
Another new resource is the Generator School Network. The network connects schools that share a commitment to service-learning, setting the stage for exchanging ideas and continually improving practice. Building a network is also a strategy for sustaining service-learning efforts. Too often, a school's program depends on the energy of one passionate teacher. "If that teacher leaves, we want to make sure the school is still invested and the program continues to thrive," Kielsmeier explains.
For years, teachers have informally shared stories about students transformed through service projects. I remember one teacher describing a student "who seemed to get taller, right before my eyes," while doing an ambitious project. Now, researchers are taking a more serious look at the evidence for service-learning, particularly when it comes to reducing dropout rates and improving academic results. NYLC continues to grow its library of research and publishes an annual report called Growing to Greatness: The State of Service-Learning.
If you're already doing service-learning projects at your school, how do you make sure word gets out about your students' contributions to the community? What's the value-add for your school? And if you're not yet doing service projects, what's holding you back? What resources would help you give service-learning a try?
We look forward to hearing your ideas.