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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Use Service Learning to Engage Kids

Six strategies for starting meaningful community-service projects.
By Lisa Morehouse

Ready to Serve:

Lori Gonzalez, principal of Fowler's Sutter Middle School, is proud of her school's service-learning students, the Chávez Caring Crew.

Credit: Klaus Larsen

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Rural Students Reap Academic Gains from Community Service."

Integrating service-learning projects into your curriculum doesn't have to add hours to your planning time, and these projects deliver a big payoff for students. Fowler Unified School District teacher Monica Sigala urges her colleagues to begin with a short project. "Just start small and let it grow," says the teacher of grades 6-7. "Don't fear it, because service learning creates the type of kids who know they can make a difference in a life or in the world." Sigala and fellow Fowler teacher LeAnn Hodges share their strategies:

Let the Kids Identify a Need

Many teachers have students interview members of their family and community to find out what problems are in need of tackling and what resources are available. Real needs can also be identified through student journal assignments and classroom discussions. Hodges asks her third graders, "Is there a poverty problem? Is there a graffiti problem? What are the needs in our community?"

Use Current Events

She also suggests studying current events to help identify needs. Her students once developed a service-learning project around helping families affected by a major Central Valley citrus freeze, both because many of their family members were field workers and because they were regularly reading the local newspaper as a class to find out what was going on in their community. Once students identify needs, she says, project ideas develop organically.

Involve Students in Decision Making and Project Design

After students brainstorm project ideas, Sigala leads them through planning with the following questions: What's the purpose of the project? Who will benefit? What steps will we need to take (writing letters, finding community donors)? What background research do we need to do? "The class fullheartedly buys into the project," she says, "because it is something they created. Without knowing it, they are learning the standards in a cooperative-learning environment."

Start Small and Local

Hodges recommends that teachers new to service learning create a two-week project. "What's a need at your school? If you have students who can't afford pencils, you can do a pencil drive," she says.

After students identify a need and a way to address it, the teacher can determine curricular ties. With a pencil project like this, Hodges would teach math (having students create graphs and charts comparing the numbers of pencils they collect with their goal) and tie in language arts by assigning letter writing and journal keeping to students summarizing their experiences.

Other short-term projects Hodges recommends include collecting and counting cans of food for two weeks before donating them to a food pantry and writing letters to local nurseries asking them to donate plants. She also suggests that students can study how the plants grow and stay healthy, and they can determine optimum locations while charting their growth. Students can also work on creating a brochure, a play, or a video to welcome incoming students to the school.

Don't Fret Over Addressing Academic Standards

"Tying in the standards is actually the easiest part," says Hodges. Both she and Sigala work with students to create a project before identifying academic skills to integrate. After she and her class have outlined the project, Sigala sits down with her standards and applies the ones that fit.

"Amazingly, the standards just start popping up all over the project," she says. "Rarely have I ever had to get too creative in matching standards to project objectives."

Look for Opportunities to Make Learning Connections

Hodges advocates using service projects as content for developing skills. "I try to tie in mini-lessons with projects," she says. After teaching adjectives to her third graders, Hodges had students use them in conjunction with a class trout-raising project by writing sentences describing the trout at different stages of their life cycle.

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ms. Bannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our school has been recycling paper for the past two years. We are a K-5 school in North Little Rock, AR. We are finally starting an Environmental Club. We would like to become a recycling center, however, space is an issue. I would like the students in the recycle club to research and make the contacts for recycling other items. I am working with 5th graders and not sure if they are mature enough for the task. I won't know until I try. Waste Management hauls our trash, so I think that is where I will have them begin.

karen's picture

Check out the Elmer's Glue Crew for a great way to get kids involved with recycling that doesn't require a great deal of space! Check out www.arkansaspress.org for additional ideas under Newspapers in Education teacher resources.

Mike Morgan's picture

Don't fret over the standards. Agreed.

""Amazingly, the standards just start popping up all over the project," she says. "Rarely have I ever had to get too creative in matching standards to project objectives.""

I have experienced just this thing. And it's true. But wouldn't you know, that doesn't completely mesh with the "start with the end in mind" philosophy? I started with the end in mind on a "public service announcement" project. Had an overbearing and misguided principal who took issue two years ago with the fact i did not outline all standards addressed before hand. "How will they know they're expected to achieve those standards if they were not outlined first?"

I knew i was right. As it turns out i'm still employed. That principal is not. But i can imagine how much more frustrated i would have been if my pay were tied to that "performance". Drifting off topic....

My students have always been more dedicated to problem based activities when they are the ones to identify the problem.

Stephanie Hoaglund's picture
Stephanie Hoaglund
Digital & Marketing Strategist, Blogger, Speaker

These are great suggestions for even parents to use when teaching kids at home to give back.

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

Every year my classes have a major project that they do for the community (national, local or international). It is a great experience for the students, they have to create their own hypothesis, research to see if that hypothesis is true, talk to community resources, and present to community resources. We have added the use of social media as a part of their presentations.

Tara Barton's picture
Tara Barton
Middle and High School Arts teacher at International School Manila

Great article Lisa! Breaking it down into 6 easy steps allows other teachers to see how easy it is to integrate service learning into the curriculum :)

Cheers Tara

Tara Barton's picture
Tara Barton
Middle and High School Arts teacher at International School Manila

Great article Lisa! Breaking it down into 6 easy steps allows other teachers to see how easy it is to integrate service learning into the curriculum :)

Cheers Tara

Tara Barton's picture
Tara Barton
Middle and High School Arts teacher at International School Manila

Great article Lisa! Breaking it down into 6 easy steps allows other teachers to see how easy it is to integrate service learning into the curriculum :)

Cheers Tara

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

This is exactly what our organization/group does on a global basis using the 5 Points of the Star principles ....it takes a great deal of organization but is worth all the work. We have an Adopt a Village program and other projects that use service learning as a part of the real world aspect of the projects. Great Article...the standards not only get addressed but are usually exceeded by this type of learning.

Miss W's picture

During my second year of my bachelor of education degree, we had a service learning component of one of our classes. I chose to volunteer at a student run clinic that provided medical care and social programming to families living in poverty in my city's core neighbourhood. We had a minimum number of hours to complete, but I found the experience so rewarding, I staying on there afterward. In the end, we had to create a fair-style presentation to show what we learned and how it has impacted us as future educators. It was a really positive experience for me about the importance of connecting to the communities in which we work.

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