Students Take Action in the Community | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as part of his recently announced initiative known as NYC Service, has asked every principal to come up with a plan that weaves community service into the curriculum.

The mayor says his goal is to "engrain service into the DNA of young New Yorkers" so that they grow into tomorrow's army of active volunteers. That's laudable. But most kids are savvy enough to know the difference between mandatory service and volunteering. So, here's a hint: Don't call it service. To make civic engagement into a lifelong habit, service opportunities need to feel more like a choice and less like a chore.

Twenty-three percent of school-age kids volunteer their time for myriad causes, according to the youth organization Do Something. Many accomplish great results.

The Grassroots Approach

Thousands of elementary school students in New York City, for instance, go on an annual scavenger hunt for spare change as part of a project called Penny Harvest. Once they count the loot, kids become philanthropists. They research local issues, interview nonprofit leaders, and determine which causes are worthy of their coppers. Students have made nearly $7 million in grants since 1991. Many extend the effort with additional projects that enhance their neighborhoods.

Service sometimes starts with a good question. Teens from the Bronx, many of them first-generation Americans, last year focused their creativity and critical thinking on a topic that was right under their noses: Who chooses which foods our neighborhood bodegas sell? And why are there so many chips and other snack foods, yet so few fresh vegetables and fruits for sale in our neighborhood?

Working with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, they turned their inquiry into a compelling documentary, Bodega Down Bronx, that sparks community discussions about nutrition, poverty, health, and food systems.

At Scituate High School, in North Scituate, Rhode Island, students have greened their campus by building a biodiesel tank, installing solar panels, and turning empty food containers into rain barrels. Fired up about their accomplishments -- for which they were awarded a $1,500 prize and earned a write-up in a science textbook -- students have become environmental advocates far beyond the campus. Their efforts are changing community behaviors when it comes to recycling and energy use.

These examples illustrate the best kind of service learning, which puts an equal emphasis on service and learning. Well-designed projects challenge students to choose an issue that matters to them, invest time in authentic research, interact with the world outside the classroom, and then do something that will achieve real results.

Benefits can be far reaching. Real-world projects give students practical experience in collaborating, communicating, and making critical decisions. What's more, projects allow students to see that they can make a difference -- what psychologists call self-efficacy. Such experiences stick with kids long after they leave school.

Making Helping Hip

Those on the receiving end of student efforts also stand to gain. According to the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, youth projects that meet community needs help adults see young people in a new light -- as resources, not problems. Projects create opportunities for adults to be not only mentors for but also partners with young people.

As already busy school leaders consider how to add service to the curriculum, they would be wise to consider how other organizations encourage kids to use their free time for good work. The Do Something Web site emphasizes choice by asking kids, "What's your thing?" Instead of focusing on service, Do Something is all about action.

Similarly, an organization called Youth Venture recruits teams of young do-gooders by challenging teens to "Dream it. Do it." That approach has a whole different flavor than a mandatory trash pick-up.

If we hope to turn today's kids into tomorrow's volunteers, we need to make sure their first encounter with community service leaves them dreaming about doing even more.

Does your school encourage community action? Please share your stories about what motivates students to do something.

Comments (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Wendy,
Internal motivation seems to be the key to lasting engagement. It might help to encourage students to first share their interests, then look for ways to build on those in community projects. For instance, kids with an interest in video could make public-service announcements to promote local causes. Students with a passion for the outdoors might create a guide to area nature trails. Plenty of opportunities to incorporate academics with these topics.
Good luck!

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'll bet your student athletes have built stronger team skills through their community efforts. These projects offer kids a way to step into leadership roles, too. Community projects create so many opportunities for students to grow. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Kelly C.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my opinion the New York City School District and all of their 1.1 million students are taking a step forward in the right direction. All school aged children should participate in volunteer service activities, events, programs, or causes. As an eighth grade teacher in a working class school district I am amazed to see how ungrateful many of my students are; they, like many others, view volunteering as a chore rather than giving back and a rewarding experience. Just recently in class we read an article published in the May edition of SCOPE Magazine for kids on the need for volunteering and the plan to both encourage and enforce children to meet a required number of hours before graduating from high school. This article featured President Obama and his opinion that middle and high school aged students meet a minimum of 50 volunteer hours a year. He supported his reasoning by showing the positive effects associated with volunteering which included a higher percentage of students completing high school and moving on to pursue a degree in college. This article also related to many comments mentioned above about changing the way students view volunteer work. We need to get children to want to volunteer rather than do it only to fulfill a requirement. If students aren't invested in the volunteer work they do, I feel they won't take as much from the experience as they would if their heart was in it. I enjoyed reading about some of the ways to incorporate volunteering/service work without calling it that, especially the spare change hunt called Penny Harvest, what a creative way to get students involved and give them a say in where they want their efforts to benefit. Initially, students may have the "why do we have to do this" attitude, but there is a great possibility that many students will walk away from their volunteer experience ready to jump into their next one. If this is accomplished, progress has been made and we have added to the number of people who will look at volunteering as a life long service and do what they can to help others.

Thank you for providing such a valuable discussion topic, I enjoyed hearing what diverse individuals around the country feel in response to this initiative.

Kelly C.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love that Mayor Bloomberg is encouraging kids to take action! I think that often teachers sacrifice things such as this because of state standards and accountability through testing. It is so important for us to realize that our job as teachers extends beyond academics. I also need to teach my students to be good citizens and to be helpful, contributing members of their community.

This year my team at school decided to devote a day to going green. Leading up to the day, we did research and wrote persuasively about why people should go green. We also searched for ways that we could help the environment. On "Green Day," we planted trees outside the school, picked up trash in a local park, and even had a green (mostly waste-free) party. Students loved every part of the day, including picking up trash. It was fun to watch the boys, always competitive, race out to a piece of trash, pick it up, and yell "yes" because they got there first.

While I know that one day is pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things, I hope to seek out more ways to embed service into the school year and to extend our service beyond the limits of our school grounds.

Wendy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for the suggestions. I am looking forward to trying to build this area up in our school next year. I think starting the year off by finding out where the student interests are is a great idea.


Wendy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I had received a gift from a friend through the Heifer project that serves a similar purpose. What a great way to get the students involved and give them another reason to read! This seems like it is a winning idea from many different angles.

Wendy Horner
Grand Canyon Elementary School

Dawn Henneman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently started teaching in a rural high school. The attitude of the students was shocking to me as they seemed eager to trash the school and community, physically and verbally.

Requiring students to participate in community projects is a great way to get them involved and hopefully thinking about others besides themselves. This may open their eyes so they can see not only are others sometimes worse off than they are but that no matter where they live or what their financial circumstances they can make a difference and change things in their own lives and their community.

I have been involved in collecting pennies and Heifer International at other schools. What a change in attitudes when kids saw they could make a difference. The pride they felt in their accomplishments generalized into their school work and school spirit making their learning experience much more fun and profitable.

Sharonda Scott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We take on different types of projects. Ranging from project clean up, where the students clean school grounds, volunteer to clean the cafeteria and Gym after Jr. High and High school lunch, can food drives, to collecting money for the local C.A.R.E.S. program, we also rent a Beta for clean up week before Christmas break and at the end of the year. We also do what we call "Reach one, Teach one." This is a touring program. Next year we are going to donate two book bags to needy students in the elementary school. There is a whole list of things that we have done and plan to do. This is just some of them. Also, we participate in The Souper Bowel, this can be found on line for more information.

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a terrific example of what community service can do. As a "newcomer" to this school, did you have to overcome any resistance to get service projects started? Or did you just dive in? Any tips to share with other educators who want to get something going that might improve school-community culture?

Maia Ermita's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Though initially a plug for the outreach I do with Media That Matters (, I wanted to give my two cents in using media as a way to inform this next generation of community service leaders and decision makers.

As part of our focus in social issue media, we use the platform of a curated film festival every year to bring 12 inspiring short films matched with immediate take action opportunities and extend these into the classroom with discussion guides and resources for audiences young and old to take action.

A key part of getting young people inspired to serve in their community is actually informing them about problems both near and far and defining their role in creating social change whether in their neighborhood or on the other side of the globe.

Using media (not only our film festival in particular, but using it as an example) can help expedite the immediate need for young people to be involved and tap into local resources like Mayor Bloomberg's service initiative and promote this behavior of creating positive change in the community.

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