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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Students Take Action in the Community

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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)

One piece of paper at a time, your students are learning how small steps can add up to big change. Sounds as if your student recyclers are gaining all kinds of valuable skills (public speaking, leadership, etc.) from this effort. As you expand the program (to include aluminum, plastic, etc.), are kids playing a bigger role (as project managers or organizers)?
Thanks for sharing,

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sounds like a smart approach--combining community action with socializing. Research about adults who volunteer shows that friendships are the glue for service efforts that stick. Seems like the same should be true for youth.
I'm curious what kinds of projects your students tackle. Any examples you might share?

Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach for a public school system in TN. We encourage community involvement, but it is not required. I wish it was a requirement so that more children and parents would be involved. We have such a lack of community and parental involvement that I feel projects like this would really be beneficial. I did required volunteer work in high school and learned so much. It is such a great feeling when you help others and see the joy on their faces. I think it is a great project idea and I wish it would be implemented in other areas.

Dave Matthews's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at a middle school in southern Maryland and loved this article. I teach PE & Social Studies and love the fact these kids are giving back. I also am a varsity football coach and have been since college. Every team I have coached has been required to do some kind of community service. It may be raking leaves, landscaping or doing something to help the elderly. As a coach we tell our kids it is great to give back and also a great way to gain support of the community. Our kids have been very anxious to help others and we really get no "Oh jeez we gotta do this" attiudes from anyone.

Terry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At my school kids are required to complete a certain number of volunteer hours before they are allowed to graduate. While it is a great idea in theory, it doesn't really have the impact that educators want to see. Sure there are more people getting involved with different community projects, but they only do it because they have to. Once their requirements are met, they stop volunteering. I think that if we find a way to get children excited about volunteering, not just tell them that they have to do it, there would be a more long-lasting impact.

Sonia Bannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you Juanita for the kind words. The students are learning to be responsible for the earth, I hope is stays with them.

Jesse's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that community service and getting involved in the community is a good thing, but there are many students who do not think that it is worth their time. I work with students at the elementary levels and they are always volunteering even when they do not know what they are volunteering for. At the older levels these actions seems to fade away. At the school that I recently graduated from are now thinking about making community service a requirement for each of the students in order to graduate. I remember when I was in school I was also so busy with sports, homework, and other school related activities that I never really had time for doing anything extra like volunteering. Since then I can now see how it can be very helpful to the community and the people and businesses that my actions are affecting. I agree that when this type of thing is made a requirement the students may not want to do it, but one good thing to come out of it is that the work is getting done whether the people doing it like it or not. Many of the students will stop volunteering their time and efforts when they have completed their hours, but even if one or two students choose to contine volunteering that is one or two more that were not volunteering before they were forced to. Getting involved in the community and building relationships with others is something that everyone should strive to do. Even if you are helping just one person, that is one more person that may have never got that help if it was not for you!

Sonia Bannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I never thought about project managers. Right now, I use a specific class. Next year I would like to do a recycle club that meets at a specific time. Our 5th graders have Choir one afternoon a week, I am sure I can run an independent group during that time as well. I recently discovered that NIKE will recycle old sneakers and turn them into playground equipment. I am hoping to do a schoolwide drive. I think I will go in the direction of recycling teams and a project manager for each team with that handle certain items. With the end of the year approaching and teachers purging their files, the students are really getting an eyefull on waste. I don't know if I mentioned it, but I am trying to get permission to teach a professional development class on teaching teachers how to create and execute test online. This will help reduce paper waste as well as aide the teaching in correcting the test. Baby steps. Your story about New York City was so inspiring, it has motivated me to do more.

Wendy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our school is an International Baccalaureate school for both the Primary years and Middle years program. One aspect of these programs is to encourage community involvement and service. I know that this is something that some of our elementary teachers struggle with. We are still working on finding ways for the students to be actively involved in serving our community and at the same time have it be effective learning time. In our middle and high school, our students are required to do a certain number of service hours before graduating. Like Terry mentioned earlier, they do the hours, and then the service seems to stop for most of them. Our teachers are working to try to find ways to have it be more of an internal motivation. There are some great points on this blog about how to do that, and I am looking forward to sharing them with my fellow teachers.

Jessie Grimm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love service learning projects. I am a recent graduate and when I did my student teaching my third grade class was learning about Africa. My class compared the differences they saw with the way they lived to the way some North Africans lived. They came across some major differences and wanted to help in some way. I knew of an organization called "Read to Feed" where the children raise money from the community by reading books and then the money that is raised will go toward an animal that will then go to a village in Africa to help a community survive. They were able to learn so much about a different culture, how to communicate effectively with others in their own community, work as a team to decide a goal for the project and decide together what animal they would provide for another community in Africa. It was so rewarding to use their interests to learn, but most of all to use their skills to provide better living for someone else.

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