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Students Take Action in the Community

| Suzie Boss
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.

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Comments (27)

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Suzie (not verified)

Great Examples

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Amber,
These are terrific examples of projects with high student interest factor. When kids get invested, they often wind up shattering adults' expectations. And I love the "prom shop" idea. It's taken hold in my hometown of Portland, Ore., too (Abby's Closet: http://www.abbyscloset.org). Sounds like you are well on your way to making community action part of the local culture.
Congratulations,
Suzie

Juanita Adams (not verified)

Recycling Project

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It seems like the community is very fortunate to have you as a teacher. A teacher who cares is really rare at times. In my opinion, the recycling project you promoted and actually worked out was great!You are making sure the community and the school is working together and helping to save the planet also. Hats off to you,Sonia.

Devon Dean (not verified)

Working on getting involved with the community

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With the addition of a new principal my school has began to move toward becoming more involved in the community. The district in which I teach is about 6 square miles, so we are a fairly small community, however it seems that we too have a hard time getting involved. We have had the opportunity to do some wonderful projects throughout the community, but with a lack of funding and having not found a group of people who are willing to take on such a task the ball has been slow rolling. However,looking back to previous years, we have done alot more for the community this year. We are in the process of selling raffle tickets to raise money for a new track at the local high school, the track is used for many community events and is in need of costly repair. We were fortunate enough to have a car donated for our raffle from our community dealership, but are finding that due to the economic downturn we are having a hard time meeting our goal of purchasing a new track. Even though we are meeting "speed bumps" along our way to community involvement, I truly believe that we need to give back to the community in any way possible, big or small it is the effort that can make the difference.

Amber S. (not verified)

I teach third grade at a

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I teach third grade at a Pre-k to 3rd grade school in a suburban town in Connecticut.  My school does not have many community action projects, but we are starting to work with the community now more than ever. My district created a strategic plan last year that included many different aspects, some of which being technology, character education, and  community involvement.  As our first project on the character education committee, we decided to start an event where all the kids in our school would read the same book, which we named "Read Around the School". The book we chose was Gooseberry Park by Cynthia Rylant.  In conjunction with reading the book, we teamed up with the Animal Welfare Society in town and asked children to find something used in their house that they no longer needed or to use their own money (that they could earn from doing chores) and buy something to donate to the welfare society.  This project only lasted 3 weeks, but the amount of donations was fantastic.  We had old blankets and towels, food, toys, and many other goodies donated.  The volunteers at the Animal Welfare Society came to our kick off and closing assemblies and they were amazed at all of the donations.  Suzie, I think you are right that projects like these need to be presented in a way that gets the kids excited or else they feel like it is hard work.  By relating the project to something the students are interested in, they become invested in it and want it to succeed.  They blew all of our expectations!Another example was something our local high school did.  They actually appeared on MSNBC!  They developed a in school "prom shop" where students could donate old dresses and shop for a new one for free, or by giving a small donation.  This allowed everyone who is having trouble in this tough economy to having the dress of their dreams for their special night!  Local shops joined in as well by offering discounts on hair/nail services and tuxedoes for the guys!  It was just another way that the community and schools worked together to help each other!

Sonia Bannon (not verified)

Does my school encourage

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Does my school encourage communicty action? Not really. We have business partners and lots of great ideas but no one to spear head them. When I moved out of the traditional classroom and became a "specialty" teacher, I found I had more time to spear head such projects. It is a ton of work. Two years ago with the help of a 4th grade class, I began a paper recycling program. The students would go around and collect the paper from classroom recycle bins. Before they collected the paper, they had to measure it. You save one tree for every 3 feet of paper you collect. The students wanted to turn it into a contest so we had (6) 6 inch parts of a tree (36 inches total), and as they collected the paper, they would add another part to a tree. We had a 5th grade class that recycled at least 12 inches a week. The kids were bringing in magazines and telephone books from home. So in 3 weeks they would save a tree and a whole tree would appear by their name in the hallway. It was a lot of work but got the ball rolling. It was very competitive until the last week of school. We are in our second year of recycling paper. The difficult part is to get someone to pick it up. Next year we are looking to add alluminum and plastic to our recycling project. Again, it is difficult to get someone to pick it up. I have to say, that a simple act of recycling paper has woken up many children to the issues of the environment. It has made them much more compassionate. They also feel a sense of pride, that they are making a difference. The experience has also lend itself to practicing and improving public speaking skills. Students had to inform classes on exactly what type of paper to recycle. If a class recycled something incorrectly, like facial tissue, the students had to go back to the classroom and tactfully say that this type of item is unacceptable in the recycling bin. Hopefully the experience will stay with them.

Sharonda S. (not verified)

I teach 7th grade World

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I teach 7th grade World History in a small community in SC. Our school does encourage community action but it is not required of the students. There are a lot of student organizations within our school that are centered around community service and volunteering. Students who willingly become part of these organizations are more willing to participate in community action then those who are required or forced by school rules. These organization are also social organization and fulfill the students want to socialize. But at the same time, each organization asks for individual service projects, as well as, whole group service projects.

Sharonda S. (not verified)

To Volunteer or Not to Volunteer? That is the question

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I teach 7th grade World History in a small community in SC. Our school does encourage community action but it is not required of the students. There are a lot of student organizations within our school that are centered around community service and volunteering. Students who willingly become part of these organizations are more willing to participate in community action then those who are required or forced by school rules. These organization are also social organization and fulfill the students want to socialize. But at the same time, each organization asks for individual service projects, as well as, whole group service projects.

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