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How to Bring Service Learning to Your School

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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I have found myself drawn to the topic of systematically fostering civic engagement in youth, especially high school and college-age students. Unless we get them meaningfully involved with school and community participation in government and decision making, we have reasons to worry about the quality of our leadership and our democracy in the future.

A Clear Definition

For educators, a plain distinction needs to be made between community service and service learning. When youth engage in service learning, it involves more than arriving at a soup kitchen or a park and serving food or cleaning up. It begins with preparation and learning about the particular problem area or context the service experience will address and, ideally, is linked to academic subject matter being studied.

So, preparation for a soup kitchen visit can involve learning about homelessness, poverty, or nutrition. Cleaning up a park can be linked to geography, environmental conservation, or community recreation.

After preparation comes action. This step should respond to actual community needs, be age appropriate and well organized, achieve specific benefits for the setting, and build specific skills in those carrying out the service. It should also involve direct collaboration with the recipients of the service, and should be genuine and personally meaningful, generating emotional consequences that can build empathy and challenge preexisting ideas and values.

It is widely agreed that the next component -- reflection -- is the hallmark of high-quality service learning.

At a minimum, reflection is guided, can occur in a range of modalities, typically is shared, and involves recalling elements of the service experience. It should also relate those experiences to prior situations, beliefs, and learning, asking questions, and coming up with solutions to problems, as well as considering the meaning of involvement for one's current and future identity.

The reflection process also provides an opportunity for feedback and skill building and development necessary to be more effective at the tasks the service activities encompass.

Finally, service learning includes demonstration and celebration. Those engaged in service learning share their experience with others, including their academic and social and emotional learning.

The Benefits

When students prepare for sharing with others, their learning is also deepened. They might need to make a set of charts related to nutrition and present those to parent and community groups, or organize an assembly and create stations illustrating for fellow students all the various activities needed to preserve a park and why doing so is important.

Service learning is a remarkable and powerful pedagogy because it focuses on the specific needs of communities and it is concerned with individual wellness, building strengths, fostering collaboration, promoting social justice, empowering participation, enhancing a sense of community, and respecting diversity. It gives voice to the rarely heard and underserved. There is a strong research base documenting, that, when implemented rigorously, service learning can have quite an impact.

A recent report provided an excellent summary of findings consistently showing benefits in social and emotional competencies, civic commitment, academic outcomes, and career planning to those carrying out the service. Recipients also benefit more from service-learning experiences than from those experiences characterized as community service.

Further evidence comes from the work of Andrew Furco, who compared high school students who engaged in service learning with peers who either performed community service or participated in no service. The service-learning group scored higher on all academic measures -- based on a rubric of academic goals -- and engaged in ongoing reflective opportunities.

Getting Started

There are many resources to help those of you interested in service learning. You may want to begin by reading this article here at The National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement offers a repository for ongoing research in service learning and provides techniques for sustaining it. Other outstanding tools are available for engaging youth in service at the Web site of the Presidential Service Awards.

Here are a few ways to bring service learning to your students:

  • The Giraffe Heroes Project is an organization that, according to its Web site, is for "people who have the courage to stick their necks out for the common good."
  • The Skills for Action program is offered by Lions Quest, an initiative of the Lions Clubs International Foundation.
  • Students find Barbara Lewis's books especially engaging, such as The Kid's Guide to Social Action, The Kid's Guide to Service Projects, and What Do You Stand For?

There is an ever-growing array of well-developed resources out there. It's time to bring service learning systematically into your schools and into your pedagogy. Your students will benefit socially, emotionally, ethically, and academically.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Joan Young's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for the inspiration to get more involved in service learning. I hope that others will share ideas, and I also vow to share what I find when I research ideas for Kindergarten classes to become involved in a service learning project. I love the Giraffe Heroes project as mentioned, but for teachers like me who don't have $195 for the curriculum, there is a barrier to using these resources. I know that I can do a project by researching for myself, but I like the idea of a step by step service learning approach that offers more benefit that a one-time fund-raising event. Thanks for inspiring me to look into helping my kids benefit from giving.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just wanted to comment on the Giraffe Heroes project in general and available materials in particular. If you go to and keep looking beyond the $195 kits, you will see a very reasonably priced service learning guide and other relevant resources. Excellent inexpensive materials are available at Free Spirit publishers and through Educators for Social Responsibility and at the web site of the Education Commission for the States/Center for Learning and Citizenship. I am amazed at the plethora of materials of high quality for all age groups!!

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's in the nature of blogs that everyone does not see every post, and the titles of posts matter. I just want to alert everyone to look at the Project Learning Tree Greenworks! Grants post for excellent ideas about resources to help you get started, or move forward more briskly, with your service learning efforts. Note that service learning is a variant of project based learning, for which there are a number of outstanding resources at the edutopia web site.

Barbara Ryczek's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in a small well to do school district. My students are very fortunate to come from stable, educated, supportive families. I am very inspired to try service learning in my classroom. What a powerful life-long learning experience for my students to realize they can have an impact on making the lives of others in and around our community better. I am excited to take a closer look at the Giraffe Heros Project. Being new at this I think I need some structure and assistance to make our project successful. I can't wait to get started with planning for the fall.
Best of Luck to all,

Meghan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This blog was so helpful to read! My school within the past few years has focused on service learning. Thanks for the helpful sites to get further information and resources. My school has done a lot with Pennies for Patients, where we have been collecting pennies for children with leukemia. As the money comes in, we count it (tying into math), as well as we write letters and cards to the patients at the hospital (language arts.
Service learning is a great opportunity for students to help their community while learning the needed skills in different core academic areas.

Meghan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the great ideas/resources for service learning! I especially like the Giraffe Heroes Projects's ideas. My school has recently been focusing on service learning and this blog has presented some new ideas and ways to look at service learning. We have particpated school-wide in "Pennies for Patients" where the students brought in coins to collect for students with leukemia. As the money came in, the students counted the coins and graphed how much of each kind of coin came in. They also sent letters and cards to the patients as well, so not only were the students helping the community, they were also practicing money counting skills and also language arts skills.

More schools should participate in service learning! What a great new generation we would be producing that are helping others and learnin at the same time!

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To those of you who have pledged to share your experiences trying service learning, I can only salute you and ask that you follow through. Whether or not you are successful does not matter. If you are successful, your ideas will be useful to others. If you are not successful, what you have learned in the attempt will be valuable for others, and you may well find that in sharing your difficulties, others have solutions for you to try. This is how the field truly gets better: by people who are "walking the talk" sharing their experiences and helping the standards of practice. Onward!!

Susan Craig's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Operation Smile has a comprehensive student program designed to help students identify needs in their communities and the world and to develop the tools to make a difference. Their International Student Leadership Conference is designed to empower students to stand up and take charge, organize initiatives, and be proactive in their own neighborhoods and internationaly. Our student club was founded by a young man whose heart was profoundly touched by the lives of those less fortunate than himself suffering from the birth defect of a cleft lip and/or cleft palate. The club has flourished since being reenergized by a fantastic Club Sponsor, Ms. Carolyn Szymczyk, and by students who really care. They care enough to attend a Leadership Conference, spend countless hours creating awareness and raising funds. A few also courageously step up and apply to be one of two students accepted to travel to a third world country as a member of a medical team destined to change the world one smile at time.

Debbie Withrow's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading about the service learning projects. In the school district that I work in, we must complete a service learning project to become tenured. We have had some wonderful projects that have served our community and other communities around the country in need. Thank you for the information about the Girafee Heroes Project website.

Susan Sneller's picture
Susan Sneller
Service learning grant administrator

It is great to read so many positive comments about service learning. I taught it for six years with kids with emotional difficulties, with amazing, magical, gratifying results.
I believe one critical element for successful service learning is student voice. When students are seriously asked for their input into work to assist the community, it creates a buy-in that becomes an integral part of their beings. If it is the teacher's idea, service learning frequently dies when the teacher leaves, because it is his/her passion, not the students'.
Here at Service Learning Texas, we are delighted to help anyone who wants to get started, in any way we can. We have research, quotes from students, parents and teachers, power points, ideas--anything we can to help you out. We just want this wonderful magic to spread.


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