George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Help Spread the Word about Service-Learning

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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The National Service-Learning Conference, which just wrapped up its 21st annual gathering in San Jose, California, attracted some 2,000 attendees. Participants came from every state and more than 30 countries, but the most telling statistic may be this: a third of attendees were youth.

Given the chance to experience genuine service-learning, students often become outspoken advocates for this engaging -- but still underutilized -- way of learning.

Jim Kielsmeier, founder and CEO of the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), has been advocating for service-learning for three decades. Research is helping make the case for the benefits of this instructional approach. "We know that service-learning can deliver around the mission of what schools say they need to do," he says, "including academic achievement, civic responsibility, and personal development."

But a Harris poll released at the conference indicates there's more work to do to make sure those benefits reach all students. Two-thirds of the public are still unacquainted with service-learning, according to the survey, and only 47 percent of educators (pre-K-12) consider themselves familiar with the concept.

The Value-Add of Service

Kielsmeier and his organization are ready to help with a growing array of resources for educators, including standards for high-quality service-learning, a network of like-minded schools, and online professional development opportunities for educators.

But before diving in, most teachers want a better understanding of what service-learning is all about. Kielsmeier offers this shorthand definition: "It's learning by doing, with a giving dimension."

What does that look like in practice? For one student, a service project might involve doing authentic research for a science investigation. Kielsmeier recalls a student who reflected, "When I come to school, take a water sample, and send it on to the department of natural resources as part of an ongoing study of the river, I change from being a student to becoming a scientist."

Growing the Network

Real service-learning puts equal emphasis on both service and learning. Kielsmeier says he's seen "a bit of a correction" in the field in recent years. "There's a growing awareness that service-learning is more than community service. We're seeing teachers doing service-learning at a higher level," he adds, "and the richness of programs out there is astounding." Grounded in constructivism, service-learning shares many of the same features that make project learning effective.

One resource that is helping teachers design more rigorous and relevant service projects is the set of K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice.

Building on these standards, NYLC has just released a new online resource called Lift: Raising the Bar for Service-Learning Practice. It uses video examples featuring service-learning veterans as the foundation of online professional development. This self-study resource is appropriate for individual teachers, school-based teams, or other cohorts.

Another new resource is the Generator School Network. The network connects schools that share a commitment to service-learning, setting the stage for exchanging ideas and continually improving practice. Building a network is also a strategy for sustaining service-learning efforts. Too often, a school's program depends on the energy of one passionate teacher. "If that teacher leaves, we want to make sure the school is still invested and the program continues to thrive," Kielsmeier explains.

For years, teachers have informally shared stories about students transformed through service projects. I remember one teacher describing a student "who seemed to get taller, right before my eyes," while doing an ambitious project. Now, researchers are taking a more serious look at the evidence for service-learning, particularly when it comes to reducing dropout rates and improving academic results. NYLC continues to grow its library of research and publishes an annual report called Growing to Greatness: The State of Service-Learning.

If you're already doing service-learning projects at your school, how do you make sure word gets out about your students' contributions to the community? What's the value-add for your school? And if you're not yet doing service projects, what's holding you back? What resources would help you give service-learning a try?

We look forward to hearing your ideas.

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Micahel J. Nathanson's picture

Service learning, like anything else can be a great accomplishment to any teacher's class if done correctly. I think one of the reasons service learning is not reaching more students is the reluctance of some teachers to try it because of their own lack of understanding of how it works. I think you point out the importance of learning more about this very important opportunity for students to learn. You give some great examples of things that work and these are encouraging for the new teacher or teachers new to service learning. It will be interesting for me to follow up on the leads you have presented and read more about this. The experience of others is always a great motivator. Thank you for sharing these ideas.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

I attended the conference too. Really energizing, great to see how young people were often electrified by what they were doing, making a difference. Using cross curricular skills on a need to know and need to do basis. Projects that are USEFUL. I am tired of building a stupid bridge from toothpicks or whatever, just to do it then break it. Meaningful projects are a little more difficult to conceptualize and they often have to change each year - sometimes an interesting problem gets fixed and next year's students then have to do something different. Young people especially, long for quests and heroic action. Service x science x project based learning. Cool.

See conference blogs at

Renee's picture
5th Grade Teacher from Bronx, New York

What is the difference between community service and service learning? Does anyone have any thoughts?

Amy Gullekson's picture

After instilling the Middle Years Program of the International Baccalaureate program at our school, we needed to find ways to help our students gain an understanding of what it meant to be a part of one's community. Service learning naturally followed after we ended the year with Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. As you already established, many students are interested in finding out how they can make a difference in the lives of those who do not have the same opportunities as them. My students stepped up to the challenge. They organized bake sales and even made a public service announcement to share at a school assembly. I was floored by their passionate words used to inspire students from other grade levels as well as peers who were not as eager as they were. They were constantly using knowledge from the book to share with those around the school, as well as their parents, who they persisted in badgering for money to contribute to the cause. Perhaps that was one of the best things that came out of this project: parent involvement and knowledge of what was going on in our classroom. Tenth graders do not normally run home and say, "Guess what I learned today!" but in this case, they did.

From this service learning project, these students learned how other world citizens view the value of a penny and a dollar, unlike some citizens who will often walk by a penny that lies on the sidewalk. Some of these students started coming into class and sharing current events from Pakistan and Afghanistan. This project opened up a wide variety of doors for my students to obtain learning from, instead of just raising money, and forgetting about where it was going. They learned how to be a part of their world community, not just their local community. After two years of Pennies for Peace, I am looking forward to completing year three.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

What a wonderful testimonial to the power of service-learning. Especially nice to hear how students shared their efforts at home and got parents involved.
I hope you discovered the wealth of resources on this site relating to Greg Mortenson and Pennies for Peace. If not, this page provides an overview:
And here's an interview with Greg:
Good luck with year three of the project!

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

[quote]What is the difference between community service and service learning? Does anyone have any thoughts?[/quote]
Hi Renee,
Great question! The emphasis on learning is what distinguishes service-learning. What's more, community service can sometimes feel compulsory to kids. If they're just filling required hours, they're not as likely to get lasting benefits from the experience. National Youth Leadership Council ( has some excellent resources that outline the elements of a quality service-learning program.

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