George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Students Take Action in the Community

May 28, 2009

When New York City's 1.1 million public school students return from summer vacation, they can look forward to rolling up their sleeves and getting busy improving the world, or at least their corner of it. 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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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Community Partnerships
  • Service Learning

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