This innovative disability awareness program has students spend one day in a wheelchair and participate in an interdisciplinary learning experience designed to promote understanding of accommodation, accessibility, and independence.
Second graders created gift bags for children and teens in the Violence Intervention Program Safe House. Middle school students made the bags and joined with second graders to help complete the gift bags.
Service projects under the topic, Shelter, address items that are typically found in a home; things like clothing and beds, or if living on the street, access to food, storage, and personal hygiene. The details we may take for granted have become the substance of projects that help others in need in ways we may not have considered.
Nurses in our community requested these dolls for our local emergency room. The piloted first grade service learning project drew upon a model from Kiwanis of Burnside, Australia and information gathered from the websites of hospitals using these dolls.
The above first grade project, as all sample projects, simply represents a possibility for consideration. Any outreach category can serve to unite our first graders in gathering our efforts into a composite picture at the community level to combine with their peers nationally. The idea is for first graders in all communities to be in charge of this topic area to allow for coordination. All community projects taken up in this topic area are shared with first graders who update the community checklist.
The outreach models we create are varied, touching upon many needs and solutions. Some of the models are simple; others are complex. Some are urban, others are not; but perhaps worthy of consideration in our communities. The mix is educational for all of us, and most importantly, for our youth, the next generation to take the lead.
Kindergarten teachers identified animals as the starting point for a community leadership role.
“Therapy animals can provide physical, psychological, and emotional benefits to those they interact with, typically in facility settings such as healthcare, assisted living, and schools. While most frequently dogs, therapy animals can include other domesticated species such as cats, equines, and rabbits, to name a few. These pets are evaluated on their ability to safely interact with a wide range of populations, and their handlers are trained in best practices to ensure effective interactions that support animal welfare. Therapy animal handlers may volunteer their time to visit with their animals in the community, or they may be practitioners who utilize the power of the human-animal bond in professional settings.” Pet Partners
What would happen if every school district adopted an endangered species? What if school districts combined efforts where necessary and coordinated their efforts with organizations researching these needs; to understand the need, work toward the solution until health was re-established and attention could be turned to another need?
I grew up with very little service involvement as a youth. I was taught to be kind and give when opportunity presented itself, but that was pretty much it. When my second child, Charlotte, arrived later in life, I wanted her to have opportunity to “give back” and come to understand the larger community family of which she was a part; that having all of her needs met was not the case for everyone.
When Charlotte was five, we took her to visit our local hygiene cabinet, explaining that people who needed these items could get them there. She loved meeting the staff and on the way home we talked about why people might need to go there and what else we could do to help. She was eager to learn and engage with adults in the community. She wanted to do more. Part of her weekly allowance became earmarked for hygiene items, and then we taught her matching funds – matching the amount she contributed to community needs each month.
As adults in the community came to know of her involvement they offered to give. Since she was giving regularly, she naturally expected they would do the same – maybe even matching funds to her contribution. Staff of other community based organizations asked to be included in her project, Charlotte’s Circle. The purity of the young child seemed irresistible to adults and she met their interest with her desire to take on more. Between the ages of five and seventeen, she raised and managed over $70,000 for needs in her community.
As I watched Charlotte grow with the project in her life, the idea of replication – what would happen if more children and families were doing this – became a recurring thought. One day, the director of our United Way commented to me that she “wished we could do something about the food problem in our community.” This was a turning point for me. Replicating projects for a variety of community needs became important. My professional interests turned to service learning. I began to create a database of service projects organized by topic.
The mother in me had shifted from Charlotte to all of our children – from my community to all communities. I think there is a certain idealism that grabs hold of us when we raise young children; what the world could be seems a point of conscience.
The final piece that kicked in was the imperative to start young – to create a foundation of service in the education of our children. So I worked with elementary grade teachers to create a sequence that could start in kindergarten and build up through each grade – a leadership role for each grade, tied to the topic areas that had formed in the database.
In a world that adults have not been able to manage, perhaps creating such a foundation for the next generation can head us toward sustainable solutions to the challenges we face.
We need to establish our American identity in our system of education. Our youth are Americans who want to participate in meaningful ways. They want to explore the world and connect with others, they want voice. American youth want to create meaningful change, and know they are capable. As older Americans, we may seek their engagement in the classroom, but they seek engagement in the real world. Our youth are ready, eager, emerging pioneers; and we have a host of unsolved, real-world problems in need of fresh perspective and sustainable solutions.
In developing areas of the world we can see the central role of education in creating change. We see youth – very small children – with strong motivation to learn and they succeed with immediacy and strength in academics. It is easy to see the source of motivation for these children: improved living conditions. As children they bear similarity to our own: they want to help, they want to take action. Relevance is the key that links their energy with education; relevance and purpose are the foundation for motivated learning.
Our youth need real world challenges and problem solving to become excited about their education. American youth need opportunity to give, and create change; to find their place in the community and the world. They need real world relevance to kick-start the gears and ignite their enthusiasm to learn and find purpose in education. We need to listen to our youth because they tell us what they need. In student surveys our youth typically request:
Learning by doing
Hands-on project learning
Relationships with the outside world
Interaction with people beyond the classroom
Using technology to interact and communicate
Opportunity to solve real-life challenges
The ability of our youth to learn and produce quantifiable results is no different than youth in other countries. American youth are eager to learn and have perspective on how they learn best. We need to call forth our entrepreneurial strength and create a new avenue of education that resonates with our American identity: our desire to engage and create, our humanitarian outreach, our ability to problem solve with wide berth of perspective and embrace.
The inclusion of a service initiative – a service curriculum that starts in kindergarten and runs through high school – will provide the opportunity for this needful inclusion of real world problem solving in real world time that our youth need to thrive. It will incorporate the missing puzzle piece of relevance that will connect the energy of our youth with education. It will allow young Americans to use technology to communicate with their peers nationwide, to find real world leadership roles in creating needed change, to create relationships worldwide. We need to recognize what makes us tick – what makes us unique. We need to play to our strengths.
We need to start at the beginning – at the root – to grow strong, interactive engagement with our youth and rediscover the heartbeat of education that is alive with relevance. Without an overarching design that starts from the beginning to create a solid foundation, we will continue to falter and wander within a weak educational structure.
We need to give our youth voice and opportunity for engagement with us in the real world that can grow with them from kindergarten all the way through high school.
Our children are excited to go to school when they come of age. As parents, we reflect their inspiration. The initiation into education as a major life component is strong. Without the needed nutriment of purposeful, real life engagement we watch our American youth wilt – gradually at first and then more markedly – over a period of thirteen years. Even the “best students” (those who produce the results adults want to see) know that it is a struggle to stay inspired. As parents, it is hard to witness the contradiction between academic success and their lack of inspiration – the contradiction between their excitement as small children to go to school and their resignation to put in another day in high school.
The problem we identify as dropout or truancy is more widespread than dropout rates indicate. Many of our youth who do not drop out also struggle to cope with their school environment – the continuing singular yardstick of individual test scores; tests created by others that identify their worthiness for inclusion in a future that lies ahead. High school dropout is a strong move on the part of youth who resist this system and opt out.
In a K-12 service initiative, assessment would expand to include multiple, valuable workplace and life skills; skills that are assessable in live time, not in traditional test form; skills that are evident to others on the “team” – classmates. Our youth would engage with one another and cross-pollinate their enthusiasm among themselves; an enthusiasm that crosses over into academic subject matter that connects the classroom to the real world in which they live. This enthusiasm would spin out into the hallways, our homes, and our communities.
Our youth can address the issue of high school dropout among themselves if we give them real world engagement opportunities. They can find their place in the world and the support education can bring to their lives. They can create community within their schools.
A national K-12 service initiative would open wide a realm of future possibilities interwoven with consideration for others and the environment. We need to step back, grab hold of the larger picture within which the classroom fits, and problem solve a sustainable strategy. We can gather our resources and create an inventive, American solution that will not only solve this issue, but a host of other challenges we face in our communities, nationwide, and worldwide.
If we gathered all the service projects we have created – and organized them by topic so we could see what we have, we would find overwhelming evidence that as a people, we are wonderfully equipped with capability.
We already have so much of what we need. Beyond the project details, there is an incredibly inspirational quality in the way we step up to the plate to help and come together when we need each other.
The projects and outcomes alone are inspiring, but there’s more. There are the project originators – the stories about how they not only saw a need, and a solution but were drawn into a sense of commitment that changed the direction of their lives. They talk of the satisfaction they find in their service work. They have a clear sense of purpose. They innovate. They work hard, and they seem happy. They are outstanding individuals who reveal our capability as well.
When a crisis occurs – in our community, in another state or across the globe – we demonstrate this capability. We rally to help, to reach out, to problem solve. We organize. We have a track record for strong, quick response – and we try to sustain these efforts to meet the level of need.
I caught a snapshot of this capability when I worked with first year college students in a service learning course. They were full of inspiration and promise, ready to engage – to bring more food to people in need in our community. They were ready to research models from other communities and meet with people to make things happen.
The director of our food bank not only came to class to talk with students about possibilities they had researched; he started attending the class and worked with them in the community. He was willing to adjust his work schedule because he also still held the belief that we could do more, that it was possible to do better.
The children in our elementary schools reflected the same energy and readiness to help. They proud to be included in helping to meet a genuine community need, and proud of their accomplishments.
A fifth grade teacher asked her students to graph food donation outcomes, connecting their service work to academics. When sixth grade students were asked to share personal reflections, they wrote with enthusiasm as community members, expressing the hope that more schools would adopt the program.
We have so much to bring to the table – we have problem solved, we have developed and sustained solutions, we continue to innovate, and we continue to care – and we see the evidences of the same in our youth. We – as a people – are the inspiration that can take us forward into solution-making that is off the charts.