What would it look like if we followed the path of our youth grade by grade through a K–12 service learning curriculum? With leadership projects at each grade level, the school year begins with the responsibility of presenting information to the class a grade level below and receiving information from the class a grade ahead. Passing leadership roles on from grade to grade becomes a tradition and expectation among students, signifying their progression in responsibility and leadership.
Kindergartners learn about Caring for Animals from first graders. Following service learning preparation components, kindergartners take charge of communications with an animal shelter, updating the community checklist with needed items, receiving donations and supplies from community members, and adding local outcomes to a nationwide database in which they join with nationwide peers engaged in the same leadership roles in their communities. When it is time for reflection on their project work, older grade buddies assist kindergartners with their first written service learning journal entry.
Kindergartners participate in Food2Share and recycling and learn of other grades’ projects through assembly celebrations during which they share the results of their first community leadership role in the Caring for Animals project.
First graders present their work in Caring for Animals to the kindergartners and also receive information about their new leadership roles for the hospital dolls project from second graders who managed the project the previous year.
After visiting with hospital staff and learning about the purpose of hospital dolls, first graders engage in creating an ongoing supply of the dolls based on hospitals’ needs. The new responsibility for monthly communication with the hospital reiterates the process and importance of communication with the animal shelter in Caring for Animals. First graders combine their local outcomes with peers nationwide, who progress with them into this new leadership role in their communities.
First graders continue in regular routines established by Food2Share and the recycling program and increase their understanding of other service learning projects through celebration assemblies.
Second graders continue in Food2Share and recycling and take on the project of assembling gift bags for children and teens at safe houses who have brought few if any personal belongings. A visit with an educator from the Violence Intervention Program increases students’ awareness of the provision for shelter in their communities and the variety of support components that can help.
By third grade, students will have come to know of their sister city through fund-raising celebrations, projects that highlight the cultural aspects of their sister city, and perhaps, T-shirts that document progress from year to year. They learn in greater detail and build on the work of students who preceded them.
Communication with peers nationwide expands to include third-graders in their sister city in a developing area of the world—a relationship that continues over the course of their education as they progress toward graduation and next steps in life.
In the Disabilities Awareness service learning project, students experience for themselves what they have seen previous classes of students do. Each student has the opportunity to spend one full school day in a wheelchair. Although this is a new experience, problem-solving needs in different life circumstances has become a familiar theme in their education. As they engage in critical thinking and interaction with people with disabilities, they discover new perspectives of accessibility and mobility in their physical environment.
Ownership of Food2Share heightens students’ awareness of how the whole community can come together to create solutions. Fifth graders get statistics from the food bank that list school, grocery store, and restaurant donations as well as donations from community members at grocery stores. With this information, they create graphs and post them in their cafeterias and at grocery stores.
Sixth graders work with waste management personnel to discuss national checklist models and possible improvements to existing community recycling processes. As a graduating class, they transfer their leadership role at the end of the year to fifth graders.
Grades Seven through Twelve
Students who have progressed through a sequence of service learning projects that were not simply units of study, but leadership responsibilities spanning every year, bring different expectations, skills, and energy to middle school. They and the larger community come to see the elementary grade school years as the foundation on which everything builds.
One of the differences in students who emerge from this foundation of community-building work is that they will have interacted with adults in the community and will have received information from older students and shared projects with younger students. They will have broken through the artificial barriers that would separate them by age. These young adults in middle school can support younger peers in project work in which they have also engaged; they can now assess more needs and ways to further strengthen their communities as they consider, with their teachers, the broader scope and depth of solutions available in a checklist of national projects.