The elementary teachers with whom I worked were not necessarily service learning advocates, but they expressed interest in service projects for their students. Having become a service learning advocate wanting to create a sequence of projects in elementary grades, I served as a facilitator between teachers with service interests and community organizations. A second-grade teacher in one of our elementary schools asked for help with a service project of gathering items for a toiletry drive for our Violence Intervention Program (VIP) safe house. As facilitator, I initiated conversation with VIP staff, looking for a service learning connection.
The suggestion of toiletry items met with a positive response from VIP staff. However, I knew from other project work, that this was offering a solution before asking them for their needs, so I asked staff for other possible areas that could also become the focus of the project. After some discussion, a staff member shared that VIP routinely received toiletry items from a variety of community members and organizations. She described the children who arrive at the safe house with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and maybe a favorite blanket. The toys at the safe house were communal, so the children had few if any personal possessions.
We came up with a preliminary plan to make bags filled with age- and gender-appropriate things for the children at the safe house. The second-grade teacher realized the educational value this new project focus could bring to her students. Service learning tends to have an infectious quality those involved in service learning know well. The second-grade teacher’s enthusiasm spilled over beyond her classroom as she reached out to a middle school home and careers teacher, seeing a point of curricular convergence. The middle school teacher mirrored her enthusiasm, suggesting that her students could make drawstring bags for their sewing unit, and she personally contributed the fabric for the project.
As teachers come together to work on a genuine community need, ideas flow and converge, increasing involvement and the educational value for our youth. The two teachers created a plan that would bring the grade school class to the middle school, where they would work together to fill the bags. They wanted their students to make a card for each bag with a handprint of the middle school and the elementary school students involved to add a personal touch.
The educator for VIP was particularly pleased. This service learning project created the opportunity for her to visit with students of differing ages and brought a unique focus to her work with them. Service learning provided students with a point of personal engagement and contribution beyond a purely informational encounter with the educator about the work of the VIP in our community. We were weaving an integrated web of service and learning among students and community-based organizations that was inspirationally engaging for everyone.
Service Learning Outline:
The educator from VIP visits the second-grade classes to share the purpose of the safe house and the need for items for the children and teens who leave their homes quickly and with very few personal belongings.
Together with the educator, the students brainstorm possible items for the bags, thinking of a child their age or an older brother or sister. The number of children in the safe house over the past year is broken down by age and gender. Second graders choose specific children by age and gender for each bag they will create.
A list of contents on the outside of each bag allows safe house staff to quickly assess its contents and remove anything inappropriate for a specific child.
A letter goes home to students’ parents, describing the project and offering them the opportunity to donate items students have identified for the project.
The educator for VIP also visits the middle school home and careers classes, sharing services provided for clients and how collaborative work creates a support system. Students then receive instruction on how to make drawstring bags.
Students organize purchased and donated items for each bag. (Our second graders took a trip to the local Dollar Store with $2 each to purchase two items for their bags; our PTO donated the money for this.)
Students measure, cut out, and sew colorful fabric drawstring bags.
Second Grade and Middle School
Second graders fill the drawstring bags, and middle school students list the items in each bag. Together, students create cards that include their handprints.
The second- and eighth-grade teachers engage their students in reflective dialogue about the project and their participation. Students write about their contribution to the project as well as how the children at the safe house might feel when they receive the gift bags.
The educator from VIP shares the project from the organization’s perspective, and students share reflection excerpts at a school-wide assembly. The community learns of the event via newspaper articles and radio spots.
An added bonus for VIP is that this event is another quantifiable educational encounter, which helps the organization qualify for state and federal program funding.
- Language Arts
- Social Studies
The safe house told us, “We don’t have any left. They were a big hit here. It would be great if you are doing that project again. We could definitely use them.”
The second-grade teacher who had piloted the project changed grades the following year to teach kindergarten. One day she came running down the hall to tell me a kindergartner who had been living at the safe house had come for show and tell with one of the bags. This teacher told me with tears in her eyes that the project had been meaningful at the time with her second graders but had really hit home when this kindergartner came to class with one of the bags.
What was possible one year for us was not possible the following year, when budget cuts made it impossible for middle school and second graders to meet. Our teachers adapted with immediacy: fifth- and sixth-grade “buddies” assisted the second graders in the shopping process and creating lists for the bags as second graders filled the drawstring bags again created by the middle schoolers.
Adaptations are enriching; and many more would be shared among teachers and students nationwide. The goal is to maintain the essence of a signature project at each grade level while also providing a cohesive point of civic engagement for youth on a national level.
The national checklist of project topics specifically for shelters suggested by my database collection to date have some rather well defined levels of complexity. Simpler projects provide:
- Blankets or quilts as personalized gifts
- School kits
- Personal necessities such as socks, underwear, and hygiene items
- Birthday bags for youth
- Furniture for transition to homes
Projects with more-involved components that support elders in the community who live alone provide:
- Daily welfare calls
- Assistance with chores
- Emergency information vials (health history, emergency contact information, etc.)
More-complex projects for community leaders to consider under the topic of shelters address:
- Permanent supportive housing
- Homeless women, single parents, teen mothers
- Repairing and rebuilding homes for the elderly and disabled
- Building single-family homes on vacant lots
- Job training programs
As in earlier grades, second graders have a signature project that addresses a specific need related to shelter as a safe haven. Their new leadership role focuses more broadly on all shelters in their community. As the contact point between shelters and community members, they provide monthly updates to the community checklist. In this leadership role, they become educated about the ways communities work to provide shelter for those in need.