In the early years of Charlotte’s project, I often wondered why community service projects of value were not more widely replicated. I discovered we had a service learning coordinator for the state of New York, who told me service learning was, in fact, what I had been doing with Charlotte in her project and suggested I attend some service learning conferences to interact with others involved in this work.
I met students and teachers immersed in significant service to their communities as part of their educational curricula. The teachers found service learning to be a manageable part of their teaching load, and they were inspired by the increased motivation among students in their classrooms and personally gratified by the outcomes in their communities. The work was enjoyable, not burdensome.
Inspired by such encounters, I designed a course for first-year college students: “The Human Spirit in Action: Service Learning,” in which we created Food2Share, a service learning project that addressed local food insecurity. We replicated components from other food-garnering projects, incorporated a service learning structure, and collected over 4,600 pounds of perishable food in the first year.
What Is Service Learning?
Service learning is exactly what the term implies: a merger of service work with learning. Teachers identify specific curricular objectives to be addressed through meeting a community need; they design lesson plans based on the subject areas they teach.
Service learning involves four simple structural components to ensure learning through real-life problem solving, responsible endeavor, leadership opportunities, reflection, and developing ongoing relationships and projects in a community near or in another part of the world:
- Preparation: The first step involves identifying a significant community need, dialoguing with community-based organizations or personnel in positions of knowledge and authority, gathering information, and planning a problem-solving approach that includes multiple perspectives and sustainable outcomes.
- Action:The action phase, as determined in the preparation stage, may involve direct contact with community members in need; indirect work with organizations whose staff work directly with clients; or advocacy to stimulate new perspectives, actions, and outcomes. (Community service, in contrast to service learning, typically involves only the action component determined by someone in charge of the community-based organization or service event.)
- Reflection: Reflection on outcomes and problem-solving decisions made in the preparation phase stimulate critical thinking. Projections in the preparation stage have now become concrete, often implying new goals or direction for future work. Reflection can involve writing, journaling, or class discussion that explores how well the community need is being met, future problem-solving ideas, sustainability, and how the need and problem-solving effort relates to one’s own life, other communities, or the broader world.
- Celebration: Celebrating the outcome of a project with a larger community audience strengthens recognition of project value and provides inspiration to continue building on the project success. Celebrations can include school-wide assemblies, news articles, radio broadcasts, flyers, and posters. Ongoing projects with yearly celebrations that track outcomes demonstrate sustainability.
Service learning projects create solutions for community needs and experiential learning for students. One of the striking aspects of service learning is that youth seem almost driven to learn because it’s fun when it’s attached to real life; they want to gain the necessary skills to carry out activities and work with peers and teachers. Service learning strengthens the desire to learn and the sense of one’s person in relation to others and the world, and this provides a variety of ways to “shine” beyond traditional academic assessment methods. Success is a positive experience; failure requires additional problem-solving effort.
Service learning projects stimulate cooperative learning that provides enrichment and variety for an educational system based primarily on individual achievement. The youth I have observed seem to have very little if any interest in external praise from adults. Their attention is totally focused on the work itself. Being absorbed by a task and meeting a genuine need are fulfilling. Students get to know each other while discovering their individual strengths. Student learning in this context is not burdensome, and motivation runs high, creating a positive learning environment for everyone that spills over into other academic subjects. Terry Pickeral, president of Cascade Educational Consultants, senior education consultant to Special Olympics Project UNIFY, and former consultant to the Education Commission of the States, puts it this way:
A variety of research studies have concluded that quality service learning has a decidedly positive impact on students. They demonstrate that this phenomenon leads to improved academic performance, gains in knowledge of the service provided, growth in higher order thinking, expanded social and civic responsibility, increased acceptance of cultural diversity, and enhanced self-esteem. Ultimately, it is engagement, not mere exposure, that counts.
Service learning projects join curricular learning components with civic engagement. Government officials are seeking solutions for community needs and ways to support the education of our youth. Teachers are seeking cooperation and motivation from youth in the classroom. Parents are seeking signs that their children are engaging in their education—that they are learning and happy. Service learning meets all these objectives.