Third Grade: Sister City—A Global Service Learning Component

Is it possible that youth in developed nations and youth in developing areas of the world could come together with purpose? Could they help to restructure our world toward productivity, respect, and peace? Can community-based leadership roles inspire our youth to take an active role in shaping the society they will live in as adults? Can we give them this opportunity?

Any research into the outcomes of service learning to date will head us toward a resounding yes as a response to these questions. Have we, to date, explored this possibility? Not on a large scale. What if every community had a sister-city service learning project? What if global solution-bearing project models were on a checklist for not only our children to study but for actual use based on the needs of their specific sister city? How would our children feel if they were able to work with peers nationwide, combining their global outcomes with a larger picture of global progression, humanitarian and environmental? How would international relations play out over time if our children learned to communicate effectively with others from different backgrounds? Learning from project originators who model the process of listening first and then creating solutions that over time become fully sustainable by the sister city, how would our children feel as they grew into adulthood, having worked together to help one another? What would our world standing look like if this took place? Is it possible that being an American might take on new significance that would bind us together in positive momentum?

Our children’s knowledge of geography alone would spike because of relevance created among themselves; they would see their contributions in the larger scope of an ever-changing world—one in which they have direct influence. If every school district had a sister-city relationship, we would lay an incredibly strong foundation for productive, peaceful, global relationships as youth grow.

We are smarter and more compassionate than our current world conditions indicate; we can do better. A simple and actionable sister-city component in a K–12 service learning model provides a way to accomplish more. We owe this to the next generation because we—the current generation—can do so.

Finding a Sister City

Worldwide organizations create partnerships between areas of need and those who can help. They also sustain communications, track outcomes, and seek support from the general population. A national K–12 service learning office would work with these organizations to set up sister cities with trustworthy project managers.

Project originators and project managers around the world demonstrate it is possible to successfully navigate local politics, processes, and cultural traditions. They work to determine whom to contact, how best to obtain supplies, and how to get genuine buy-in from locals.

A sister-city service learning project as a component of a national K–12 model is comprehensive, long-term, and developmental, and it has the potential to address multiple areas of need over time. This kind of dependable, ongoing support is a perfect match with the ongoing, sustained, committed work of project originators and organizations working with them to replicate long-term solutions where similar needs exist.

A Global Projects Checklist

Over the past eleven years, in addition to project models in the United States, I have gathered global projects from print and online sources and organized them by topic. Similar to the national checklist, these projects can serve as an accessible resource as we adopt sister cities. Global projects address unique geographic and societal conditions in developing areas of the world that are, most often, distinct from our own communities.

Graphic 4A_Revised Global Projects Checklist-Left

Graphic 5A_Revised Global Projects Checklist-Right

The checklist can be a research tool for students that creates awareness of a variety of needs and solutions while helping them find specific solutions for specific challenges. Students would communicate with peers nationwide engaged in sister-city projects in similar geographical areas of the world, sharing problem-solving approaches, models, and outcomes. Over time, they would link to their global peers in this dialogue and become a global generation of problem solvers. The projects above would increase in number as we organize in this work.

Project originators in the global arena are current heroes in our world, our links to sustainable change in areas of great need. They are committed, long-term solution makers who pave a way that can be replicated or adapted. Their experience can help the education of our children. They can teach us to listen, to seek the input of others, to create lasting change that honors tribal custom or ethnic culture, and to support in sustainable ways. Our children, working with the guidance of project originators, can become a generation of heroes.

The beginning topics in the global checklist offer many projects that address reconciliation, healing, and shaping views toward peaceful and productive coexistence. These projects inform us that as humans—as adults—we don’t have a track record for working together, living together, or solving problems together. We need to ask how we are addressing this issue in our children’s education. We need to provide them with education that teaches them how to come together to create a world better than the one in which we live.

Establishing a Dialogue

Experience with concepts of tolerance, diversity, and inclusion inform us we cannot assume what is best for another group of people from outside their daily living conditions, habits, customs, and history. We need to establish a dialogue and listen with genuine interest and respect to their perspective. Our children need to learn how to best start a relationship with their peers in a developing area of the world.

  • What are the cultural norms and considerations that are involved?
  • What are the environmental conditions?
  • What is the starting point for communication?

Our children need to learn about current conditions and needs in the sister city:

  • What beginning need is most meaningful to our sister city?
  • How could a possible solution be sustained by the population of our sister city over time?

This information constitutes the preparation phase of the service learning structure that informs the action phase. I was introduced to a sister-city service learning project that drew upon these elements by Ken Sider, a third-grade teacher in our school district who introduced me to Ashok Mahaltra, a project originator and a professor at our local university.

Our Sister City: The Ninash Foundation

Ashok was born in India. When his wife passed on early in her life, he promised her he would build schools for the poorest of the poor in India and has done so through the Ninash Foundation, which he created in honor of his wife. He makes regular trips to India and has created trustworthy, efficient, local partnerships essential to project success in places far away. He builds on outcomes and incorporates new initiatives that continue to evolve.

Ashok was our person “on the ground” who saw children picking up cow dung in the small village of Dundlod in northwest Rajasthan, India. These children were not permitted to attend school or drink from the same ladle with other children. He began to ask questions and seek solutions. Ashok sold a rental property in 1996 and used the proceeds to start the Ninash Foundation. The same year, in a one-room building donated by a local woman, 50 children began attending the first Indo-International School in Dundlod. The number of students attending grew to 150 by 1997. Another donated space accommodated this increase in students until the foundation gathered the funds necessary to build a school with six rooms in 2000. By 2006, the school included high school grades with science labs. As of 2012, the completed central school has twenty rooms and 550 children grades nursery through twelfth. After sixteen years, over a dozen of the school’s girls have gone on to college. The school is now one of the best in the state and also includes economically and socially upper-class students.

Our city of Oneonta, New York, established a formal sister-city relationship with Dundlod in 2000. Our students learn about the other schools the Ninash Foundation has built, they learn about the results of sustained commitment that continue to build and grow new solutions, and they learn about solution-making role models. (

Service Learning Outline:

As a service learning advocate, Ken Sider has experienced the increased student motivation and learning that results from student leadership roles in real-life contexts. Learning about the world and becoming an active participant are fundamental educational connects for him. Ken recognized the rich educational potential for his students if they were to learn about India and the work of the Ninash Foundation, giving them an opportunity to find their places in the global world through the context of contribution.

In a K–12 service learning curriculum, students would get three years of experience with service learning leadership roles and projects by the time they reach third grade. Our students’ global peers in developing areas of the world have of necessity often taken on adult responsibilities by the same age. With this perspective, youth on both sides of the equation are ready to have a conversation. Youth worldwide need connection with their peers—those who will be their peers as adults.

If our children take the lead, furthering the work of project originators, they will bring solutions to areas of need around the world and create relationships infused with appreciation and gratitude that grow among themselves as people who see human interactions in a different way than the previous generation does.


Once a sister city has been identified, students learn about the geography, climate, government, art, and culture of their sister city, and learning about genuine needs comes next. The need identified by our project originator was schools, but the starting point involved building relationships and trust.

Children in undeveloped areas of the world often engage in menial tasks to help their families survive. Releasing these children for school requires the sacrifice of this precious income, the sacrifice of a known value for an unknown, and to trust that change will occur as a result of education. Building this trust and creating a shift of perspective among families is the work of a project manager in the sister city. A critical part of our students’ education is learning of this critical shift for families; they learn that relationship building comes before taking action, before the opportunity to affect long-lasting change.

Once families in our sister city met with Ashok and became invested in the idea of education and schools, the need was to identify a beginning location, however makeshift from our perspective, to provide teachers and basic supplies and then build schools.

Our students learn about the history of the Ninash Foundation; they learn that younger students began with writing on slate, which requires them to memorize as they learn, that their first activity of the day is yoga, and that students teach other children in their homes.

Building communication and relations among peers typically requires preparatory thought and discussion. In the beginning, because the children in Dundlod were learning three languages, Hindi, Rhajistani, and English, English was still difficult. If each of our students sent a letter, the principal at the school would have to translate them all. Someone suggested a composite letter from each class or a power point presentation as a better way to communicate—perhaps once a month—using pictures and a few words that were fairly self-explanatory and helpful in developing language. As education progressed in our sister city, traditional pen-pal relationships in English became possible.

Gathering children for education revealed the need for dietary support; proper nourishment of all students attending school was not secure. A kitchen added to the school in 2004 provided one nutritious meal for every child each day. Dairy goats became another solution: if each family got a goat, there would be an ongoing supply of milk, cheese, and yogurt for the poorest families of the children—families earning less than $1 a day. As the goats multiply, more opportunities for sustainable livelihood become possible.

Sending items or ourselves to areas far from home is not cost-effective. Cash converted into goods and services on the spot is most often the most practical way to help. In the preparation phase, students and teachers plan community events, fundraisers, and informational campaigns to generate these funds.


Fundraisers that demonstrate learning are the best fit for service learning projects. In our school district, students create a public fundraiser where they sell Indian craft items they have made and perform Indian dances and songs. On average, with 25¢ sales, they raise $500.

If students learn about the art produced in their sister city, they can create items for sale such as bookmarks or stationery using indigenous techniques they have studied. If they learn about traditional foods from their sister city, they can try recipes and make recipe books for sale, create dishes for tastings, or contact restaurants to create these foods for a public event. If students learn about music and dance from their sister city, they can create a dance party around this theme as a fundraiser.

A high school student from London, who had visited the Indo-International School in Dundlod, created calendars combining children’s art and life from Dundlod with children’s art and life from London. All proceeds from the sale of the calendars fund field trips for the children of the Dundlod School.

Our students engaged in an interesting art project. Classes collected pennies while studying Rangoli, an Indian art formEach class created an intricate Rangoli design on the cafeteria floor using pennies and invited all classes to the “Penny Art RangoliGallery.” One such event yielded $450, which went to the Indo-International School in Dundlod to buy pencils and replenish the school’s library.

Students learned about past project contributions and accomplishments as well as current needs. T-shirts made each year can list accomplishments to date, creating a fundraising activity that celebrates the effects of sustained community building and students’ leadership roles in third grade.

Another example in our schools is the “Adopt-a-Goat” fundraiser, created to provide goats for our sister-city community members in need of a sustainable food source. If a class raises $60, its teacher kisses a goat at a celebration assembly, providing a fun incentive for this particular fundraising effort. The Ninash Foundation arranges for the purchase and distribution of goats in Dundlod.

Students and teachers who create new fundraising events based on learning about their sister city can add to an ever-evolving database of project components. Schools can submit successful ideas as well as draw on the work of others who have contributed to the database.


Opportunities for reflection abound in a sister-city relationship as students share contrasts between the cultures, as cooperative work takes place, and as friendships form. Although third graders manage the sister-city project, older grades can contribute, expanding opportunities for learning, giving, and reflection.


In an ongoing service learning project, everyone can share current and cumulative outcomes. Over the past six years, the fundraising efforts within our school district for the Adopt-A-Goat program have supported the donation of over 80 goats. Combined with donations from local residents in the sister city, the distribution of 200 goats has occurred.

Celebration can happen at many points in a sister-city project: a fundraiser that educates, a T-shirt that honors work to date, a news article about funds raised at an event, a school wall design that tracks fundraising outcomes, and a national database of many sister-city outcomes. With a service learning K–12 curriculum in place, sharing sister-city outcomes at a school assembly is a natural occurrence as one of many school-based service learning projects.

Disciplines Incorporated

  • Science
  • Mathematics
  • English Language Arts
  • Social Studies
  • Arts
  • Career Development and Occupational Studies
  • Languages other than English

Connecting students at home and abroad increases awareness of the role education plays not only in the life of the individual but also in the context of the world. When our children discover the life-changing significance education can bring to a family or community in a developing area and the level of sacrifice often required to attain it, they gain a fresh perspective on education in our country.

We need to develop our humanitarian outreach further, creating ever-deepening, constructive, peaceable connections with others worldwide. The sister-city component provides an ongoing, organized way for us to reach out in a sustained manner to developing areas of the world. If our youth come together worldwide to work productively for the best interest of all concerned, our view of what is possible will inevitably shift toward positive outcomes and hope for the future. If students maintain yearly communication, they could learn of the developing life goals of their sister-city peers and share perspectives on progress made at home and abroad. The concept of a nationwide graduating class would expand further to a global graduating class of young adults who have learned it is possible to work together based on their practical experience in making their world a better place; they will also have come to know a progression of solution-making that previous generations could not have envisioned.

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