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Sizzle of Service Learning – Helping Students Shine and Extend Their Reach
The neighborhood where my school is located is considered the poorest in the state, and most students’ primary language at home is not English. More than 80 percent of students take advantage of the Free Lunch Program, and only a fraction make it to college; even fewer graduate with degrees.
I’ve seen firsthand the magic of it: Students motivate themselves when they do something they feel is positive for their world. Organizing the introductory club meeting in the first year was the hardest part because our school lunches were split. Once we conquered that piece, we started having weekly meetings after school. It became a regular rhythm to finish the recycling work and then have a business meeting. Each year, sometimes twice a year, students elect officers. Students organized and executed work and business meetings. My role is to act as a consultant, advising on how to streamline the process or answer the who, what, when and why of campus procedures.
From the beginning, I had two goals in sponsoring this after school club. One is to provide an opportunity for students to learn some life skills while helping their environment. The second is to make sure students understand the importance of measuring success in what they are doing and doing. I never considered my role to be that of micromanaging an officer. Also, I always make it very clear to students that it is their responsibility to discover solutions. The first two months were the most confusing as students were directed to their teachers for answers, but as I continued to redirect questions to officers and club members, I saw more and more student autonomy: discussing finding solutions Plan and share ideas. Don’t get me wrong, it would be easier for me to direct the “doing” of a student club. It was an even bigger challenge to be a consultant and shut up my good ideas.
Club activities give students the opportunity to make a positive contribution publicly, and there are plenty of opportunities to develop social skills and apply some academic knowledge. Club members generously volunteer their time, which is compounded by nearby violence. When we get home after clubs, around 5:00 on the school day, we make sure no one walks alone, or better yet, someone comes to pick them up. Even then, there was a significant risk of gang activity or being harassed by drivers or passers-by. During one academic year, two students who worked at a restaurant across the street from campus were murdered in a botched robbery.
Social problems come in all shapes and sizes. The actual student recycling effort is organizing teachers and administrators to leave paper containers in their rooms/offices for recycling. They also created and produced an Earth Day presentation using slides and distributed it to teachers. The club has several committees to explore projects and keep the club organized. I was amazed at how naturally the club members grew up. On the one hand, students call them “environmental freaks” on campus, and on the other hand, they are the go-to resource for solving environmental problems in the classroom. This made me ecstatic, but I kept it hidden because I believed developing social skills in high school was the key to academic success and being a lifelong learner.
The main problem with club members is absenteeism. Without a doubt, the number one reason is family issues: having to pick up a sibling from school, having to care for a sibling, and of course, dentist or doctor appointments. The second big reason is that students have so much to do after school and we do have a policy that tutoring is always at the front of the club. Club officials struggle with this every year, resulting in the process of creating and executing procedures, creating and maintaining club records on spreadsheets, and exploring the art of communication.
Over four years, when I’ve talked to club students, I’ve discovered three main reasons they join clubs:
– College Application Community Service
– A personal desire to make the community a better place
– Publicly demonstrate positive contributions and hopefully influence others to do the same
College applications for community service. In fact, very few club members make it to college. The enthusiasm and hope shown by the students inspires me to be a better person.
A personal desire to make a community a better place. This is the reason I hear most often from club members. As I reflect, there aren’t many avenues for students in this community to do good. Having clubs available to them, which they had to go the extra mile to get involved in, proved to be a worthwhile program, measured in the number of students who contributed.
Publicly demonstrate positive contributions and hopefully influence others to do the same. In the community, there are few positive role models. Clubbers aren’t stupid, and they realize what’s missing: seeing something good. Club members choose to fill vacancies themselves rather than wait for someone or some group to do it for them.
To be honest, I didn’t suddenly sponsor this club just because I wanted to be SL. I do this because I believe that shaping students into leaders is more than just studying academics or being good test-takers. Students need to understand social responsibility while also learning a great deal that they won’t use or need in their lives. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in necessary scholarship, and I prefer teaching critical thinking skills. When I started my masters degree, about two years after I started sponsoring clubs, I was introduced to SL, which is when I started to learn about it. I initially frame the club as a place where students can learn to expand their social skills, practice critical thinking, and help the environment.
After studying SL, I found that club works are already weaving the characteristics of SL. The students were educated about how working in groups can achieve results, they learned about recycling and its impact on the environment, and in the words of the students, “We are setting a positive example for other students.” I admire most Part of that is that they volunteer a lot of time, including weekends for some special projects.
The local zoo has a barrel program that they sponsor each year. After the painted buckets completed at the area high school were named the best designs, they were distributed throughout the zoo and served as containers for recyclable materials for zoo visitors. One year, the club decided to do two barrels. They produced the blueprints, obtained the materials to decorate the barrels, painted them as a team, and then did the project management work to meet their deadlines and ship them to the zoo. This project involves serious weekend time as there is no time after school.
The following year, we opened a new door: field trips. At the time, the school district ruled that any field trips could not miss the school day, so the time we chose was spring break. It also means having fun, because it’s the holidays. Students brainstormed and came up with the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld. The academic part was built around examining their recycling programs; we met with people at each park to discuss and learn the specifics of how and what to recycle. Students also kept diaries during their visits based on prompts I provided to examine ecosystem characteristics and captive life. We also had a lot of fun at the beach, eating out and enjoying the great weather.
There are two requirements to participate in a field trip. One is to do community service. Last year, this included spending a Saturday morning at a local food bank and helping out. Obviously, the second was having the money to pay for the trip, which proved to be the most demanding. Most students are too young to find work, and the average family doesn’t have the cash to donate to. Club members decided to start an aggressive campus snack sales program that lasted for several months. It was so successful that over the next few years other clubs followed our campaign idea to raise funds for field trips.
Club members practice a different set of life skills while selling treats. We had to get permission from the principal and the student union, which gave them a taste of what it was like to deal with politics and bureaucracy. We can only sell “healthy” snacks as detailed in our regional product listings. Then there is the order of buying snacks, which requires parental participation. Next, there had to be a system to package the treats and track which member sold how many treats, since travel has sales quotas. The fundraising work has been highly valued by the club cadres and my daily supervision.
Teaching high school biology is the best job in the world. Integration opportunities allow students to volunteer time to support the environment and practice critical thinking while helping the campus environment make my life more meaningful. I know engaged students are better citizens because I see it in their smiles and behavior. Yes, I do SL classes with students. But, it happened because we were all genuinely interested in doing something positive for the school and the community.
Here are my top six SL resources. If you’re curious about what or want to expand your skillset, then I suggest you take a closer look at these:
Strive for Success; Service Learning as a Tool for High School Dropout Prevention:
A 2008 study had some impressive statistics on students who took SL.
Top ten environmental service projects:
A list of decent ideas for SL programs from the US Youth Services Toolbox and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Learning in Action – The Power of Service Learning in American Schools:
Packed with useful background on SL, including practical project information and feedback from K12 teachers.
The K-12 Service Learning Project Planning Toolkit is provided by RMC Research Corporation for Learning and Serving National Service Learning Clearinghouse:
A comprehensive document explaining the “how” to organize and execute SL projects, along with examples and resource organization.
Giving Back – Introducing Community Service Learning:
I love situational learning where I can teach through questioning and reflection. This book, even though it’s aimed at juvenile offenders, has exercises to keep my creative juices flowing when I need support from coaching club officials.
Service Learning Outside the Classroom:
The title is misleading, there are some great projects that were done or done by K12 classes.
Note: To view the article with these links, visit http://www.educationreporting.com/article-sizzle%20-of-service-learning.php.
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