After having a conversation with some close friends last night about mountaintop removal, I felt compelled to write about service learning as an effective teaching strategy that meets curricular expectations and increases student engagement!
In a nutshell, service learning is when students' instruction is connected directly to a community service they perform. Maybe a class studies a natural disaster that may occur (or even better, has occurred) in their area and follows this study up with making a checklist or a care kit to give to community members to help prepare them for such a disaster. Or, perhaps a class is studying recycling and initiates a school-wide or community-wide recycling project. A student could be studying about the Vietnam War and opt to organize visitors for veterans at a nursing home. Maybe a small group performs a Reader's Theater play (or even writes the play themselves), and they then go to local nursing homes to perform the play for the residents. The list of service learning ideas could go on and on and on!
The key, however, is to not just go out and perform a community service. Yes, students could go out and pick up trash around their neighborhood, but if they are not tying it to an instructional piece, then it is technically not service learning...it's just community service. Now, if they were studying about landfills or recycling (There is that learning part!), they could go out, collect the trash around the community (There is that service part!), and even sort their findings into a recycling group and a non-recycling group (There is that learning part again!).
A simpler form of service-learning, which may be a good way to start, can be connected to student research, which I talked about in an earlier post! We've had so many students select a topic, research it, and then do a fundraiser for an organization connected to their topic. For example, students have researched animal abuse and raised money for PAWS. They've researched cancer and actually donated their hair to Locks of Love. They have selected homelessness as a research topic and raised money for our local shelter, The Hope House. We've even had students research citizenship, including our right to vote, and then go out into neighborhoods to help non-registered voters get registered!
Just remember, however, that it's not always as powerful when you tell the students what they will be doing, versus letting the project come directly from them. As educators, we are often good at planting seeds, which helps students grow ideas. So, while studying recycling, a teacher could simply look out the window and make a comment such as, "It breaks my heart to see that trash out there. It's bad enough that people just throw it down and pollute, but can you imagine how much of it is probably recyclable?" Nine times out of ten, a student will say, "Can we go pick it up and see?" Then another student will add to that, and another student to that, etc.
When they don't start growing from your seed, plant another one! "Oh my gosh, you guys should have seen all the trash I saw driving in this morning. Thank goodness people volunteer their time to pick it up, or our community would be disgusting." Once the students develop the idea, then you can tell them what service learning is and what productive young citizens they are for taking on a service learning project. You can also plant seeds by having guest speakers come in, showing Internet video clips, reading books, sharing stories, etc.
Once students experience one service learning project, they'll likely start thinking of other projects they can do as a result of their learning! What a way to start developing our future adult citizens! :-)