Commentary

Elementary Lessons on 'The Habit of Involvement'

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"What do you want for the world? What do you want for yourself?" I asked a 3rd grader.

"For the world," he said, "I want enough food and shelter for everyone. For me, I want a G.I. Joe with a matching Mattel grenade launcher and a swimming pool."

So works the mind of an 8-year-old. Young children are apt to entertain contradictions easily, turning ideas on their heads without being aware there is any inconsistency. The late scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author René Dubos, who admonished us to "think globally, act locally," would have been interested in this youngster's response.

Schools must continue to ask at what age and in what ways young children are ready to learn the painful truths about the gap between the haves and the have-nots, between our ideals and realities. And as part of this, educators have to ask how elementary schools can make community service an important part of the lives of young children--long before they reach adolescence, when most service programs currently begin.

There has been a flurry of legislative proposal-making in the area of youth volunteer service. The topic is receiving more attention today than at any time since the Peace Corps began. Consider President Bush's proposed Youth Entering Service to America (yes) Foundation, Senator Edward M. Kennedy's $330-million school-based program, Senator Sam Nunn's "voucher volunteer" legislation, and Senator Barbara Mikulski's "National Guard" voucher service model--to name a few.

But most of these proposals don't emphasize the need to start early, or the need to involve students, parents, teachers, and administrators side by side.

The usual elementary-school service programs include walk-a-thons, ride-a-thons, read-a-thons, and jump-a-thons for charity. There are annual Christmas and Thanksgiving drives: placemats are made, toys are collected, and occasionally children will visit a seniors' rest home or a hospital.

All of these activities do some good, but the essential question remains: How can we help service go beyond sporadic and short-lived projects to become a deep commitment, a habit of involvement? How can young children, their parents, teachers, and principals work together to make a better community?

At my school, an independent Quaker institution in the nation's capital, we think we have found a way. It began eight years ago, when the school forged a close relationship with a local nonprofit soup kitchen serving homeless and hungry families.

For years, our young students had performed the usual helping and visiting activities at nursing homes, hospitals, and other agencies. But these projects, while meaningful, did not seem to have a lasting impact on them or their families. We wanted a program that would provide an ongoing--and encompassing--involvement. And we found it at Martha's Table, an institution where the gift of food quickly grew to include family-to-family involvement and, thanks to the efforts of one teacher, the provision of meals and supervised activities for needy children seven days a week.

Every Wednesday, the lower-school classes at Sidwell Friends School work together to make a 50-gallon pot of soup served at Martha's Table. What were once called Wednesdays are now more commonly referred to as "soup days." Every lower-school child trudges off to school on those mornings with a vegetable in his backpack--and some degree of awareness that his carrot or potato will wind up as part of a weekly offering to those in need.

Older children work with younger children peeling potatoes and cutting carrots. Parents are given magnets for the refrigerator that say "Wednesday--Martha's Table" to remind them to send in vegetables.

As one of our trustees says, "It's important to show students the links between belief and experience, since children often don't see the connections for themselves. It's not enough to talk about helping others."

The perspective-widing impact that the Martha's Table program has provided was brought home to her, this trustee relates, when she asked a group of 3rd graders one day if they knew what compassion was. One little boy said readily: "It's caring, but not just doing what you want to do. It's finding out what the other person needs."

The important aspect of our program, however, may be its involvement of parents.

On scheduled Saturdays, 20 or 30 members of school families--fathers, mothers, children, and grandparents--meet at Martha's Table to prepare food and assist with the children's program. Approximately 3,000 sandwiches are made. Parents coordinate these Saturdays and act as liaisons with Martha's Table.

Many parents have told me that, had the school not established the parameters and provided specific ways to help, their community service might have remained solely of the checkbook variety. In the words of one, "I wouldn't have taken the initiative on my own."

Parents help in other specific ways. For example, the toys, furniture, books, and supplies used at the children's center have been donated by school families and teachers. And in the holiday season, families at the soup kitchen and the school are paired, gifts are collected, and food is prepared for holiday dinners.

Faculty members, too, have taken service seriously. They cut up vegetables with the children and spend Saturdays making sandwiches with their students and parents. The 1st-grade teacher who conceived the children's center spent a sabbatical year working at Martha's Table.

Teachers, parents, and principals can sometimes be naive about the immediate pay-off of helping those less fortunate. But it is our hope that, working together, school and family can foster an attitude that appreciates service as a life-long obligation.

From our experiences, and from many discussions with elementary school teachers and administrators across the country, I can recommend as a guide the following components of a successful service program for this age group:

  • Close, continuous association with one or two institutions.
  • A routine for providing documented service needs.
  • Well thought-out and detailed "lesson plans" that incorporate service projects into the fabric of the school.
  • End results that can be seen.
  • Parents involved in service with their children.
  • Faculty and administrators working hand in hand with children and parents.

Perhaps after all is said and done, after all the workbook pages are filled in, after all the book reports are written, after all the math facts are memorized, after all the spelling lists are copied, we are left with our original question: "What do you want for the world? What do you want for yourself?"

"For the world, I want enough food and shelter for everyone. For me, I want to help others have food and shelter." If we receive this answer from our young, and if they mean it, understand it, and act on it, then the lesson of service learned in youth will last a lifetime.

Vol. 10, Issue 16, Pages 38, 41

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