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How Can We Make Service Learning Less Self-Serving?

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Have you ever tried to organize a service-learning project for students and found yourself asking this basic question: Who is actually providing the service here—the students or the community organization? If so, you are not alone.

Despite good intentions and thoughtful teacher preparation, community partners usually find themselves educating and training school groups, or reorganizing and adapting a work day to accommodate the learning agenda of visiting students. Because of the unique characteristics and needs of our classes (complicated schedules, student numbers, the skill level of young volunteers), community organizations twist themselves into a knot so that they can serve us.

Most adults know that teaching a child how to do any task for the first time is harder than doing it themselves. School service is no different. Agencies recognize that they are making a long-term investment by working with students. Community outreach is often a part of their organizational mission, and they understand that working with schools helps raise awareness, educate the community, and foster engaged local citizens.

By definition, service learning is distinguished from community service by its intentional link to academic curricula. The service-learning framework, according to the National Youth Leadership Council, is multilayered, challenging teachers and students to undertake community action in several essential stages: investigation, preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration. Adhering to these components aims to deepen learning, give students a sense of real-world value and purpose, and bring opportunities for project- and problem-based learning, often using an interdisciplinary lens.

As one of the early advocates of service learning, I have witnessed its evolution. Earlier versions of community service involved helping the community in ways that were unrelated to classroom learning. But over the past two decades, school service has become much more thoughtful in its relationship to education. The connection to academic learning has enriched the work and strengthened the rationale for doing service at school, deepening the way teachers teach about social and environmental issues.

However, I would argue that service learning's complicated framework can still sometimes unintentionally make service more self-serving by favoring the learning needs of the student volunteers over the needs of the community partners. The pressures of connecting service to classroom learning and working around the limitations of student volunteers can put an undue burden on the people the projects are intended to "serve." Teachers start conversations by explaining their learning agenda, rather than the basic question: What do you need?

Common Mistakes

Service works best when teachers are appreciative of the effort and investment made by the community organizations and try to find ways to sustain that relationship over time. It also helps if teachers try to see the activity from the organization's point of view.

The investment that a community organization makes to train and educate students increases in value if the students intend to serve in a sustained way, participating in more than an episodic event (like a single visit to a food pantry, cafeteria, homeless shelter, elderly home, or children's center). I have spoken to many organizations who get frustrated by one-off service activities that involve individual students fulfilling their "service hours" or whole classes who visit for a few hours just once.

Additionally, when schools have fickle relationships with community partners, changing who they engage with from year to year based on shifts in curriculum or student interests, the value of their training investment diminishes. It helps to remember that, unlike schools, most organizations do not run on nine-month cycles.

Fundraising is another area in which schools and community organizations struggle to see eye to eye. Almost any nonprofit will tell you that what they need most is financial assistance (they would prefer to leave the delivery of actual services to their trained volunteers and professionals). However, most teachers and schools cringe at the idea of reducing student community action to a fundraiser.

Funding drives are considered "old school" by many educators and reflect an outdated community-service model, so teachers dress them up by asking students to create interesting projects in order to earn the money or to deliver a service. That can work, but teachers have to be careful not to ask too much of the agency related to these projects. Agencies are often understaffed and overburdened by their own fundraising efforts to assist with students' execution of their school projects.

Teachers can also expect too much appreciation for their students' contributions. The school might raise the money, but then in exchange, hope for recognition that can be hard for nonprofits to deliver. Additional logistics can burden the agency—for example, the school may insist it will only assist with fundraising if students have the opportunity to do the shopping or deliver the donations, even if that goes against the best interests of the agencies and the people they serve.

The True Goal of Service

Teachers who organize school service should understand that it can be messy, but few would question its value. Students learn about issues in their community and the work that is being done to address them. They discover strengths and personal passions not taught in the classroom. They discover a sense of empowerment connected to community action. They also learn about the world outside of school in exciting and transformative ways.

However, considering the logistical complexities, it seems that honestly naming what is being exchanged between the school and the agency would benefit both parties. The activities teachers describe as service can often be better described as "community learning." Perhaps this term might add a needed element of humility and gratitude when teachers connect with community partners. It might also help set realistic expectations related to the interactions, guarding against an inflated notion of the relationship.

Finally, I find myself wondering if, in our attempt to enrich the academic component of service, we have possibly undermined a basic goal of service: To build a caring and compassionate disposition in our students. I reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.'s words about service: "Everybody can be great ... because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve … You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love."

Perhaps sometimes teachers should organize acts of service without an academic agenda. Because of its obvious complexities, service learning should not completely replace or diminish the value of cultivating caring as simply a learning experience in itself.

Photos were provided by the author. Kyle Redford’s students helped make and package Wagster dog treats at the Homeward Bound of Marin's Fresh Starts Culinary Academy and housing facility. The dog treats are sold in stores to help support the homeless shelter and job-training program. The field trip was part of a yearlong partnership with Homeward Bound with the objective of learning about local poverty and solutions and social entrepreneurship.

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