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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Importance of Service Learning

By Peter DeWitt — January 16, 2012 4 min read
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Last weekend I was on #elemchat with my colleagues near and far on Twitter and the topic of discussion was service learning. Service learning can be defined in many ways but it is primarily when students work on a project together for their community or communities far away. It is such an important learning experience for students to be involved in and it should be replicated in every school.

Service learning is a spin on both community service and project based learning (PBL). Sometimes community service and PBL involve individual projects or small groups working together but service learning involves a whole class or school working on a project together. It’s important for students to understand their important role in a community.

Teachers can start a service learning project with a good book or story about a situation. For example, it may be a book about the Heifer Project or the lack of clean water in a country far away. If schools are looking to do a project that benefits their own community they can try to meet the needs of the elderly in the community. With soldiers fighting overseas, a good service learning project can boost the morale of those soldiers so home doesn’t feel so far away.

Service learning can teach students and teachers a great deal. Although the final product is the culminating event that everyone works hard to achieve, service learning is also about the process from beginning to end. The whole experience can be a great learning experience, especially when students are a part of the decision making.

Teachable Moments for Teachers
Teachers often are the ones who provide teachable moments. However, with service learning projects teachers can be on the receiving end of a few teachable moments. A great experience can help teachers see their students in another light. Students often rise to the challenge and can offer insight into why the projects are so important. If you have ever had a conversation with a six year old, you know the power of their words. Children have a really great way to be able to say things at a level that everyone can understand and get the adults around them to see what is important in life.

In addition, service learning projects can help teachers understand that their job as an educator is bigger than just raising test scores. It’s about teaching students and themselves as teachers the important place they have in the community. Many teachers are embedded in the community so service learning provides another important chance for teachers to show the important role that schools can play. Everyone faces hardships and these projects can bring a community closer together.

Teachable Moments for Students
Many students get caught up in their own lives, and their importance often revolves around friends, family, sports or academics. Through service learning students can see their part in the larger community and learn why it is important to help others. In addition, if the projects involve helping out people in third world countries, students may see that their lives are not as bad as they may think.

Service learning projects can be life changing for students. They learn empathy for others, and may even get the real life experience they need which will inspire them to find a career. Through helping others students may find that they want to go into the human services field or even go more global by joining the Peace Corps.

Students and teachers should take time to reflect on the service learning project during the experience and after it ends. Reflective practice makes the experience much richer because it means that the students and teachers have to think about the larger world outside of the classroom. It also offers the opportunity to learn how to make the next service learning experience better.

How the community Benefits
Communities benefit from service learning projects. Too often these days, adults talk about how disconnected students are from the community. Adults also often reflect on the way things used to be when they were younger, and how teenagers have changed over the years. However, there are so many students that want to work in the community or help out communities far away and they need the guidance of a good teacher in order to get them started.

Through that experience communities will see that students do care about where they come from. In addition, so many communities are in the midst of budget cuts and need to find innovative ways to work together to change their present circumstances. In a sea of negatives, service learning can be the one positive that everyone can learn from.

Some service learning ideas:

•Letters to the troops - everyone has connections to our servicemen and women. Have children write letters thanking them for their service.

• Halloween candy to the troops - bad for teeth but great for morale! Just do not send chocolate

Pennies for Peace

Heifer Project - raise money to donate an animal to a family in a third world country. Pass on the gift...

• Read to people in the local retirement homes

• Food drives for food pantries - with cuts in funding and an increase of children in poverty, schools that do food drives can really help out the people in their community.

• Donate books to low-income schools - whether the schools are in the US or abroad, every school should have books

Please add any great service learning projects your class or school have done in the past.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.