Sizzle of Service Learning – Helping Students Shine and Extend Their Reach

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The neighborhood of my school is recognized as the poorest area in the state, most students don’t speak English as the primary language at home. Over 80% of students take advantage of the free lunch program and just a small percentage will get to college; even fewer will graduate with a degree.

I’ve seen it, magic, with my own eyes: students motivating themselves when they’re doing something they see as positive for their world. Organizing the introductory club meetings, in year one, was the most difficult part because our school had split lunch periods. Once we conquered that piece, we began holding weekly meetings after school. It became a regular rhythm of doing the recycling work and then having a business meeting. Each year, sometimes twice a year, students elected officers. Students organized and executed the work and business sessions. My role was that of being an advisor, offering suggestions on how to streamline processes or answering the who, what, when and why of campus procedures.

From the start, I had two goals in sponsoring this after school club. One was providing an opportunity for students to do something to help the environment while also learning some life skills. The second was making sure students identified the importance of measuring success in what they were doing and being. I never considered my role to be one where I was micro-managing the officers. Plus, I was always very clear with students that they were responsible for discovering the solutions. The first two months were the most confusing since students are programmed to go to the teachers for answers, but as I consistently redirected issues to the officers and the club members I saw more and more student ownership: discussions to find solutions and sharing of ideas. Don’t get me wrong, it would have been easier for me to instruct the students on the “doing” of the club. It was a much bigger challenge to be an advisor and keep my mouth shut with my good ideas.

Club activity gave students an opportunity to openly make a positive contribution and plenty of situations to grow social skills and use some academic learning too. Club members generously volunteered their time, which was made more complex due to the violence in the neighborhood. When going home after club, around 5:00 on a school day, we made sure no one walked alone or, better yet, someone was arriving to pick them up. Even at that hour, there was significant risk of gang activity or being harassed by drivers or passerby’s. During one school year, two students working at a restaurant down the street from campus were murdered during a botched robbery.

Social issues come in all shapes and sizes. The actual student recycle work was organizing teachers and administrators to leave containers of paper to recycle in their rooms/offices. They also created and made an Earth Day presentation using slides and distributed it to teachers. The club had a couple of committees to explore projects and to keep the club organized. I was surprised about the stature club members naturally grew into. On one hand, the student population referred to them as the campus “environmental freaks” and on the other hand they were the go-to resource in classes for environmental questions. This made me ecstatic, which I kept hidden, since I’m a believer that building social skills in high school is a major key to success in academic work and in being a lifelong learner.

The main bump with club members was absenteeism. No doubt, the number one cause was family issues: having to pick up a brother or sister at school, have to babysit for a sibling, and of course the dentist or doctor appointment. The second big reason was students who had too much on their plate after school and we did have a policy that making up academic work always took a front seat to being at the club. Club officers struggled with this each year which produced creating and enforcing procedures, creating and maintaining club records on spreadsheets, along with exploring the art of communication.

As I talked to the students in the club over four years I found three main reasons they participated in the club:

– Community service on college application

– Personal desire to make the neighborhood a better place

– Publicly demonstrate a positive contribution and hopefully influence others to do the same

Community service on college application. In reality, few club members would be attending college. The level of heart and hope displayed by the students inspired me to be a better person.

Personal desire to make the neighborhood a better place. This was the reason I heard most often from club members. When I reflect on it, there are not many avenues for students in this community to do good. Having the club available to them, where they have to make and extra effort to participate, proved to be a worthwhile program gauged by the number of students who contributed.

Publicly demonstrate a positive contribution and hopefully influence others to do the same. In the neighborhood there are scant positive role models. Club members aren’t dumb, they realized what was missing: seeing some good. Club members opted to fill the gap themselves instead of waiting for someone or some group to do it for them.

Honestly, I didn’t jump into sponsoring this club because I wanted to do SL. I did it because I think there is more to molding students into leaders than just learning academics or being good test takers. Students need to comprehend social responsibility while also learning loads of content they won’t use or need in their life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in necessary academics and I’m a bigger fan of teaching critical thinking skills. As I began working on my Master’s, about two years after I began sponsoring the club, I was exposed to SL and that is when I started to learn about it. I originally saw the framework of the club as a place students could learn expanded social skills, practice critical thinking, and help the environment.

After studying SL, I discovered the club work was already weaving SL characteristics. The students were getting educated about what it took to work in groups to achieve results, they learned about recycling and its impact on the environment, and in the words of the students, “we are being a positive role model for other students.” The most remarkable part that I admired was they volunteered tons of time, including some weekends for special projects.

The local zoo had a barrel project they sponsored annually. After the painted barrels, which area high schools completed, were judged for best design, they were distributed around the zoo and used as receptacles for recyclable materials by zoo visitors. One year the club decided to take on doing two barrels. They produced the designs, got materials to decorate the barrel, worked in teams to paint ’em, and then did the project management stuff to complete them on time and get them over to the zoo. This project involved serious weekend time since after school there wasn’t time.

In year two we opened a new door: taking field trips. At the time, the District had a policy that no school days could be missed for any field trips, so the time we opted to do our trip was spring break. This meant having fun too since it was vacation time. The students brainstormed and came up with the San Diego Zoo and Sea World. The academic part was built around examining their recycle programs; we met with people at each park to discuss and get the specifics about how and what is recycled. The students also did journaling during the visits on prompts that I provided to around examining ecosystem characteristics and life in captivity. We also had lots of fun at the beach, eating out, and enjoying the great weather.

There were two requirements to participate in the field trips. One was doing community service. The last year this consisted of spending a Saturday morning at the local food bank and helping out. The second, obviously, was having the money to pay trip expenses, which proved to be most demanding. Most students were too young to have jobs and families in general didn’t have extra cash to contribute. Club members decided on an aggressive campus snack selling program that lasted many months. It was so successful that in the following years other clubs copied our campaign ideas to raise money for field trips too.

Club members practiced a different set of life skills doing the snack sales. We had to get permission from the principal and student council which gave ’em a taste of dealing with politics and bureaucracy. We only were able to sell “healthy” snacks as detailed by a District list of products. Then there was the order of purchasing snacks, which required parent participation. Next, there had to be a system of packing the snacks and tracking what member sold how many snacks since there was a sales quota to go on the trip. The fund raising efforts took a lot of serious attention by club officers and daily oversight on my part.

Teaching high school biology is the best job in the world. Integrating opportunities for students to volunteer their time to support the environment and practice critical thinking while helping the campus environment made my life more meaningful. I know for a fact that the students who participate are better citizens because I saw it in their smiles and behaviors. Yes, the students and I preformed a SL program together. But, it happened because we all had a genuine interest in doing something positive for the school and the community.

Here are my top six SL resources. If you’re curious about or what to expand your skills then I urge you to look these over:

Engaged For Success; Service-Learning as a Tool for High School Dropout Prevention:

A 2008 study that has some impressive stats about students participating in SL.

Ten Environmental Service Projects:

A decent list of ideas, provided by the Youth Service America Toolbox and Environmental Protection Agency for SL programs.

Learning in Deed – The Power of Service Learning in America Schools:

Filled with useful context of SL and includes actual project information along with feedback from K12 teachers.

K-12 Service-Learning Project Planning Toolkit provided by RMC Research Corporation for Learn and Serve America’s National Service-Learning Clearinghouse:

A comprehensive document that lays out “how to” organize and execute a SL project that also provides examples and resource organizations.

Giving Back – Introducing Community Service Learning:

I like situational learning where I can teach by questioning and reflection. This book, even though it’s targeted to juvenile offenders, has some exercises that got my creative juices flowing when I need support in the directing club officers.

Service Learning Beyond the Classroom:

The title is misleading, there are some great projects in this one being done or completed by K12 classes.

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