Service learning in elementary school

The New York Times Magazine cover story, Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?, explores the work of Adam Grant, whose ‘studies have been highlighted in bestselling books such as Quiet by Susan Cain, Drive and To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink, Thrive by Arianna Huffington, and David and Goliath by Gladwell’.

In that article, the case is convincingly made that altruism is not only beneficial to the beneficiary, but also to the benefactor.


A little kindness goes a long way by Ed Yourdon CC BY NC SA 


This apparent contradiction is supported by research findings not only in neuroscience, as in the article, Altruism, egoism: Brain exercises cognitive analysis, but also by commonly accepted wisdom contained in the world’s ancient and respected religious and spiritual disciplines as explored in Carolyn Gregoire‘s post, What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Compassion.


Mindfulness and empathy help to make connections in the brain which manifest as action.


Caring for others makes us smarter.

So why isn’t service learning an essential characteristic of every school? Why isn’t it designed into the curriculum and culture of schools?


In the Harvard EdCast, Making Global Local, Jeff Shea (2015 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year) describes his innovate Global Leadership class and comments that we should ‘plant the seeds early’ for global education and service learning, so it only makes sense for elementary schools to introduce and practice service learning.

There are endless possibilities for doing so, and even what appears to be a simple act of service can provide tremendous authentic context and purpose for learning.


My experiences


My first classroom teaching experience was in a service project based learning charter elementary school in Los Angeles, California, founded by Full-Circle Learning and six educators including myself.


Our mission was to design learning experiences around ‘habits of heart’ and global collaboration. 


When someone asked my students what they are learning, they would say they are learning about ‘children who can’t go to school’, ’empathy’, ‘altruism’, or ‘how to be a humanitarian’.


In a sense, we were more than a community of learning.


We were a community of learning to serve.

Culture of service


There are a number of strategies I would recommend that any elementary school could quickly adopt to cultivate a culture of service.

Meaningful class names

Stop calling classes by their grade level, and assign them special names. I taught a Grade 4/5 combination class called ‘The Humanitarians’ and a Grade 2 class called ‘The Peacemakers’. The names for classes could be drawn from the school’s curriculum, mission statement, service learning goals, or learner profile.

Empathy based conflict resolution

Every school has a conflict resolution policy which all stakeholders agree to follow. Usually, these policies are based on compromise or tolerance. However, the most effective conflict resolution is based on empathy. The conflict resolution process should contain an explicit ’empathy step’ which encourages each party to resolve the conflict in service to the other.

Attitude and action orientation

In a service learning environment, the foundation of every unit is the driving question, ‘how can we help?’ Often, units are provoked by emotional appeals around global issues concerning human rights, environmental stewardship, injustice, or inequity.

In the post, Inquiry should be action-oriented., I described a collaboration with our partner grade 2 class in Lesotho around the ‘habit of heart’ of appreciation. The provocation for the unit took the form of students sharing stories of their experiences of children mistreating or acting disrespectfully toward their parents or teachers.

It was a very rich discussion about a situation that existed at both schools. The driving question of ‘how can we help’ led to an inquiry into the attitude of appreciation, writing personal letters to help our African partners to learn appreciation together, among other connected activities.

Our project, planned cooperatively as a class, was to weave ‘appreciation bracelets’ for our learning partners to give to their parents to express appreciation.

Learning partners in Lesotho receive ‘appreciation bracelets’ by Bart Miller CC BY SA


I also recommend reading Sam Sherratt’s post, Creating the conditions for action, and practicing the Putting Action on the Agenda guidelines from International School Ho Chi Minh City.


Embedded technology


The potential for technology to redefine service learning, whether by digital media creation or social media, is virtually unlimited.

In terms of social media, at any given time there are easy to find campaigns underway which students can learn from and contribute to. Here’s a short list of some recent examples:

One approach to bringing social media into the classroom is to start a class twitter account. I’ve collected hundreds on this list, ‘classrooms atwitter‘.

To get my students tweeting, I created little ‘tweet’ cards with 140 character grids. The students compose their tweets, then drop them off at my desk to be added to our feed.

photo by Bart Miller CC BY SA


It’s a medium I look forward to utilizing much more aggressively as I integrate service and social advocacy more into our units of inquiry.

Empowerment is the goal


Ultimately, service learning is about empowering students to understand that they can help to solve the world’s problems.

By practicing inquiry which is rooted in empathy and oriented toward action, students learn to realize their potential as change agents in the world.
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Published by

Bart Miller

Father, Teacher, Composer, Philosopher

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