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.

Peace Cranes

Being a connected educator is not easy. Often, a single tweet or blog post will disrupt my plans for the day, bring my train of thought screeching to a halt, or overturn part of my philosophy of learning and teaching.
And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it! One of the best tweets I’ve received was from Melvina Kurashige, in Hawaii, inviting my class to exchange origami peace cranes as part of the Peace Crane Project. Who wouldn’t want to do that?!

It was a simple and meaningful activity which involved writing messages of peace on paper, folding them into origami cranes, and sending them off. Just before sending ours, we received a package from Hawaii containing the beautiful cranes and postcard in the photo.
To bring our classes closer together, we held a brief Skype session in which the students asked each other questions about their schools, where they live, and their interests.
The activity connected perfectly with Shibuya Peace Day, one of our schoolwide events. I could imagine a class participating while reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes for a strong literature connection or as part of an arts & crafts unit on origami.
This fun global collaboration was most meaningful due to having a simple and worthy goal: to promote peace.

Engaging and Authentic Student Blogging

Last year, I started blogging with my students on Kidblog. I immediately saw the benefits to their motivation to write and the potential to expand our classroom across oceans and continents. In the next school year, I plan to use our class blog as a hub for writing and collaboration with other classes around the world.

There are as many approaches to student blogging as there are innovative teachers doing it, but I have a suggestion related to promoting and commenting which I think would make blogging more engaging and authentic for students.

Photo by Lars Plougmann

I think the Comments For Kids community is a fabulous idea. Certainly, writers love recognition of and feedback for their work. However, I wish there were more interaction between students. What follows are practices which I believe can accomplish this.

When students complete a task on their blog, they should tag the posts specifically. For example, ‘persuasive essay’ or ‘nature poem’. This allows those posts to be shared via a link to just those posts. Here’s an example of a link to students’ posts as part of an inquiry into Rights and Responsibilities:

A teacher can use that link to promote students’ writing on twitter or any other platform. More importantly, if another teacher notices posts that are particularly relevant to learning in her class, she can post that same link in her own class blog for her students to follow, read, and comment.

Finally, when a teacher uses a class blog for an assignment, create a post that allows students anywhere to participate. For example, if the task is to respond to a video, embed the video in the post so that students from other classes can participate. If there is a resource students would need, include a link in the post so that anyone can find it.

I think that student blogs should be central to collaboration and developing international mindedness and just a few careful habits from teachers can make it happen. Let’s create a deep net of posts, links, and comments!

Maiden Voyage – Global Collaboration

My first attempt at global collaboration was nearly a titanic disaster. That is to say, it was a phenomenal success. As with anything innovative and ambitious, most of what we did was improvised along the way. Nothing turned out as planned and everything went better than expected.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

Philosophical Foundation
The project started as our “Sharing the Planet” PYP Unit of Inquiry, Friends in Distant Lands. The central idea and lines of inquiry centered on children’s challenges and opportunities. The action goal was to help children in need. My primary inspiration was participating virtually in a Flat Classroom Conference, although action has always been a feature of my teaching.

Friends in Distant Lands Wiki

I did not want to plan a project. I wanted to provide the opportunities for inquiry that would empower my students to plan their own project(s). If we shared our opportunities with collaborators, and they shared with us, our perspective could broaden and the possibilities for taking action would expand.

I put out a few advertisements before the unit started for collaborators, such as on PYP Threads, and curated many resources like documentary films about children’s rights, a novel, and relevant websites. It occurred to me to create a wiki to document, reflect, and share resources we used and the work we were doing, and as collaborators joined, I added pages for their projects.

When it was finally time to embark, we unpacked the theme and central idea. We made a list together about what we thought is important for children, which led us to the UNICEF website. Finally, we created a Google Form to survey people about their awareness of children’s needs.

“Our voyage had commenced, and at last we were away, gliding through the clean water, past the reeds. Care was lifted from our shoulders, for we were free from advice, pessimism, officialism, heat and hot air.” K. Adlard Coles

I was not certain what would come of our international partnerships, but quickly, things began to ‘heat up’. Our collaborating class in Hong Kong, as well as many people around the world, responded to the form adding their perspectives, insights, and wisdom to our discussion. We received work samples and videos from India related to our central idea. We explored a variety of media including a feature film, Rabbit Proof Fence, TED talks related to children’s issues, the novel Kensuke’s Kingdomnews articles, etc, and used our class blogs to explore and discuss.

Perhaps our most successful collaboration was via Google documents. Students from different classes wrote questions on a chart with a column for each student to submit answers. When they were complete, they contained responses from students in different countries. It was very valuable to analyze, compare, and contrast people’s ideas. The potential for this simple collaboration tool is immense, especially when coupled with video exchange, Skype, or Google Hangouts.

An expert guest speaker is an invaluable addition to  any inquiry.

Finally, we were honored by a visit from Asumi Suzuki, a teacher who volunteered at Phaung Daw Oo School in Myanmar. Her stories and insights into children’s challenges and opportunities there provided an intense and vibrant perspective to the inquiry that could only lead students to further inquiry and action.

The inquiry into children’s issues segued perfectly into our next unit on digital media. I set up a wiki for my students to use to explore basic web design and finally create a simple page to raise awareness for a global issue. We used our class twitter account to advertise our pages and received a fair amount of feedback. Many chose to advocate for children’s issues, which was quite gratifying for me!


The project was a whirlwind of information, questions, and digital data. Looking back, however, we did precisely what we set out to do. I mean, my students did exactly what they were supposed to do. I just hung on and tried to keep the ship on course.

I plan to use the wiki again next year, and hopefully recruit more collaborators, add pages, and accumulate media and resources. Since the mission of the project is very broad, “help children in need”, it can be utilized in any variety of ways. I think this kind of open collaboration will prove to be the most beneficial and effective.

Picking up the maritime metaphor, I feel as though I’ve spent a healthy amount of time practicing sailing a new boat around the harbor. Next time, we’ll be setting out for the high seas!

“A ship is safe in harbor but that’s not what ships are for.” William G.T. Shedd

Focus on DES!GN – Summer Pro Dev

Watching tweets and posts scroll by about last days of school around the world is giving me that familiar ‘last days of school’ feeling.

It’s not that I’m overexcited for vacation (yes I am), I’m excited to get to work on my Summer PD! I truly enjoy abandoning the schedules and information of teaching to focus on the thinking. The key word for my plans for the summer is Design.

Why Design? First, I would like to consider graphic design principles to make the learning environment more engaging and inspiring for my students. As my classroom becomes more internet-based, I want to avoid the abyss of screens full of text, but I don’t want to create experiences littered with gaudy images or unbalanced webpages. Luckily, my wife, Yuka, is a freelance illustrator and designer, so she will be able to direct me toward good resources for my self-study project, and perhaps assign some authentic and useful assessments.

Creative Space: Mozilla London (photo cc Rock drum)

Next year, I will be moving to Grade 6 and organizing my school’s first IB PYP Exhibition. I would like to create an environment which can function equally as classroom and design studio, which facilitates social creativity as well as deep, individual focus and autonomy. In the last several weeks, I visited Exhibitions at three schools. Two were field trips to rehearsals to provide our students the opportunity to observe some of the inner workings, ask questions, and receive advice. Those real-world experiences combined with a wealth of online resources should provide a stable foundation for planning during the summer.

Although I have utilized computer technology more this year than before, I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of leveraging the tools to enhance learning. Some quality time learning more about Google Apps and digital video/audio editing will do me a lot of good, as well as gathering more games and skills-oriented sites.

Teaching older students will also require that I reorganize many classroom routines. There are many learning activities which should be automated. I would like to explore designing self-directed study routines which can ensure that students master essential skills while allowing them independence and opportunities to collaborate to apply those skills in creative and relevant ways. This should integrate seamlessly with Independent Inquiry, a project which has yielded encouraging results, yet would benefit from a redesign.

Dan Pink’s TED Talk The puzzle of motivation about Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose will serve as my inspirational guide and the assessment criteria of Engagement, Intentionality, Innovation, and Solidarity from Design, Make, Play will serve well as a conceptual framework for the environment I want to create. Metateaching is my goal, to continue to become more a designer of learning and less a teacher.

I’ve enjoyed expanding my learning networks on various websites. I plan to maintain a healthy pace of sharing and hope that my mentors and collaborators will do the same.

Finally, so as not to be snared in last summer’s ‘just a few days off’ trap, I’d best get started right away, if not before the last day of school.

Blogging with students for authentic differentiation

During this school year, my students and I have enjoyed growing our class blog. From learning the difference between a ‘post’ and a ‘comment’ to interacting on a range of topics with other student bloggers around the world, the learning benefits have been incredible.

The greatest direct teaching benefit is the ability to differentiate tasks. To me, authentic differentiation means that students work on the same task with differentiated support, organization, and strategies. Differentiated should never be ‘different’. I have discovered many ways to use our class blog to differentiate, but I would like to highlight the most powerful with an example of an assignment. Here’s their current task posted on our blog:

Follow the link and watch some TED talks about children. Please choose one and post it on your blog. Be sure to write your opinion about it as well as any personal comments you might have.

As in any classroom, my students have a range of language and and analytical skills. I was able to differentiate this assignment in several ways:

1. EAL – to scaffold for English Language fluency, I wrote ‘cloze‘ paragraphs for a few students which allowed them to focus on the specific content. It became more of a ‘listen for’ activity which was ideal for them to get started. Later, they changed the original cloze content, which I was all too happy to see, and were able to develop paragraphs comparable to any others in the class.

2. Vocabulary Expansion – Some students hesitate to use new vocabulary. Being an outrageous show-off myself, I don’t understand this. For these students, I left private comments on their posts suggesting that they research synonyms for a few stagnant words, or even suggesting alternatives.

3. Roadrunners – At least two students in my class will always tear through a task faster than most. The first differentiation option for them can be to utilize their ability to focus to explore connecting their posts to other articles and content by creating hyperlinks or adding images. I prefer not to automatically give quick-finishers more work, and they almost always prefer the second option: Explore and comment on other class blogs (a valuable activity in itself).

4. Private Comments – When a student completes a post, there is always the opportunity for me to provide 1:1 feedback via private comments. It’s a chance to assess their writing objectively and provide the individual and invaluable feedback that truly drives writing instruction, and it gives me something to do at ten o’clock at night.

5. Leveling the Field – I don’t do it a lot, but I do edit my students’ posts before publishing. I have found it to be effective modeling which also serves to mitigate any embarrassment writers without the best grammar or spelling skills might feel when their work is shown to the world. In some cases, it’s great to call a student over for a session of suggestions to model the writing process and make their post ready for the internet.

The instructional possibilities of blogging are limited only by the creativity of the users, so in a sense they are unlimited. At this point, the class is working on expanding their opinion paragraphs into short essays with an integrated technology piece about saving and organizing drafts. To integrate data collection, interpretation, and presentation, we created and added graphs to further strengthen the persuasiveness of the the posts.

Personally, I enjoy the process of printing a manuscript and marking it copiously and I feel it can’t really be substituted. But I’m finding that there is also no substitute for the real-time, intimate writing environment of the class blog to provide the authentic differentiation that maximizes learning and motivation.

Global Collaboration – Friends in Distant Lands

Our current Unit of Inquiry, on the theme of “Sharing the Planet”, focuses on children’s rights, risks, opportunities, and challenges. To make the unit action-oriented, we are taking a project-based approach with the goal of helping children.
To broaden our perspective and practice effective digital communication, we are collaborating with other classes in India, Canada, and Hong Kong. Because we are following our own inquiries, the key to collaboration thus far has been sharing reflections and student work.

Posters about the importance of not wasting food.

I think it’s important for the collaboration to be uncontrived. Each class should be at liberty to pursue their inquiries independently, utilizing each others’ ideas, artifacts, and resources to achieve the service goals determined by the students.

Sharing photos or scans of student work is easy enough, but becoming messy in our email inboxes! I’m sure it would be better to post to class blogs and provide opportunities for everyone to view and comment on each other’s posts. Once the connection is made, it can become a normal part of our inquiry to check on each others’ progress and interact as we go.
For the purpose of teacher sharing, documentation, and reflection, I set up a Friends in Distant Lands wiki. So far, it’s just a skeleton, but I’m hoping that other teachers will utilize the resources and leave their own planning and student artifacts. Each class has their own page which they can use in any way they like. They key is to bring the collaborative spirit to the students and provide them the greatest opportunities possible to become inspired.
If the goal of the project is to help children, the driving learning objective for the inquiry is to empower children with the skills and belief that they can make a difference. There are many ways to motivate, but I’ve never found one more effective than cultivating the understanding that they can help others.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. -Margaret Mead