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.

Transgender Day of Visibility

March 31st is International Transgender Day of Visibility, and it’s a perfect opportunity for everyone, particularly teachers, to learn about the impressive progress being made toward gender equity and equality, and individual empowerment.

Visibility is the most important step toward acceptance and empathy, so I encourage you to visit the Trans Student Equality Resources site (transstudent.org) and explore their outstanding resources, particularly the engaging infographics.

http://www.transstudent.org/2014
For more of my own reflection and classroom practices, please read my post, Empathy & Acceptance: Toward a gender-neutral classroom.

Empathy & Acceptance: Toward a gender-neutral classroom

Through Her Eyes Film

The debates within and surrounding LGBTQ communities about gender identity and sexual orientation, and how individuals (and groups) express themselves, are reaching a sort of critical mass. Educators would be remiss to ignore it. Nobody explains the situation more fluently than Peter DeWitt, author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students.

In the classroom, the first step can only be to tear down obvious and ubiquitous bias. As Dawn Casey-Rowe documents in the article, Does Gender Bias Affect The Way You Teach?, the negative effects of bias persist even when it arises from positive intentions. Pernille Ripp addresses the issue from a different perspective by asking, Are the Boys Welcome in Your Room?. I would argue that even the notion that boys and girls have stereotypical preferences should be categorically rejected in the classroom. Societies do not need any help promoting traditional gender roles. In fact, I believe that the messages from media and commercial ventures about gender and sexuality should be subdued, filtered, and contextualized in order to empower every individual to thrive.

As an elementary educator, I feel the responsibility to promote a culture of Empathy and Acceptance. I am also in an ideal position to do so.

While I may not directly address gender and sexuality issues in my classroom as one would in secondary education, there are several practices that I have adopted in order to make my classroom a welcoming place for every learner. If we seek to design and manage a learning environment which is safe for inquiry, exploration, creativity, and collaboration, it must be based on trust. If children trust that the adults in their lives will never embarrass or pass judgment on them, particularly regarding such personal topics, a potential obstacle to learning has already been overcome. Modeling those behaviors for other students also nurtures a positive and supportive community.

Here are a few of my policies:

– Never group students according to gender. In fact, I would prefer not to indicate gender on role sheets because if the environment is truly inclusive, the only reason to know a person’s gender in advance would be based on an extraordinary special need. If a child tells me ‘I’m a boy’, then he’s a boy; if a child tells me ‘I’m a girl’, then she’s a girl. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter to me and shouldn’t matter to anyone.

– Never generalize based on gender. For example, make statements like ‘some people prefer’ rather than ‘girls prefer’, or ‘people enjoy different activities’ rather than ‘boys like sports’. Freeing myself from gender stereotypes has been very liberating and helps my students to feel more at ease and accepted as they inquire into their identities. Play Fair is a wonderful blog whose mission is ‘fighting to end stereotyping in children’s toys and media’.

– Students in my school change clothes for physical education classes, and I wish there were a more private option to having ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ changing rooms. Ideally, we would have private changing booths like clothing store dressing rooms, although I recognize the logistical challenges this would pose.

– Design situations so that gender-based preferences or exceptions should never be necessary.

– Rather than trying to appeal to perceived preferences related to gender, appeal to learning modalities, various forms of intelligence, and directly to students’ interests, as in Independent Inquiry.

– Directly address conflict and debate related to gender and sexuality issues from the perspective of empathy and acceptance, and actively model the behaviors and thought processes associated with an open-minded point-of-view.

Considered choices in classroom language can contribute a great deal to a culture of acceptance. In the Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language by the National Council of Teachers of English, many simple and powerful suggestions are made.

Substituting for inherently biased terms is also a good habit to establish. One of my favorite bloggers on Tumblr, Ben Crowther, shared a photo of a table of ‘Suggestions for Reducing Gendered Terms in Language’. Some that are immediately applicable in an elementary setting are to use ‘humanity’ instead of ‘mankind’, ‘firefighter’ and ‘police officer’ instead of ‘fireman’ and ‘policeman’, and ‘kinship’ instead of ‘brotherhood’. Many of these have become conventional already, and I expect that this progress toward more inclusive language will continue.

Singular ‘they’ is a fascinating idea, though I must admit it feels rather awkward to use ‘they’ or ‘them’ when referring to one person, but has the potential to begin to dissolve the gender-specific nature of language. Another option is to simply use a person’s name whenever referring to them instead of using a pronoun and/or avoid assigning pronouns to people at all. It may sound strange at first, but with a bit of creativity, becomes as fluent and natural as the gender-based system we currently use.

‘When Sam is done with her assignment, she should give it to her friend to read.’

What if Sam identifies as a boy? What if Sam doesn’t identify with a gender at all? Avoid assigning her a pronoun a pronoun to a person like this:

‘When Sam is done with the assignment, it should be given to a friend to read.’

Save the pronouns for the things, and the dignity and privacy for the people!

I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but I think this is a conversation educators should be having candidly. After all, how can we expect to model empathy and acceptance if we don’t practice it ourselves?

(2014.01.08 edit: Just discovered this poignant e-book, Let’s Talk About Gender & Sexuality: A guide for friends and family of LGBT*QIA individuals.)

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