by Claire Miller
It’s one thing for students to read about civic responsibility and community engagement in a textbook. But it’s another for students to take part in the community to grow their awareness of civic responsibility.
When teachers encourage students to participate in service learning experiences, they take academic learning beyond hypothetical scenarios and offer students hands-on learning experiences embedded in the community.
“In most situations of direct service, children get to meet the community members whom they are serving and they are more likely to understand how the subjects they learn about connect to communities,” said Caitlin McMunn Dooley, College of Education associate professor.
Dooley and Clinical Assistant Professor Lydia Criss Mays, who implement service learning experiences with Early Childhood Education students each semester, offer their tips for implementing such opportunities with students and communities.
Tip #1: Elicit student and community input to determine what kind of project they’d like to do, who will be involved and how it can be implemented.
Teachers can get their students thinking about the kinds of projects they’d like to do through class brainstorming sessions and discussions. They can also encourage their students to solicit ideas from parents and community members to get a sense of their town or city’s needs.
Once they’ve agreed on a project, the class can discuss how to carry out the projects and what roles the teacher, students, administrators and community members will play.
Tip #2: Identify the learning goals students should take away from each project and develop an assessment method to ensure they reached those goals.
In addition to encouraging a class to discuss and agree upon a service learning project, teachers can also give their students the opportunity to develop a list of the project’s goals and start thinking about what everyone involved will gain from the experience. This is an empowering part of the process, according to Mays and Dooley.
“One of the main benefits of service-learning is that students learn to take responsible action within communities. Empowering them to have a say and be leaders are important to this process,” Dooley said.
Tip #3: Take action! Work with the students to implement their service learning project and monitor its progress.
After all the preparation, it’s time to get to work. In this step as the ones before it, teachers should be mindful of the benefits of being the class’s facilitator and let students take the lead in implementing the project. This isn’t possible in every scenario, but Mays and Dooley emphasize that with proper guidance, students can lead many elements of a project.
“In the end, the amount of student-led vs. teacher-led decisions and activities that occur will depend on the project,” Dooley said. “But teachers should keep in mind that service learning rarely is too student-led; usually, it’s the other way around.”
Tip #4: Encourage students to reflect on how the project went and its goals.
An integral component of service learning is to ensure students have the opportunity to reflect on the project’s goals and how they made an impact in their community. This often occurs once the project has been completed and students have returned to the classroom, but Dooley and Mays believe students can be conscious of the lessons they’re learning while they’re out in the community.
“Reflection doesn’t have to wait until the project is done–it can occur throughout the process and provide helpful analyses that can inform how the project unfolds,” Dooley said. “This is where the student will connect his or her actions to theories, lessons and ideas that will endure.”
Tip #5: Celebrate the project’s success and have students share what they learned from the experience.
Once the project is finished, classes can take time to share their ideas and experiences with their classmates and celebrate the hard work that led them to this point.
“I have found it helpful for reflections to be social–in other words, having the students discuss (in talk and in writing) how their experiences and actions map onto their ‘book’ learning,” Dooley said. “This allows for more critical thinking than just having students individually write their reflections.”