Connecting Learning to Real Life
As educators across the country celebrate Month of the Young Adolescent, we grapple with difficult questions: Are we providing young adolescents, ages 10 to 15, with the tools they need to succeed? How do we meet the needs of all young adolescents during this critical time in their lives? How are we helping them reach their greatest potential?
According to the National Youth Leadership Council, an organization that offers research-based service-learning resources and training, "Service-learning is a teaching method that enriches learning by engaging students in meaningful service to their schools and communities through a process that is carefully integrated with learning objectives. It emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving, tackles challenges such as hunger and environmental issues and values people of all ages as having talents to offer."
For 14 years, I have been using service-learning in my science teaching at Harry Hurst Middle School in Destrehan, Louisiana, outside New Orleans. I have seen service-learning help young adolescents reach their greatest potential.
With 35 community partners, my students and I coordinate Wetland Watchers—a community-wide effort to restore and maintain wetlands that is directly tied to classroom learning objectives and academic standards. Students plan and participate in activities such as water quality monitoring, macro-invertebrate collection and identification, soil and plant identification, and tree planting. They have also spoken to more than 45,000 people about wetland conservation at student-led events.
Since we are in a suburb of New Orleans in close proximity to the Gulf Coast, my students had a very emotional response to the oil spill. They immediately began identifying community needs and appropriate responses. While they couldn't participate in hands-on clean-up due to safety concerns, students are conducting videotaped interviews of the people most affected by the disaster—students, families, fishermen, and business owners. They will use the videos to raise awareness of the sometimes invisible impact the spill has on the sustainability of our local environment and economy.
My students are addressing these genuine needs while simultaneously meeting learning objectives and state standards. They are now able to illustrate point and non-point source contributions to pollution. They can analyze the consequences of human activities on global systems and describe changes that occur in various ecosystems, relating the changes to the ability of particular organisms to survive.
Service-learning connects learning objectives to the students' lives. They never ask, "Why do we have to learn this?" because the reasons are obvious—to protect our economy, our wildlife, and our future. Through service-learning, I've found that their thirst for knowledge increases and so do their test scores. In addition, the approach has a positive impact on their most important decisions—how they spend their time, who their friends are, and what they value.
Service-learning also gives every kid the chance to be a leader. You don't have to be the fastest or the strongest or the smartest to make a difference. When kids are working together, they are equals. All young adolescents yearn for that feeling.
As we celebrate Month of the Young Adolescent, let's strive to help adolescents reach their greatest potential through these sorts of engaged learning experiences.
For more information about service-learning, National Youth Leadership Council, and the Generator School Network, visit www.nylc.org and http://gsn.nylc.org/. Participate in the National Service-Learning Conference in Atlanta, GA, April 9–11, 2011. Learn more at www.nslc.nylc.org
Information to support the emotional health of kids affected by the Gulf Coast oil spill: www.samhsa.gov/Disaster/traumaticevents.aspx
Barry Guillot is a science teacher at Harry Hurst Middle School in Destrehan, LA.